Law: When salaries fall through the floor: In the boom, a minimum figure for pay helped practices to attract scarce graduates. Now this may be abolished. Philip Thomas sounds a warning

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GRADUATES are offering to work for nothing simply to receive legal training, and firms are receiving letters of application by the sackful. There are far too few office places for the number of potential trainee solicitors now graduating from universities: around 1,800 are now chasing a handful of jobs.

In a depressed employment market, while partners' profits are dropping and assistant solicitors are being laid off, newly qualified solicitors are not being taken on. Already this year, hundreds of redundancies have been announced by law firms, including Britain's largest, Clifford Chance. In the late Eighties, when boom businesses and financial institutions were demanding more and more legal services from more and more solicitors, the numbers entering into the profession shot up. But it takes time to expand university education and training, and the supply of personnel could not promptly match demand.

City firms were outbidding each other to recruit trainees, and graduates could pick and choose their firms. London alone was capable of absorbing two thirds of all law graduates with good degrees.

In 1985, competition for graduates from other professions, particularly accountancy, led the Law Society, hoping to enhance recruitment, to bring the national minimum salary for trainee solicitors up to a more realistic level. The minimum at present stands at dollars 10,850 in the provinces and pounds 12,150 in London.

Now the society's training committee is reassessing this issue of the minimum salary for trainee solicitors. The questions are whether the minimum salary should be abolished and the market allowed to dictate salaries; whether it should be retained as a minimum decency threshold; or whether the entire system should be overhauled.

Would its abolition stimulate demand for trainees, or are the problems of the economy so deep- seated that the minimum salary issue is merely a manifestation of the current crisis facing the profession?

In January I conducted a survey of full-time students from throughout the United Kingdom reading for a law degree in four institutions of higher education in Wales (Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Pontypridd and Swansea). The intention was to establish what pressure was being applied on the job market by would-be solicitors. More than 1,300 questionnaires were returned.

Preliminary analysis of the data indicates that 56 per cent of the UK's law students are committed to practising law as solicitors, with 29 per cent wishing to keep their options open should, for example, the job market improve. Some 12 per cent hope to practise as barristers. Interest in following a legal career seems to be holding up despite the recession.

Many practitioners writing in the legal press are in favour of the abolition of the minimum salary. Indeed, one solicitor stated that the true cost to his firm of a trainee was pounds 40,000 a year. My research appears to support this view.

Students take a different position. A large proportion - 80 per cent - anticipate that they will be entirely dependent on their salary, and only 1 per cent believe they could manage without a salary at all. This is in line with the view of the Young Solicitors' Group, which supports the maintenance of a minimum wage.

Increasingly, students in all disciplines graduate with a significant debt burden. The Government's policy of replacing grants with student loans is biting. More than half of British law students (51 per cent) have or anticipate taking out a government loan. In addition, 71 per cent have either received or expect to receive a commercial loan. Some 61 per cent of students say they will carry forward an overdraft after graduation.

The new vocational training - the legal practice course, offered at various universities, including former polytechnics, and the College of Law - begins this September. Fees alone stand at around pounds 4,500 and local education authorities are increasingly unable or unwilling to pay fees of this size for students intent on becoming lawyers.

Consequently, debt is a growing problem for law students. Mark Dillon, aged 31, from Nottingham, currently taking the finals course at York, calculates that he will owe pounds 10,000 when he completes the course. This level of debt is not uncommon.

Pressure to abolish the minimum salary and subject payment of individual trainees to market forces doubtless reflects the economic mood of the majority of the profession. But what effect will it have on the type of people being recruited into the profession?

Graduates from ethnic minorities, poorer backgrounds, mature students and single parents are more likely to be dependent on a guaranteed minimum wage than the sons and daughters of the middle classes. According to one Cardiff solicitor, 'Industry, commerce and the professions have been cursed with the sons and nephews who receive preference ahead of, and generally instead of, the more able. The son of the senior partner of this firm will seek to begin his training later this year. You may speculate as to whether he is likely to be turned away at the door.'

The Law Society is sensitive to the recruitment profile of the profession but is caught between a rock and a hard place as the country awaits economic recovery. In the meantime, abolition of the minimum salary may open up more opportunities for trainees, although as demand for jobs far outstrips supply, there would still not be enough.

Furthermore any new opportunities would be focused on a much narrower group of people. Those people capable of accepting jobs at reduced rates are not the sort of students accepted through the present scheme: the white middle classes would prevail.

Philip Thomas is reader in law at Cardiff Law School.