This report reveals that the legal practices of men are radically altered by their experiences in the formation of families. We argue that it is the understudied male experiences with the growth of families that also fuel income and related practice differences in career outcomes, creating a highly hierarchical profession that is focused around a male mystique of “living large.” This study traces the process of living large in a sample of men and women lawyers we have tracked over their 20-year careers, from law school to late middle life.
We argue that spending large amounts of time with corporate clients is a very specialized kind of investment that is rewarded with partnership and earnings and that, among men, bears an unexpectedly unique relationship to having children. We argue that this specialized investment and its relationship to having children is, in contrast with the basic assumption of Becker’s human capital theory, more culturally driven than biologically derived.
The Lawyers’ Life Course Study
The data for the analysis presented in this report are drawn from a 20-year panel study based on a representative sample of 1,051 women and men lawyers practicing in Toronto, Canada, in 1985, the period in which this study began and in which “early cohort” women lawyers first attained parity in North American law schools. The study was intended to track these lawyers through their careers. It was organized as a mail-back survey with a sample stratified by gender and type of practice. The four waves of data collection from this panel occurred in 1985, 1991, 1997, and 2006. Earnings data are based on the 2005 tax year. In the most recent 20-year follow-up wave, we were able to recontact 62.4% (n = 585) of the remaining known living lawyers (n = 937).
Explaining Earnings Inequities
The sign posts that point toward living large in the male-dominated legal world are well known and easily recognized, from law school through later life. They begin with admission to an elite law school, the pursuit of high marks, entry into a large firm, and a single-minded focus on distant career goals. By the 1970s and 1980s, women widely shared these goals with men and eagerly sought admission to the male-dominated legal profession, perhaps thinking that they might not only join this world but also begin to change it.
Meanwhile, although the age difference associated with gender had little impact on the relative average rankings of job importance in 1985 or 2006, the men’s average earnings were more than double the women’s in 1985 ($80,931 and $39,683). This difference was slightly larger in absolute terms, but much smaller in relative terms, in 2006. On average in 2006, men working full time were earning $304,847 and women working full-time were earning $245,635. This is a difference of nearly $1,000 a week. We analyzed this difference while taking entry-level earnings and age differences into account.
It is important to note that in almost all ways other than age, the women and men in this panel study were remarkably similar when they began the practice of law. It would be surprising if it were found that age had a significant impact on their relative earnings (these men and women lawyers were in their mid-50s by 2006). To determine this, we would have to look elsewhere to explain the gender gap in earnings that persists among these lawyers who are now in the autumn of their careers.
Men devoted nearly twice the proportion of their time to corporate clients: 44.74% versus 27.26%. Note that this is a larger relative difference by gender than the also large disparity in partnerships: Nearly half of the men in our sample reported that they were partners (48.9%) compared to about one third of the women (32.9%).
Women with one child reported the highest numbers of hours worked overall by any grouping of men or women in the sample (2,822 hours in 2006) and we further see that they invested more of their time working for corporate clients (1,170 hours in 2006) than any other grouping of women. In contrast, it is the men with two or more children who worked the longest hours overall (2,676–2,762 hours), while investing about half of this time with corporate clients (1,232–1,515 hours). The overwhelming difference between men and women with two or more children was the gap in hours worked with corporate clients.
Perhaps the most interesting finding was that women lawyers with one child worked the longest overall hours. Again, these women worked on average 2,822 hours in 2006, compared to 2,762 hours among the longest working men. Women with two and three children also rivaled men in overall hours worked. It was not until lawyers with four children were compared that a notable gap emerged in overall hours worked, and even women with four or more children worked nearly 2,400 hours overall. There is apparently nothing in the nature of biological differences that eliminates this high level of investment in paid work by women lawyers.
What more clearly distinguishes the women and men lawyers is their work with corporate clients. The pattern for women traced something like a normal curve, with the least hours worked for corporate clients among women with no children or four or more children, and as previously emphasized, the most hours worked for corporate clients by women with one child. In contrast, the trajectory of corporate work hours was perfectly linear for men, starting at a low of 667 hours among childless men and increasing in a consistent stepwise gradient with each added child to a peak of 1,515 hours among men with four or more children. We suggest that the driving force in this story is more likely a commercial corporate culture that is more welcoming and attractive to men than women, rather than a simple extrapolation of an initial biological influence of childbearing.
Both the men and women who attained high earnings in their later legal practice were more likely to have attended an elite law school and attained high grades. They were also more likely to have entered the profession through larger law firms, where they began with higher salaries, and more likely to have assigned great importance to the development of their careers. In later life, both the higher earning men and women reported that they benefited from a special mentorship and that they still worked long hours in 2006. After holding all of these advantaging factors among both men and women constant in our analysis of later career earnings, we nonetheless found that women in our sample earned about $35,000 less than their male peers. This gender gap in earnings could only be reduced below statistical significance in our analysis when we finally entered percentage of time worked for corporate clients, attaining partnership, and perceived loss of earnings due to having children.
The human capital theory of the sexual division of labor developed by the Nobel Prize–winning economist Gary Becker attributes the gender gap in earnings to small biological differences associated with human reproduction that are magnified over careers by the specialized investments of women and men, respectively, in family and paid employment. Becker’s theory therefore predicts a divergence in the careers of women and men that should begin with the birth of the first child. In contrast, we found that these women had similar levels of commitment to their careers both when they entered the profession in 1985 and again 20 years later in 2006, with both men and women lawyers actually showing a nearly identical decline in career commitment as they approached the close of their careers.
We further found that the women in our lawyer sample with one child actually invested more hours on average in work with corporate clients than women with no children or two or more children. As well, these women on average invested more hours in work with corporate clients than the men who also had one child. Overall, women with one child worked more than 300 hours more than men with one child and 60 hours more than the hardest working group of men (those with three children). Yet these women earned in 2006 on average nearly $90,000 less than the latter men (i.e., $251,827 versus $339,375). These women were also less than half as likely to be partners (i.e., 31% versus 65%). It is difficult to explain these differences in terms of biology.
The key to the gender gap in later career earnings in our sample is the gap that emerged among lawyers with two or more children who worked predominately with corporate clients. It is precisely at this point of expansion in the lawyers’ families from one to two children that a striking reversal in work patterns emerged between the women and men lawyers. At this transitional moment in the growth of their families, men vaulted from investing about a quarter (26.2%) to nearly half (45.9%) of their time in work for corporate clients. For women who had a second child, the inverse was true: They decreased their time invested with corporate clients from nearly 40% to about a quarter (26.3%). For women, having a second child is arguably less of a biological change than having the first, but this transition is clearly a crucial point of change for career and family, and this is evident for men as well.
Corporations and children are both demanding. We have argued that it is the lure to men of meeting the escalating demands of a growing corporate practice that is neglected by human capital theory and that needs to be further studied and explained. It is a lure that grows especially strong for men with the increasing size of their families. It matches the expectations of big families and their associated demands—spacious homes, fleets of cars, extended and expensive schooling, and so forth—with the rewards of cultivating and serving large corporate clients. Yet, men in our sample were not especially eager to extol the virtues of this practice of corporate law.
“What is astonishing is that we, who had no idea how anything was going to turn out, now know exactly what happened.”—Phillip Roth, American Pastoral
Request the Full Report
To request the full report, please email Linda Reustle at lreustle@LSAC.org.