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The bottom is sinking

The minimum salary for trainee solicitors appears doomed.
Growing numbers of trainee solicitors and legal educators believe the Law Society is about to abolish its minimum salary. A Law Society survey, asking solicitors whether they wish to retain a legal minimum for trainees, is being interpreted as the first step towards abolition. The results of the survey will be known within a fortnight.

While it is expected that the big City firms, which pay their trainees well above the minimum salary (pounds 12,150 in inner London and pounds 10,850 elsewhere), will oppose its abolition, the many more less financially well off high street practices are more likely to want it removed.

The Trainee Solicitors Group (TSG) has long feared moves were afoot to end a safety net for those entering the profession. Aggrieved that its individual members have been left out of the Law Society's consultation process, the TSG last week published the results of a survey of its own, by the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, in which 150 students on the Legal Practice Course and I50 trainees were contacted.

Predictably, it revealed 85 per cent of those taking part wanted to see the Law Society continue to enforce a minimum salary. But what was more revealing was the extent of the hardship in which many trainees now find themselves.

According to the TSG study, a quarter of law firms now pay trainees the minimum salary or less, with some paying as little as pounds 6,510. The impact of such low salaries is exacerbated by the huge debts with which many students leave law college. The survey found 25 per cent had debts of at least pounds 7,000.

Hannah Wiskin, chair of the TSG, says there is plenty of evidence of firms being willing to ask their trainees to accept wages below the minimum by applying to the Law Society for a waiver. Although the terms of the lower salary must be agreed by both the trainee and the employer the TSG believes the use of the waiver places the trainee in an unfair position.

Ms Wiskin says the horror stories that she has come across while operating "help lines" shows just how bleak a career in the law can be. The survey has shown cases of solicitors who have to work full time while studying for their exams. The TSG believes the number of such cases will go on increasing if the Law Society abandons the minimum. Ms Wiskin insists she has been told privately that that is exactly what the society intends.

Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law and a supporter of the minimum salary, believes the outcome is a forgone conclusion. He is persuaded by the TSG arguments. "These kids have borrowed up to their eyeballs to get on to the Legal Practice Course and now we can't guarantee them a rock bottom salary when they finish," he says.

The Law Society denies that a decision has been taken. Simon Baker, training committee chairman, says: "This is not the case. The decision-making process includes consultation by a sub-committee and a further round of deliberation in mid-April when the lines of policy are agreed. Then detailed proposals will be brought to the Law Society Council."

He also does not believe the result of the survey is a forgone conclusion. He maintains that there has been wide consultation which involved all 9,000 law firms and 125 local law societies as well individual groups, such as the TSG, affiliated to the Law Society. Mr Baker says the response rate so far has been one of the highest for a consultation document circulated within the profession. Such intense interest demonstrates feelings are a running high in both camps.

The minimum salary was introduced in 1982. It was based on the student grant which was graded up to a full year, amounting to an extra four months' grant. But Mr Baker says 1982 is a very different world to 1997. "The profession has been exposed to increasing competition with a break-down of its reserved and protected areas. Inevitably the question of a protected minimum salary has come under scrutiny." He points out that qualified solicitors, or other professionals such as accountants, do not have the luxury of a minimum salary

"Over the years," Mr Baker says, "you have seen a substantial drop in pay and conveyancing remuneration. We are no longer protected by the minimum scale fees for conveyancing and legal aid rates are not being increased. Remuneration is being squeezed and at the same time there are demands by consumer groups for us to provide an even better service." Mr Baker says the Law Society has a duty to look after solicitors whose businesses are subjected to those economic realities as well entrants to the profession.

From a public relations point of view the debate could not have come at a worse time. The Law Society is likely to make its final decision on the minimum salary around the time a new Labour government begins implementing a minimum wagen