MBA survey reflects income, gender trends

Issue October 2005 By Bill Archambeault

A wide-ranging economic survey of Massachusetts Bar Association members shows that while the salary gap between men and women is still substantial, MBA membership among women is growing.

Overall, the survey found general satisfaction among lawyers and judges regarding their areas of practice, working conditions and work/life balance. Income was a thornier area, however, with women still earning substantially less than men and several groups reporting dissatisfaction rates of 50 percent or more.

Still, when the question was asked, "If you had to do it all over again, would you become a lawyer?" 100 percent of the judges responded "yes." And every other group responded "yes" at rates ranging from 71 percent for associates in firms to 82 percent for law school faculty.

The survey, called the Economics of Law Practice Survey, was prepared this summer by STS Market Research in Cambridge, the first since 1997.

MBA General Counsel and Acting Executive Director Martin W. Healy said that despite the economic challenges facing the industry, the survey shows that lawyers are adapting and generally pleased with their jobs.

"It's a favorable report card on the profession and the satisfaction with the practice of law," Healy said.

A "satisfactory" situation

The 2005 results reveal a general satisfaction with salary, hours and working conditions among the 2,129 respondents, MBA President Warren Fitzgerald said.

Across the board — sole practitioners, firm associates, partners, judges, law school faculty and public service attorneys — the vast majority of respondents said they were either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with their area of practice.

The highest "dissatisfied" ranking in the "area of practice" category came from associates in firms, and even then, just 10 percent said they were dissatisfied. Law school faculty expressed the highest satisfaction, with 63 percent "very satisfied" and 38 percent "satisfied," followed by judges with 67 percent "very satisfied" and 27 percent "satisfied."

"That shows a very high job satisfaction level," Fitzgerald said. "We're perpetually working to improve the conditions for judges. It's something we constantly address."

Likewise, most respondents were either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with their "conditions of practice," with at least 77 percent of every group reporting they were either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with their conditions. The judges group, by far, reported the lowest "very satisfied" response, with just 8 percent. However, 69 percent of the judges responding said they were satisfied, with 23 percent "dissatisfied," which fell within the general dissatisfaction range of 13 to 23 percent.

Healy said it was important to note that judges' overall satisfaction in their field shows that most love their position, even if they're frustrated with their pay, support or condition of many courthouses.

"It's obviously not an income-generating position, but at the end of the day, many judges are extremely happy to be in public service," Healy said. "When you look at the conditions of practice results, it's reflective of the absence of adequate judicial resources and judicial compensation levels. It's been a priority of the MBA and will continue to be so."

Satisfaction rates for the "work/life balance" were also generally positive, with the "dissatisfaction" rates ranging from 16 percent for judges to 33 percent for associates in firms. Law school faculty reported the highest percentage of being "very satisfied," at 50 percent, followed by judges at 42 percent. Associates in firms showed the lowest level of "very satisfied," at 19 percent.

Area of most concern is income

The "satisfaction with income" category showed the lowest results. Judges were the most unsatisfied with their income of all the practice groups, with just 5 percent saying they were "very satisfied," 25 percent saying they were "satisfied" and a whopping 70 percent saying they were "dissatisfied." After judges, sole practitioners and public service attorneys reported the lowest salary satisfaction, with between 47 and 49 percent saying they were "dissatisfied."

Judges reported an average income of $120,925, slightly higher than $103,666 for law school faculty, the next highest, but less than half the $242,888 average for partners and shareholders. Associates in firms reported income of $84,736, sole practitioners averaged $78,435 and public service attorneys ranked lowest at $63,148.

Law school faculty were the most satisfied of all the groups, with 44 percent saying they were "very satisfied" with their income, around double the satisfaction levels of the next closest groups, partners and shareholders at 24 percent and associates in firms at 21 percent.

Likewise, law school faculty and judges were the happiest when it came to the question of "work/life balance, with 50 percent and 42 percent saying they were "very satisfied," respectively. The "very satisfied" responses for every other group ranged from 19 percent for associates in firms to 29 percent for public service attorneys.

Personal net income continued to increase, from $83,000 in a 1990 survey to $127,175 in 2004.

Healy said the rise reflected the growth seen in other white-collar professions as well as increased costs.

"Massachusetts income levels have to keep up with cost of living increases," he said.

But in something of a surprise, men's income showed a wide gap with women's. Men's average income was reported at $154,000, compared to women's at $87,000. While the percentage of men and women earning between $76,000 and $100,999 was close (13 percent and 14 percent respectively), men still earn a disproportionate share of the top-tier salaries. Of the women who responded, 73 percent earned $100,999 or less. For men, just 47 percent were below that level. And 32 percent of the men earned $151,000 or more, while just 12 percent of the women did.

"They too have made economic inroads, but one significant hurdle we see is women who have had their professional lives interrupted by family responsibilities and personal needs," Healy said. "Some of them struggle to maintain a foothold in the profession."

That result highlights the need for a program like the one that Fitzgerald has announced will be introduced sometime during his term, tentatively called "Lawyers in Transition."

By region, not surprisingly, lawyers based in Downtown Boston and the Back Bay earned far more than their colleagues in other areas and counties.

In Downtown Boston and the Back Bay, male respondents reported a personal net income of $233,542, women $136,689. That compared to $167,429 for men in Suffolk County overall and $95,858 for women in Suffolk County overall. By comparison, Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket counties ranked the lowest in personal net income, with men reporting personal income of $88,620 and women $55,764.

"There seems to be a very substantial disparity between the Boston and downtown lawyers in Boston and the lawyers practicing across the state," Fitzgerald said.

A changing membership

While the gender pay gap is still an issue the industry is struggling with, Fitzgerald did take satisfaction from some of the survey's findings related to gender, particularly in terms of percentage of membership. In 1997, men made up 66 percent of the survey's respondents, women 34 percent. This year, that gap narrowed to men at 61 percent and women at 39 percent.

"It tells us that the MBA is succeeding in attracting a greater percentage of women lawyers to the profession," Fitzgerald said, noting that the MBA seems to count a greater percentage of women among its membership than there is in the profession as a whole.

"The participation of women practicing in our association is very strong, which is encouraging," he said, noting the 5 percent shift in membership from men to women since 1997.

Fitzgerald has said that one of his goals this year is bringing more youth into the MBA membership, and he was encouraged by results that showed the average age was still 46 (49 for men, 43 for women).

Lawyers under 40 now make up 34 percent of the total membership, including 10 percent in the 24-to-29 age group.

"I'm pleased to see we're not aging," Fitzgerald said, referring to average age of 46. "However, the data show that we should be continuing to work hard to attract younger lawyers."

A total of 29 percent of members were admitted to the bar since 2000, 24 percent between 1990 and 1999, 22 percent between 1980 and 1989, 18 percent between 1970 and 1979 and 7 percent before 1970.

Shift in practice areas

The survey showed a significant drop in the percentage of sole practitioners, from 35 percent in 1997 to 24 percent in 2005, while the percentage of lawyers working as an associate in a firm increased from 10 percent in 1997 to 21 percent in 2005.

And while there may be a perception that trial lawyers dominate the profession, the MBA's members showed that real estate was the top field of practice, with 13 percent of the respondents. Next were domestic relations attorneys (11 percent), corporate/business (9 percent), civil trial practice/defense (9 percent) and estate planning and probate (7 percent) rounding out the top five.

"Most of our lawyers are real estate, domestic relations, business and civil defense lawyers," said Fitzgerald.

The largest change since 1997 came in the field of general practice, which accounted for 9 percent in 1997 and just 5 percent this year.

Healy said that the legal industry, like others, has become more and more specialized, with attorneys increasingly concentrating on specific areas of practice.

"We see the continual trend that lawyers are concentrating and focusing on particular areas as society becomes more regulated," Healy said.

Charitable donations strong

One encouraging survey result, Fitzgerald said, was contributions lawyers and judges made to charitable organizations in 2004, averaging $2,510 per person overall.

"You don't get other kinds of professions donating that kind of free work," Fitzgerald said. "I think that's pretty substantial."

Law school faculty donated the most, an average of $4,636, followed closely by partners ($4,138) and judges ($4,048). Sole practitioners averaged $2,059, public service attorneys $1,734 and associates in firms $1,306.

Healy added: "The average practitioner is spending significant time and resources in giving back to society through pro bono services. This is very pleasing to see."


• Survey administered via the Internet and mail between May 2 and June 3, 2005.

• Internet survey was sent to the entire MBA membership with a valid e-mail address. Of 9,944 surveys distributed, 19 percent responded, or 1,889.

• Mail survey distributed in a random sample to 2,000 members with no e-mail address on file, with a 12 percent response of 240.

• Total response rate was 18 percent, or 2,129.

• The total number of responses ensures a low margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percent, at a confidence level of 99 percent.

Survey prepared by STS Market Research, Cambridge.