Its reared its ugly head again: the Law Society’s minimum salary currently 18,590 (London) and 16,650 for trainees working outside of London. It’s controversial stuff and raises strong emotions from law students and law firms alike. And rightly so. Some firms take on paralegals (read: wannabe solicitors if you care to) in order to avoid paying a trainee the minimum salary which they deem too expensive to fund; or else they choose not to. Many paralegals do the work that trainees would be doing had they committed to training someone up. But these aspiring lawyers will instead accept peanuts for pay will little choice.
Without the minimum salary would a firm have taken on a trainee solicitor instead of taking on a paralegal at a lesser cost? If so, there we have one more trainee without a training contract. Multiply that by hundreds, if not thousands and we see the bigger picture.
But this leads to another issue: would these aspiring trainee solicitors rather get their training contract completed but at a wage less than the minimum salary? The crucial questions here is: which of those could afford to do so? Which leads to that other burning issue of accessibility to the legal profession.
Some young law students I know could not afford to work for much less than the minimum salary. But others can. Thats life sadly. And life is often unfair. I could not have qualified when I did had I not had a husband who could fund my basic living costs.
But are those who can afford to train at a low salary in danger of being exploited by employers if the minimum salary did not exist? Is the current minimum salary helping prevent potential lawyers being exploited?
The issue has been in the legal press time and time again over the past couple of years: desperate aspiring trainees working unpaid or low paid as paralegals just to get their foot in the door. Or taking on any law-related work or other experience just to try to get an edge over the competition.
And we must not forget the huge debt many ends the LPC or BPTC with. Working at a low salary prolongs the agony of debt with no promise of a fat lawyers salary for years (if ever).
A minimum salary reduces the number of training contracts undertaken. It also undoubtedly minimizes exploitation of some aspiring lawyers. But it means the pool of aspiring lawyers trying to secure a training position remains eye watering large. Removing the minimum salary would increase the number of training contracts, diminishing the pool of potential trainees desperate to secure a training position. But could exploitation of some trainees increase? If only the better off can qualify, the implications are pretty clear: the profession could in the years to come predominantly comprise of the white middle classes. And this would be a huge backward leap that no one wants to see in the 21st century.
And so we swing in roundabouts. What is the answer? I don’t know. The profession doesn’t know. Im strongly of the view that reducing the number of LPC and BPTC places available will help. Further possibilities on a postcard, please.