City law firms’ gender pay gap revealed: Herbert Smith Freehills, CMS and Shoosmiths first to publish data

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By Katie King on

Stark stats to be approached with caution

Gender pay gaps of between approximately a fifth and a third have been revealed at three of the country’s biggest law firms.

Thanks to the Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017, all companies with more than 250 employees must self-report on their pay by April. So far, three major corporate law firms are among the more than 500 employers that have published their data, which doesn’t include partners, early. Though an initial scan of the figures produces stark results, i.e. very high gender pay gaps, thankfully the data is more nuanced than you might expect.

To begin with, Herbert Smith Freehills — the global giant that takes on about 60 trainees a year. The firm pays its female staff a mean hourly rate 19% less than its male staff. By comparison, the UK-wide gender pay average is 18%, or 26% among the legal profession. When you consider the median hourly rate, which is less likely than the average to be skewed by particularly high earners, the difference is 39%.

Sounds bad, but Herbert Smith Freehills is content to conclude it is “confident men and women are paid equally for doing equivalent jobs across our firm”. The pay gap exists, the report says, primarily because of the distribution of women and men within different jobs at the firm. A large proportion of female staff (22%) work in secretarial roles, which tend to be less well paid than fee-earning roles, for example. The firm, a Times Top 50 Employer for Women, adds:

“If we exclude secretarial roles from our data analysis, our mean pay gap reduces to 8.8% and the median to 13.6%. This result helps us conclude that our pay gap is the result of distribution of roles; we remain confident that we pay equally for equivalent roles.”

Herbert Smith Freehills’ results are in keeping with those from two other major law firms to have announced their results: CMS and Shoosmiths.

Regarding the former, international megafirm CMS pays its women an average of 17% less than its men. Its median is 33%. Like Herbert Smith Freehills, the firm says these figures are “heavily impacted by the disproportionate female to male ratio in the firm, particularly in business support teams, as well as the high numbers of part-time female workers”. This leads CMS to conclude that “the overall picture at the various levels and offices [of the firm] shows no pay gap”.

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And as for Shoosmiths, the average hourly rate for women is 15% lower than it is for men, while the median is 13%. Shoosmiths chief executive Claire Rowe said:

“We are pleased that Shoosmiths’ median pay gap stands below the national average but we recognise there is still more work to be done. Over the past 12 months we set up a Gender Equality Working Group which reports directly to the board. The group was established in recognition of the fact that a series of actions need to be taken at a firm level to advance gender equality. It provides a sounding board to discuss issues and potential solutions. Likewise, the board brings ideas to the group to collaboratively pin down the steps to be taken, giving our employees direct input and influence on decisions that will affect them.”

The right of women to earn as much as their male colleagues is an important issue that pervades the legal profession. Just this week, the BBC’s China editor, Carrie Gracie, resigned from her post citing gender pay inequality. She described the corporation’s pay as “indefensible”.

As for other companies to have released their gender pay data, budget airline easyJet has raised eyebrows with its 52% median pay gap. Again, the business cites the distribution of women across its ranks as an explanation for this (the airline employs nearly 1,500 male pilots and only 86 female pilots). Women’s fashion chain Phase Eight’s gender pay gap is even wider than this — 65%. Thirty-nine of Phase Eight’s 44 male employees work in corporate head office rather than in shops.

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