Women law partners face a whopping 53 percent gap in pay at top U.S. law firms, according to newly released data.

Last year, female partners earned an average of $627,000 annually compared to $959,000 for male partners, according to the 2018 Partner Compensation Survey, published Dec. 6 by legal consulting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.

The survey underscored the earnings difference, which has climbed since 2010, the first year the big-firm survey was done. The gap that year was 32 percent, but it soared to 48 percent two years later, and last year passed the 50 percent mark.

Studies on gender and the law have concluded that women attorneys are underrepresented in partner ranks and are paid substantially less than their male counterparts. Women lawyers in the MLA study, which was based on responses of some 1,400 lawyers at the largest law firms, were paid one-third less than their male counterparts.

‘Stark Differences’

The MLA partner compensation survey, done every two years, found the gaping pay disparity is largely due to higher hourly rates for male lawyers, and the gender difference in getting credit for landing big-ticket legal work.

“There are stark differences in compensation between men and women,” Jeffrey Lowe, head of Major, Lindsey & Africa’s law firm practice and author of the study, told Bloomberg Law, “and 75 percent of it boils down to these two factors.”

Acritas, the legal data firm MLA commissioned to conduct the study, said in the report that the gulf in originations between men and women has only widened in recent years. Male partners reported generating an average $2.78 million in originations for 2017, up 8 percent over the 2016 survey findings.

This compares to $1.59 million for women, whose origination amounts also dropped 8 percent over the same two-year period.

Originating work is a major factor in lawyer earning power. Critics have complained that gives an advantage to male lawyers who form social bonds with male counterparts over traditionally male-oriented activities.

However, MLA’s survey responses are anonymous, opening the possibility that outcomes could be skewed by kinds of lawyers who respond. The survey was sent to 60,000 partners in spring 2018.

Receipts and Rates

Acritas also examined the working attorney receipts furnished by some 1,230 respondents, which averaged $1.15 million, down 3 percent from the 2016 survey. Male partners reported a 4 percent decrease and female partners posted a 7 percent decrease.

Most practice areas reported a decrease in average receipts, with corporate partners showing a 13 percent dip. IP and real estate practice partners also saw their receipts decline. Tax and ERISA partners reported the biggest increase, up 12 percent, after being the only partners to report a decrease in the 2016 report. Labor and employment partners registered a 6 percent rise.

The 2018 survey concluded all partners experienced a bump in hourly billing rates, with male partners billing at an hourly $736, up 5 percent over 2016, and women partners at $650, up 2 percent in the same time period. Overall, though, the average compensation for law firm partners was $885,000 in 2017, up only 1 percent from the prior survey findings. That finding is consistent with other broad surveys of the Big Law market.

Underlying Issues

Lowe said the MLA data did not find conscious bias against women, but that there were problems in the compensation model law firms use determine pay outcome. Those differences include the substantial gap between equity and non-equity partner pay and significant differences in pay for various practice areas.

Equity partners, the study found, earn an average of three times as much as non-equity colleagues. Their $1.14 million annual pay in 2017 was up 3 percent from the 2016 MLA findings compared to a 1 percent increase for non-equity partners, who earned $377,000 in average yearly compensation.

But partners who practiced labor and employment law – an area often favored by women attorneys - reported lower compensation in the MLA report compared to partners in other practices. Their average compensation was $681,000, although they had the highest growth rate, 14 percent.