Top lawyer offers to work three days a year for free QC rises to Blair challenge with offer of free days

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Legal Affairs Correspondent

Stung by Tony Blair's plea to lawyers to serve society by working unpaid, one of the highest-paid QCs is promising to give three days a year free.

Peter Goldsmith QC, who was estimated in a survey among the profession to earn between pounds 750,000 and pounds 1m a year, called on his highly-paid colleagues to follow his example. He said he was open to offers for the best use of his three days, which work out at about pounds 3,500 each.

His suggestion was a response to a call from the Labour leader, a qualified barrister, at last week's conference in Brighton. Tony Blair's wife, Cherie Booth QC, already does some pro bono work and the Labour front- bench spokesman Paul Boateng, a qualified barrister and solicitor, also gives some of his time free.

Mr Goldsmith said pro bono work should not be a substitute for adequate legal aid, adding that many barristers and solicitors already worked for free. Mr Goldsmith, a commercial law expert, made the offer during a debate at the solicitors' annual conference in Birmingham over the weekend. He suggested that even civil law specialists could do useful work by fighting complex test cases where the litigant could not otherwise afford to go to court, or giving free counsel's opinions.

The conference was told that a few hundred solicitors may be earning less than pounds 10,000 a year. Most of those on low salaries are high street solicitors working alone, who are still relying on conveyancing work, where prices have been squeezed by the property recession and competition from licensed conveyancers.

The Law Society's new president, Martin Mears, is trying to find ways to enforce fixed conveyancing fees at a higher level and to restrict numbers entering the profession to reduce competition.

The Law Society's research and policy adviser, John Jenkins, revealed the findings of a survey of 500 firms' earnings in 1993-94. The sample suggests up to 800 out of 70,000 solicitors are earning less than pounds 10,000. The bigger the firm, the better the salaries. For two-partner to four- partner firms, the worst-paid 25 per cent averaged pounds 24,000 a year; for 11-partner to 25-partner firms the average was pounds 51,000.

Last week Lord Woolf, a Law Lord, criticised young specialist barristers who earn more than his own pounds 109,000 a year salary. He reinforced his message during the debate in Birmingham saying: "I was saying it was in their own, the profession's and justice's long-term interests only to charge reasonable fees. The same is true of the solicitor's side of the profession."

The Bar hit back this weekend. Young barristers doing criminal legal aid work often earned as little as pounds 15,000 a year in their early years, it said.

"If you want somebody to fix your washing machine, the call out fee works out at pounds 74 for the first hour," Mr Goldsmith said.