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Will the release of gender pay gap data impact legal recruitment activity?

Ahead of the publication of the gender pay gaps of Australian employers with more than 100 workers later this week, Lawyers Weekly spoke with numerous legal recruiters about whether the unveiling of such data will spur lawyers to move employers and/or demand higher wages.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 26 February 2024 Careers
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As previously reported, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) will publish its first set of private-sector employer data pertaining to the gender pay gap on 27 February. The publication will impact employers with workforces of more than 100 staff, and it has come about because of amendments to the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 passed by the Federal Parliament in March of last year.

The data gathered by the WGEA will cover reporting from 1 April 2022 to 31 March 2023 and will cover median gender pay gaps, gender composition, and average remuneration per pay quartile.

The WGEA data publication will follow the release, late last year, of the Legal Services Expenditure Report for the 2021–22 financial year by the Attorney-General’s Department, which showed a “notable positive performance” from the Commonwealth in the volume and value of briefs going to female counsel.


However, while targets are being met on equitable briefing rates, the percentage of brief fees going to women barristers is at its lowest level in four years, the Law Council noted in December.

Is a flurry of recruitment activity coming?

Ahead of the data publication, Lawyers Weekly spoke with recruiters about the likelihood, or otherwise, that the release could lead to candidates wanting to move firms or legal departments and/or whether it would spur increased demands for higher wages.

It appears, from those conversations, that the prospect of elevated levels of activity from candidates is a “wait-and-see” situation.

Burgess Paluch managing partner Kirsty McNay reflected that while the release about Australian businesses will “provide excellent publicity for an important matter”, particularly for women lawyers, she doesn’t necessarily see it “causing an upswing” in lawyers wanting to change employers or seek pay rises.

Lawyers are already, she pointed out, likely aware of the gender pay gap in the market.

What the release will do, she opined, is “provide a vital impetus to private practice and in-house employers to ensure that they are addressing the gender pay gap within their businesses.

“Given the national pay gap of 21.7 per cent, it will be imperative that businesses are being seen to implement measures to address the gender pay gap, and those that don’t will likely witness an upswing in dissatisfaction, particularly from their female employees,” she suggested.

“Due to the candidate-short market that firms, and in-house legal teams are still competing in, those businesses that are transparent and seen to be addressing their own gender pay gaps will gain a crucial competitive advantage over their rivals.”

For empire group founder and managing partner Michelle Sneesby, the data release will be a good opportunity for Australia’s legal professionals to “evaluate their worth in comparison to their peers”.

“If it shows that people are being disadvantaged because of their gender, then we will absolutely see more movement in the industry as a result,” she proclaimed.

“During COVID-19, we saw how much candidates wanted to be valued for their work, and this hasn’t changed,” she remarked.

Profession-specific considerations

Beacon Legal director Alex Gotch pointed out that, within large law firms, for example, most pay scales are set within a salary bracket for each level of post-qualification experience, “so it is not common for there to be significant differences below partner level”.

More broadly, he noted that it would be interesting to see the quality of the data and if it is specific enough for employees to reference and negotiate pay.

“It is certainly likely to lead to an increased volume of conversations between lawyers and their HR department, whether that is for clarification or, if the data is specific enough, highlighting examples which may lead to pay reviews,” he said.

Naiman Clarke managing director Elvira Naiman made a similar point, saying that law firms are good at having bandings for lawyers up to a certain level, pertaining to post-qualified experience (PQE).

“It may be that across the board, when salaried partner salaries are taken into account, a gender pay gap may emerge, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the legal industry,” she mused.

She added that organisations are obliged to report the annualised (i.e. full-time, full-year) equivalents of their employee’s salaries, and the “actual amount the female employees might take home based on the very real fact that there are far more part-time female lawyers than male lawyers I think would present a different set of numbers and represents a different set of societal issues”.

Short of a “naming and shaming” of legal employers, the legal recruitment market is “unlikely to see much knee-jerk reaction” to emerging data, Ms Naiman submitted.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly ahead of last year’s Women in Law Forum, WGEA chief executive Mary Wooldridge argued that the ever-pervasive gender pay gap in Australia’s legal profession is driven by “significant compositional issues” in senior and partnership roles. In March 2023, four legal association presidents discussed the need for “active interventions” in law to bridge the gap.

Late last year, WGEA released its annual Gender Equality Scorecard for 2023, which noted that the gender pay gap had dropped by 1.1 per cent. However, as reported by Lawyers Weekly at the time, the persistence of the gap means that even an incremental drop was “nothing to celebrate”.