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New report highlights discrimination against women at New Zealand law firms

The sad fact that women are under-represented in STEM careers is well-known. But a new report shows women in Aotearoa are also under-represented in top roles at the nation’s law firms.

New research from the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association (ALPMA) and McLeod Duminy shows that the New Zealand legal industry has made little progress in addressing discrimination against women at the partner level and in the boardroom. 

McLeod Duminy legal recruitment consultant Kirsty Spears says it’s a problem. “There are considerably more women than men working in private practice – yet, women make up less than a fifth of equity partners and only 43 percent of salaried partners,” she explains. “It seems that despite women making up 63 per cent of lawyers and solicitors, and 64 per cent of senior management, the top position of partner is still dominated by males.”

Ninety-four New Zealand law firms, employing 2,259 people, participated in the 2017 ALPMA/McLeod Duminy NZ Legal Industry Salary and HR Issues Survey. The survey also showed that the perception of a gender-based pay gap is reducing; just one respondent believed that there is a gender pay gap at their firm, but 24 percent believe that there is a gender pay gap in the wider industry. The number is down from 33 percent who said they believed there was a gender pay gap in the wider industry in 2016.

Among other findings in the survey, most staff working at New Zealand law firms can expect to receive a modest pay rise at or above the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and supplemented for some by bonuses dependent on their individual performance. “Sixty percent of respondent NZ law firms expect pay rises to be above the rate of CPI this year, with a further 20 percent planning on increases in line with CPI,” explains Sheryll Carey, ALPMA NZ president and general manager at Lowndes Jordan.

“For select staff, these increases will be supplemented by significant bonus payments, typically based on their individual financial performance – usually based on fees they generate for the firm.”

 However, 15 percent of respondent firms said they were planning a limited or total wage freeze.

The survey also reveals that bonus payments are an increasingly important part of the compensation mix at law firms in the Land of the Long White Cloud, and are offered by most law firms (84 percent).  

Yet only two percent of firms offer bonuses to all roles at their firm – and these were all small firms. Most firms offer bonuses only to their lawyers and executives.

“Few firms reward team efforts with bonus payments, and this represents a significant opportunity for firms to seeking to create cultures that support high-performance teams and cross-business collaboration,” says Carey.

Spears adds that awarding bonuses on an individual basis may also disadvantage women because they tend to be team players more often than men, who usually look after their own career first.

The survey also had some positive findings. For instance, 57 percent of firms said they were expecting to hire new staff to grow, rather than just replacing departing staff.

Spears says that the high percentage of firms saying they’re looking to hire is a good sign – as is an average staff turnover rate of 18 percent, which is consistent with the national average for other industries. “I expected to see a lower rate for the professional services space, given the national figure includes extremely high turnover industries like retail and hospitality.”

In addition to salary data, the survey included questions about staff employment profiles, employment benefits, bonuses paid, employment and salary projections for the next 12 months, and human resources issues facing the legal community in 2017.