By Valerie L'Herrou • April 05, 2014•Writers in Residence, Careers, Nonprofits and the Public Interest
At the moment I am not practicing law. After nearly seven years as a public defender, I am now working in a law school career development office, helping students who hope to work in the public sector. I am, therefore, typical of women lawyers: more likely to work in the public sector, and more likely to leave the practice of law.
It's hard for me to think of myself as a statistic. I'm an individual. Yet, apparently, I'm also a cliché. But why are women so much more likely to work in public interest? I think there are three main reasons: while many start law school with the intent to "do good" or "save the world," women are more likely to cite altruistic over material reasons for attending. Then, as women progress through law school, they realize that the long hours and grueling schedules of big-law life are not very conducive to raising a family (because, even now, women are more likely to bear the bulk of child-rearing and family responsibilities than are men). So the work/life balance that public interest careers offer in lieu of pay appeals, as women begin to direct their career paths. And finally, I believe that women are so accustomed—habituated, perhaps—to the expectation that their salaries will be lower than men's, that they are willing to accept lower salaries: they sell themselves short. This may be partly because women expect to be (or are) married, and expect that their husbands will be (or are) the main family breadwinner. But many women are the main or sole breadwinner for their families (as I am), and while earning a minimal salary when you are pooling incomes may make low pay matter less, when one is struggling to make ends meet on one low salary, life can be difficult.
One of the reasons for low salaries in public sector law may be that women tend to cluster in certain kinds of jobs (pink-collar ghettoes), and to focus on other priorities than pay. Women are less likely to push for higher salaries than are men—and therefore, where women cluster, so does lower pay. This occupational segregation stems from a variety of causes, including the fact that men will usually not accept a low-paying job, while women frequently will. Thus, women and men, in the aggregate, may end up sorting themselves into disparate income scales.
When they graduate, female law students are nearly twice as likely to go into public service as are male law grads: according to NALP, in 2005, 6.4 percent of female law graduates took jobs in public interest work vs. 3.3 percent of male graduates. Public sector salaries have been stagnant—from NALP in 2012: "the median entry-level salary for a legal services attorney is not quite $43,000; an attorney with 11-15 years of experience can expect a salary of about $65,000." Just now, a quick search on the website idealist.org resulted in several listings, including these typical salary ranges: an entry level position in Atlanta, starting at 41,000 (or 36,000 if awaiting bar results); and a senior family law attorney with five years of experience (fluent in at least one other language) in Boston for 60,000. In contrast, first-year associates at large firms start at an average of $145,000--one hundred thousand dollars more than a public service starting salary. First-year associate salaries at some of the very largest law firms may start at $160,000--one hundred thousand dollars more than that of a public service lawyer who has been in practice for 15 years.
These statistics are somewhat depressing. But there's another side to this: money isn't everything. A recent study from a Florida State University Law professor and a University of Missouri Psychology professor indicates that a career in public service, making a low salary, may, actually, be a good thing: "a happy life as a lawyer is much less about grades, affluence, and prestige than about finding work that is interesting, engaging, personally meaningful, and is focused on providing needed help to others." Calling the lawyers who work in public service "service lawyers" (as opposed to "prestige lawyers"), the authors found that attorney well-being was strongly correlated to service: "the service lawyers reported significantly higher day-to-day mood, likely from their sense of service and greater engagement in their work. The net result was greater aggregate well-being for the lawyers in service positions."
Perhaps those law students, including women, who come to law school wanting to "save the world," and who take those measly $40,000 a year jobs, know something that the gunners who make the big bucks don't: they'll end up a lot happier.
(That's a nice sentiment on which to end. But I don't want to end there. Because, as anyone struggling to pay her law school loans on $45,000 a year can attest, working for a low salary, even in a setting where one is able to have the flexibility to go to doctors' appointments and school events, causes stress when one has law school loans to pay. Income-based public interest loan repayment may be great, as are LRAPs (if your school has one), but the clustering of women in low-income public interest is still problematic. We will visit this issue in more depth when we return with another episode of "No Longer Extraordinary").
2) The Gender Wage Gap by Occupation - Institute for Women's Policy ...
4) "Jobs & JD’s: Employment and Salaries of New Law Graduates—Class of 2005," published by the Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP)