Throwing money at assistant solicitors is not the answer

A recent survey by The Lawyer and Michael Page Legal revealed the extraordinary statistic that assistant solicitors at most City firms are receiving, on average, wage rises of more than four times the rate of inflation.

The figures are enough to make Gordon Brown puce with rage.

“But there is a boom on,” managing partners explain, “and we need more bodies to do the work at a time when there is a desperate shortage of two- to five-year qualifieds.”

But hefty pay rises are not the answer. While partners concentrate on getting more assistants in the door, the assistants they already have are pouring out.

Despite all the money that is being thrown at them, surveys repeatedly show that disillusionment among assistants is at an all-time high.

The great majority would happily trade in most, if not all, of their salary rise for the ability to keep their weekends free and occasionally make that nine o'clock drink that their friends in other jobs have arranged for the middle of the week.

And when the downturn comes, many firms are laying themselves open to another early-90s style round of redundancies as they realise they can no longer afford the salaries they promised their assistants.

It is shameful that a profession, supposedly about people, treats its assistants like so many car factory workers – laying them off when there is a lull and bribing them to come back to work when the orders come in.

Law firms are increasingly losing their lawyers to banks and other City businesses and they should look at how these businesses treat their employees.

They should be more creative in the way they use fee-earners' time and consider introducing shifts. Individual lawyers should not be so indispensable to a deal that they are working silly hours.

They should look at paying substantial bank-style lump sum bonuses instead of annual pay rises, so that assistants feel they are sharing in the firm's success along with the partners.

And maybe, just once, partners should avoid overrunning deadlines by telling clients the truth about how long a deal will take.