Pay Gap Narrows For Black Lawyers

December 29, 2003
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LANSING — African-American lawyers in Michigan have almost closed the earnings gap with their white colleagues, but a wide pay disparity remains between male and female attorneys.

Black lawyers reported a median income of $70,000 a year, slightly below the $73,500 figure for all Michigan lawyers, according to a new economics study for the State Bar of Michigan. That spread is 5 percent.

But the gender gap remains significant: The median annual income for men who work full-time in law was $92,000 last year, contrasted with only $65,000 for women, the study showed. Median means half are above and half below that figure.

That means the average female lawyer earned only 71 cents for every $1 her male counterpart earned. That proportion hasn’t changed much since the last survey three years ago, said Lawrence Stiffman of Ann Arbor’s Applied Statistics Laboratory, which conducted the study for the State Bar.

The difference between black male and black female lawyers was smaller: $75,000 for men and $61,500 for women, a 20 percent difference.

“African-American women often work in government jobs which now pay a ‘living wage,’” Stiffman said, but still less than a partner in many law firms or in-house counsel to a company.

Of the estimated 31,000 lawyers in the state, about 1,600 identify themselves as non-white. There are no precise figures on how many are in private practice, work for government or nonprofit agencies, or work in non-law positions such as business.

The report said men are more likely than women to be partners in large firms, and the average male lawyer has been practicing for 21 years, twice the experience of the average female lawyer.

President Lisa Sullivan of the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan said women have made progress in reducing the gender disparity, but added, “I think it’s slowed.”

She added that many women choose government or public service jobs that pay less than large firms or corporate law offices but don’t require as many hours of work or a focus on billing clients.

Sullivan, of Lansing, said she is optimistic “as women make partner” in large firms or open their own practices, the gap will narrow. She also noted that the proportion of female law students is up, saying, “That’s the new generation coming in with the attitude there are no boundaries for us, we can have professions, we can have families.”

More than half of new law graduates in the state are women, Stiffman noted.

The report noted that the number of Michigan lawyers has grown from about 12,000 in the early 1970s, although the population has stabilized.

In addition to race and gender, the study found income disparities related to geography, whether a lawyer is in the private or government sector, years of practice, law firm size and specialization.

Some specialties are more lucrative then others, the survey found. Lawyers who represent either labor or management in employment cases ranked high in income, as did specialists in environmental, patent and workers’ compensation defense law.

Lawyers on both sides of personal injury cases — defense and plaintiffs — reported virtually identical average earnings.

At the bottom end were specialists in alternative dispute resolution, elder law and legal aid.           

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