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Women ‘drawn’ to in-house roles with higher salaries, more seniority

New data has revealed that in-house may be the place to be for female solicitors, with salaries exceeding those of private practice and more women holding group general counsel and head of legal roles in NSW organisations than men.

user iconLauren Croft 09 July 2024 Corporate Counsel
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The 2023 Annual Profile of Solicitors NSW, released last week, is compiled by consulting firm Urbis and a voluntary survey of solicitors when renewing their practising certificates, drawing on data captured last October from the Law Society’s database of solicitors, which then numbered 40,052 – an increase of 199 per cent since 1997.

According to the report, the corporate legal sector has grown from 4,601 practitioners in 2011 to 8,369 in 2023, with an average annual growth rate of 5 per cent and a 7 per cent growth rate in the 12 months to October 2023.

Since 2011, the corporate practice sector has grown by 7 per cent, compared to the government growing by 5 per cent and private practice growing by 4 per cent.


In terms of age, the highest percentage in the corporate space was between 30 and 39 years at 35 per cent, followed by 40-49 years at 34 per cent. In-house lawyers were also generally more experienced, with 50 per cent being admitted to the profession for 15 years or more and 36 per cent being admitted for between six and 14 years.

Despite the gender pay gap halving over the last decade to 7 per cent, Law Society of NSW president Brett McGrath said he was still observing a shift as female solicitors get older and move away from private practice.

“Particularly after that five-year bracket, we see that women are drawn to in-house or government roles as well during that period, so I think that’s where, as a profession, we’re reflecting on what are the benefits for, you know what’s attractive in those roles often it’s able to balance caring responsibilities,” he said.

“I think with COVID, we’ve got a lot of lessons where we’ve learned that we can have flexible and adaptable work arrangements, and that’s where we want to ensure that we’re not just, we still have a strong presence of women in the private profession as well as in-house and government.”

Those who make the move to in-house generally stay, Dovetail managing director Andrew Murdoch told Lawyers Weekly last year.

“In the 17 years I have been recruiting in-house lawyers, I have only seen a handful return to private practice and stay, so I suspect there’s something in that,” he said.

In private practice, there is an overrepresentation of males in the most senior roles, and women are overrepresented in less senior roles. This discrepancy, however, is less apparent in the corporate and government legal sectors. In fact, within corporate legal teams, 62 per cent of solicitors were female and 38 per cent were male, compared to equal numbers in private practice.

There were also more females than males in corporate legal working in more senior roles such as group general counsel and head of legal, and in all other corporate legal roles. Fifty-six per cent of women held group general counsel and head of legal roles compared to 44 per cent of men.

Last year, GCs and legal recruiters confirmed that as legal departments and in-house teams grow, there will be a number of key implications on the legal landscape – particularly as the growth of in-house legal teams has been previously said to be one of the factors contributing to the continued consolidation of private practice firms.

Solicitors working in the corporate legal sector reported earning higher incomes than survey respondents working in private practice or the government legal sector. In the corporate sector, 27 per cent reported earning more than $250,000, compared to 18 per cent of private practice solicitors and 5 per cent of government legal practitioners.

Moreover, 60 per cent of corporate legal practitioners reported incomes of over $150,000, compared to only 36 per cent of private practice solicitors and 30 per cent of government legal practitioners. Furthermore, almost half of all corporate legal practitioners reported earning over $200,000 (44 per cent), compared to 25 per cent of private practice solicitors and 12 per cent of government legal practitioners. This was up from 43 per cent last year.

Corporates were also revealed to pay higher salaries, on average, in research released earlier this year. College of Law’s Australian Legal Salary Survey 2024 showed that law firms paid the lowest average annual base salary at $85,023, followed by not-for-profits (NFPs) at $95,111, government agencies at $100,239, and corporates topping the scale at $108,066.

When asked if the increase in corporate lawyers is related to more organisations in Australia building out their in-house legal teams, McGrath said that would be a fairly accurate assumption, and on-trend from the US and UK and anecdotal evidence in those jurisdictions.

“I think that, seeing that shift for having in-house counsel, and when you think about the level of regulation that’s coming through, workplace health and safety changes that happen, it’s integrated with human resources. And when you’ve got compliance for director’s duties as well, the role of general counsel in-house counsel is quite important and growing in importance.

“And I think a lot of corporate Australia, in particular, are very keen to have sound legal advice from their trusted advisors in-house as well as that first port of call when making really important decisions,” McGrath said.