Despite female solicitors outnumbering their male counterparts in the legal profession in NSW for the fifth consecutive year, the gender pay gap still exists across the profession.
The latest snapshot of NSW solicitors has revealed a growing legal profession that’s increasingly made up of people from culturally diverse backgrounds, as well as a growing majority of women and younger practitioners.
The new research revealed that in NSW, a total of 37,186 solicitors held a practising certificate as at October 2021, up from 35,709 in the previous year, representing a 4 per cent growth. Since 1997, the number of solicitors holding an NSW practising certificate has grown from 13,409 to 37,186; an increase of 177 per cent.
President of the Law Society of NSW Joanne van der Plaat said the 2021 Annual Profile of Solicitors in NSW, published today (Friday, 1 July) provides transparency to the profession and the broader community about the demographic and staff retention challenges it faces in the years ahead.
“The profile was compiled by consultancy firm Urbis using demographic information from the Law Society’s database covering all solicitors, as well as responses by 56 per cent of practitioners to the 2021 voluntary practising certificate survey,” she said.
“The Law Society appreciates greatly the participation of all practitioners who take the time to complete the survey. The responses provide important insights into the profession, in turn informing our advocacy on behalf of our members. The more responses we get, the better our information is and the more effectively we can meet the needs of our members.”
Figures in the profile show that pay for female lawyers continues to lag behind their male counterparts, as does the opportunity for women to advance to practice leadership positions.
“The Law Society is committed to working with the profession to assist law firms to develop ways of nurturing all their talent,” Ms van der Plaat added.
“What we as lawyers can celebrate is a younger, more culturally diverse and more gender diverse profession. There’s a way to go yet, but year by year, I think we’re seeing the profession in NSW growing to reflect more accurately the Australian community. That can only be a good thing.”
Gender pay gap
According to the report, the gender pay gap is most noticeable for those over 30, with a greater proportion of full-time males earning over $150,000 compared to full-time females. Fifty-nine per cent of female solicitors reported earning less than $150,000 per year compared to 48 per cent of males.
In addition, over a quarter of males reported earning more than $200,000 (28 per cent), compared to 19 per cent of females.
This finding was consistent across all practice sectors — and in the upper bands of every single career stage. The gap was most noticeable in mature career stages but less so for more junior lawyers; showing a promising trend of the gender pay gap decreasing.
The average age of solicitors in NSW is 42.6 years. Nearly one in five solicitors are under 30 years old (17 per cent), and 46 per cent of all solicitors are under 40 years old.
Female solicitors are, on average, younger than their male counterparts, with the average age of female solicitors being 39.6 and the average age of males being 46 years old.
For the fifth year in a row, female solicitors outnumber male solicitors in the state, at 19,917 compared with 17,269 (54 per cent and 46 per cent). This marks a 6 per cent increase in female solicitors since 2020 and a 2 per cent increase in male solicitors.
Since 1997, there has been steady growth in the overall number of solicitors; however, the growth rate of female solicitors has been consistently higher than the growth rate of male solicitors. Over this period, the number of female solicitors has grown from 4,099 to 19,917, while the number of male solicitors has increased slightly less, from 9,310 to 17,269.
Despite this, women are still underrepresented in senior roles; consistent with previous years, there was a greater proportion of male principals (67 per cent) than females (33 per cent).
However, this gap has been gradually decreasing over time; for instance, in 2013, seventy-six per cent of partners and principals were male and only 24 per cent were female.
A larger proportion of female solicitors are working in the corporate legal sector and the government legal sector (23 per cent and 17 per cent, respectively) compared to male solicitors (17 per cent and 8 per cent).
Years since admission
In 2021, more than half of all NSW solicitors had been admitted for more than 10 years (55 per cent), while nearly two-fifths had been admitted for two to 10 years (38 per cent). Only 8 per cent had been admitted for one year or less as at 31 October 2021.
Overall, male solicitors had been admitted in NSW for longer than female solicitors. Half of all males had been admitted for 15 years or more as at 31 October 2021 (51 per cent), compared to over a third of females (36 per cent).
Females in private practice were admitted more recently compared to males. Two-fifths of female private practice solicitors had been admitted for five years or less (38 per cent), compared to a quarter of males (25 per cent). Conversely, more than half of male private practice solicitors had been admitted for 15 or more years (52 per cent) compared to 31 per cent of females.
The profession is getting more diverse — 29 per cent of NSW solicitors were born overseas, a number slightly lower than the general population of NSW but consistent with recent years.
Of those born overseas, 43 per cent were born in Asia (an 8 per cent increase since 2011) and 14 per cent in the UK/Ireland — a number which has been steadily decreasing and is down 4 per cent since 2011.
Three in five respondents identified as Australian (non-Indigenous) (60 per cent), followed by Chinese and English. Eighteen per cent of respondents reported speaking another language other than English at home. This is in line with the wider Australian population, where 21 per cent of people speak another language other than English.
However, a total of just 371 solicitors identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, representing 1 per cent of all solicitors in NSW. This is much lower than the general NSW population, with the 2016 census reporting a 3.4 per cent Aboriginal population.
Private law practices are increasing steadily, with more practices popping up in suburban Sydney. As of 31 October 2021, nearly half of all solicitors in NSW were working in the Sydney central business district (49 per cent), followed by 34 per cent working in suburban Sydney. Just over one in 10 were working in regional/rural areas of NSW (12 per cent) and 6 per cent were working either interstate or overseas.
Types of practice
There are 7,195 private law practices operating in NSW — the majority of which are sole practice (61 per cent). One-quarter had one principal (27 per cent), while 10 per cent had two to four principals. Private practices with 40 or more principals made up only 0.2 per cent of all law practices in NSW, yet they employed a quarter of all non-principal employees in private law practices.
Seven in 10 NSW solicitors were working in private practice (68 per cent), and one-fifth were working in the corporate legal sector (20 per cent). The remaining 11 per cent were working in the government legal sector.
The largest growth in the number of solicitors has been in private practice, from 17,091 solicitors in 2011 to 25,365 in 2021. This amounts to an average annual growth rate of 5 per cent, and 4 per cent growth in the last year.
The location of private practices varied by practice size, with sole practices and smaller law practices predominately located in suburban areas of Sydney, and larger law practices predominately located in Sydney CBD. More than half of all sole practices in NSW (58 per cent), almost half of all law practices with one principal (47 per cent) and over a third of all law practices with two to four principals (35 per cent) were based in suburban areas of Sydney. Conversely, 76 per cent of law practices with 11 to 20 principals, 81 per cent of law practices with 21 to 29 principals and 87 per cent of law practices with 40 or more principals were located in Sydney CBD.
In private practice, there was a slightly higher proportion of male solicitors (51 per cent) than female solicitors (49 per cent); however, there was a greater proportion of female solicitors in the government legal sector (68 per cent, compared to 32 per cent), and in the corporate legal sector (61 per cent, compared to 39 per cent).
There was a larger proportion of solicitors aged 30 years and under in private practice (21 per cent), compared to the government and corporate legal sectors (16 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively). At the same time, private practice also had a larger proportion of solicitors aged 60 years and older compared to the government and corporate legal sectors.
Seventy-four per cent of solicitors reported working full-time, whereas 16 per cent of solicitors were working part-time, across all practice sectors.
One in five female solicitors reported working part-time (19 per cent), compared to one in 10 male solicitors (11 per cent).
Pro bono work
Members of the profession contributed $344 million in legal services free of charge to the community, with over one-third of solicitors reporting providing pro bono, unpaid or voluntary work within the last year.
On average, these solicitors provided 60 hours over the period, totalling 471,986 hours. This represents an estimated $142 million in free legal services provided by individual members of the profession to the NSW community.