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Men still making the big bucks at Ireland’s top law firms

Most solicitors are now women, but men still hold more than two-thirds of the best-paid equity partner positions in major legal practices

Women may dominate in terms of numbers at Ireland’s top law firms, but men still hold more than two-thirds of the most lucrative partner positions.

Reports filed recently by the six largest legal practices in the State – which employ 1,650 solicitors between them – show a gender pay gap among salaried staff ranging from -0.3 at William Fry to 20.9 per cent at A&L Goodbody. Those gaps in pay all jump dramatically when equity partners at the firms are included.

The figures are for the mean hourly earnings of men and women employed over the course of the one year covered, with a minus figure indicating that women earned more per hour than their male counterparts. Essentially, it amounts to all the money earned by solicitors of a particular gender added up, with the result divided by the total number of hours worked by those people.

The figures include all salaried employees, a portion of whom are partners but not equity partners – those who effectively own a part of the firm and whose remuneration is treated differently. All six firms, however, additionally published figures that included equity partners to achieve greater transparency.


In the case of William Fry, the smallest of the six practices in terms of solicitor numbers, with 188 on its books at the end of 2021, the mean figure went from -0.3 per cent among salaried staff – meaning women earned, on average, more per hour at the firm – to 40 per cent when equity partners were included, clearly demonstrating the substantial impact on a legal firm’s average earnings that the remuneration of equity partners has.

At Matheson, narrowly the largest of the six in terms of solicitors’ practising certificates, with 308 registered at end-2021, the corresponding figures went from 15 per cent to 61 per cent. The gender pay gap figure also jumps to 50 per cent or more when equity partners are included at the four other firms.

At Arthur Cox, the mean pay gap figure goes from 1 per cent to 52 per cent; at A&L Goodbody 20.9 to 64 per cent; at Mason, Hayes & Curran (MHC) the respective figures are 3 per cent and 50 per cent; while at McCann Fitzgerald they are 8.7 per cent and 52.3 per cent.

At partner level, the proportion of females is less, with around 30 per cent of our partners being female – this is improving given half of our promotions to partner have been women over the last four years

—  A&L Goodbody report

As most of the firms and many other companies stress in their reports, the pay gap figures do not suggest that women and men are being paid differently for performing the same role, but they serve as an indication of the presence of women among an organisation’s top earners.

In the majority of cases, the State’s largest legal law firms do better overall than the national average gender pay gap across all sectors. Eurostat put this at 11.3 per cent in its most recent available analysis of the issue dating back to 2019, an indication of how well represented women are in legal circles – as long as equity partners are excluded from the calculations.

Irish law firms gender pay gap graphic

The six practices put the percentage of women among their staff in the year to last June at between 63 per cent and 70 per cent. Those who break the figures down all specify that a majority of solicitors employed are also women (a majority of solicitors in Ireland generally have been women since 2014).

In terms of equity partners, the percentage of men is generally just about 70 per cent, though there is occasionally a lack of clarity. Arthur Cox put the percentage of all its partners who are male at 60 per cent, but this climbs to 73 when only equity partners are counted. At Matheson, men make up 72.1 per cent of equity partners, but A&L Goodbody’s lone figure of 70 is a mix of the two categories.

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MHC does not provide any gender breakdown of its then 106 partners but, in its own commentary on the figures, makes the point that “the gender pay gap, including partners, of 50 per cent of mean, and 24 per cent of median, hourly remuneration reflects both the preponderance of females in more junior administrative and secretarial roles and the preponderance of males at senior partner level, where remuneration is at its highest”. The median figure refers to the number obtained if all of the salaries of staff are separately listed high to low and the middle person is picked in each instance.

Recent promotion rates for women to partner level, in any case, are put at between 41 per cent (Matheson) and 62 (William Fry).

“At partner level, the proportion of females is less, with around 30 per cent of our partners being female – although this is improving given half of our promotions to partner have been women over the last four years,” the A&L Goodbody report states.

Those numbers mirror almost exactly the ones contained in a December 2021 report by the Law Society of England and Wales, which found that in its jurisdiction, “despite women making up over 60 per cent of new entrants to the solicitor profession since 1992 and representing over half of all solicitors since 2017, a relatively small proportion are reaching senior roles. In 2019, 31 per cent of partners were women, 69 per cent were men. Women are considerably less likely in each cohort to make partner than their male peers.”

Of the 79 employees availing of family leave in 2021, for example, 62 were female

—  Matheson report

Other indicators required to be included in the gender pay gap reports are the respective representation in each earnings quartile. In all the firms, women form the majority of workers in the lowest earnings quartile, where their representation ranges from 60 to 67 per cent. More than one report explains that this is due to the predominance of women in the ranks of administrative staff, personal assistants and trainees.

In all bar Matheson and Arthur Cox, they also dominate in the highest quartile of salaried staff, with the figures for the four ranging from 57 to 68 per cent, evidence that women are generally very well represented among the senior levels of salaried staff, just not so well at the level above that.

The impact of the partner level representation on the pay gap numbers here is clear. “The representation of female partners contributes significantly to our overall gender pay gap of 20.9 per cent excluding equity partners, and even more so when you include equity partners and the resulting pay gap of 64 per cent. When you exclude all partners, our gender pay gap falls to 10.2 per cent,” say A&L Goodbody.

Seniority or length of service is mentioned as a factor by several companies: the most senior men tend to have been around longer, and that means more money.

Another thing commonly identified as an issue is the predominance of women availing of part-time working or other “family friendly policies”.

“This has a disproportionate impact on the results,” says the Matheson report. “Of the 79 employees availing of family leave in 2021, for example, 62 were female. Even within this group, female employees took more leave than the male employees, accounting for 97 per cent of all family leave taken.

“Each period of leave impacts on the results since it means the female employee will not have the same opportunity to earn the same bonus as a male employee who does not take such leave during the same performance period.”

All six legal firms confirm the impact on bonuses, reporting that, in mean terms, men received more in bonuses than their women colleagues. At William Fry, the difference is 5.4 per cent, but at the other firms it ranges from 39 per cent to 44 per cent.

Arthur Cox breaks its figures down into two separate entities: the firm, which provides fee-earning work to clients, and the company, which employs those engaged in business services, support roles and trainees. At the firm, as referenced above, men earn more than women and receive higher bonuses, but at the company the mean pay gap is -9 per cent. And while this is more than reversed by the inclusion of equity partners, women did also receive the bigger bonuses [in the company], whoever is included in the calculation.

But it is not just about bonuses, the MHC report contends. “Our experience suggests that motherhood can be a cause of slower, or stalled, career progression, as mothers miss out on development and opportunity during maternity leave, and often make personal choices to prioritise family over career for periods of time; women are somewhat more likely than men to leave private practice for in house roles, women are more likely than men to stay in more junior administrative and secretarial roles.”

The benefit of gender pay gap reporting is that it allows employers to assess the reasons for any disparity in the manner in which men and women are rewarded in the workplace

—  Maura Derivan, Law Society of Ireland

The company says it is “taking measures to encourage and support these structural and societal changes, while respecting individual life choices”.

All organisations required to publish gender pay gap reports under the legislation are expected to outline the measures they are taking to make things more equal, though the level of anticipated detail is not specified and varies considerably in the reports among the top law firms.

All say they are working to improve the situation, although Arthur Cox is one of a number to acknowledge it has some way to go, with the firm’s report saying: “We are not positioned as we would like to be in relation to our gender pay gap. Our gender pay gap is predominantly driven by the distribution of genders across different roles and levels of seniority across the firm and the company. This is something that we will continue to address on an ongoing basis over time.”

Speaking about what gender pay gap reporting across all sectors, not specifically among law firms, has tended to show, Mary Connaughton, director of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says the challenge for women who want to have children and progress their career seems clear.

“If you look at the gender pay gap across ages, the gender pay gap doesn’t happen at 20 when people start in the workplace. It turns up when you look at the age profile of 35+ and it increases with the number of dependents that a woman has,” she says. “So there’s a very clear link between having dependents – and in the main that would be parenting, but not exclusively – and the gender pay gap increasing.”

She also says that, in many instances, part-time or flexible working might be less easily available to those in more senior roles, with the result that women with caring responsibilities are less likely to apply. They can find “that balance that they’re looking for isn’t achievable”, she says.

Asked about the situation in the top six law firms, the president of the Law Society of Ireland, Maura Derivan, who herself trained as a solicitor in MHC, said in a statement that the society was supportive of the gender pay gap legislation, the inclusion by the big firms of figures that took account of equity partners, and of the requirement to outline measures to address disparities.

“The benefit of gender pay gap reporting is that it allows employers to assess the reasons for any disparity in the manner in which men and women are rewarded in the workplace, but also commit to measures to address any imbalance. The Law Society has always been supportive of ensuring that women and men have equal opportunities for career advancement,” she says.