Should a new minimum salary for trainee solicitors be introduced?

December 06, 2019

When introduced by New Labour in April 1999, not everyone welcomed the National Minimum Wage (NMW). Leading up to its introduction, some 1.9m people over the age of 21 in the UK were being paid less than £3.60 (the first set NMW rate for that age group).

Critics, including many businesses, the Conservatives and some economists, argued that introducing the NMW would destroy jobs and hamper competitiveness. Opinions have changed radically and more recently, leading Tories, including George Osborne, have admitted that they were “on the wrong side of the argument” in the 1990s. Now they back the NMW.

Following Low Pay Commission (LPC) recommendations, the NMW will increase again in October (by 20p to £6.70 for those aged 21 and above), which will benefit some 1.4m UK workers, while apprentices will get a 57p an hour pay rise in October (which exceeds LPC recommendations significantly).

Minimum salary for trainees

The Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) is calling for the reinstatement of the trainee solicitor minimum salary, which was scrapped in 2014. Previously, legal firms had to pay trainees at least £18,590 a year for working in London, with those working elsewhere entitled to at least £16,650.

Since its abolition, firms have only been required to pay trainees the NMW (roughly £12,000 a year), significantly less than £18,000, said to be the “living wage” for people living in London (£15,500 for those elsewhere according to the Living Wage Foundation).

A key reason given why the minimum salary for trainee solicitors was abolished is reportedly because it meant many cash-strapped smaller legal firms couldn’t afford to train solicitors. However, the Law Society opposed the move, having particular concerns about its implications for equality and diversity.

Fairer wage for trainees?

Max Harris is JLD chair (and an associate at Baker & McKenzie). He views the lack of a minimum wage for trainee solicitors as hugely unfair, because, unlike most graduates, trainees must contend with substantial repayments on their Legal Practice Course debt.

“The national minimum wage does not take these repayments into account,” Harris points out. “This causes great difficulties, with individuals who are unable to rely on parental [financial] support being [put off], at least in part, from entering the profession.”

The JLD is working with the Law Society to set a new minimum salary for trainees, but this won’t be enforceable, it will simply be a recommendation. However, the JLD hopes this will be enough to gently persuade many law firms to pay a fairer wage to their trainees. A proposal is planned for July, after the Law Society has consulted its members.

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