“It's a stitch up and a PR disaster waiting to happen,” is former Trainee Solicitors' Group chair Mark Dillon's verdict on the Law Society's handling of the current debate on whether to keep the minimum salary for trainee solicitors.
And judging from the angry scenes at the TSG annual conference in Birmingham on 12 April, Dillon is not alone in his forthright views.
Passions came to a head during the final session of the conference when Simon Baker, chair of the society's training committee, was subjected to fierce heckling from delegates who called on him to outline the Law Society's thinking on the issue, something he steadfastly refused to do.
“Isn't it a scandal that you're not willing to share your views with us?” heckled Richard Moorhead, a former TSG chair.
The debate is certainly not a new one. The minimum salary has been in place for over a decade, but there have been many doubts about whether firms can actually afford it.
But the threat to the £10,000-a-year minimum had never been as real as it has been since last Thursday's Council meeting, when it was revealed the training committee had voted the previous day against scrapping it. Baker is thought to have pushed for it to be scrapped.
The issue has been smouldering since the beginning of the year, when the society sent out a survey to canvas the opinions of 12,000 firms across the country. A “substantial majority” were in favour of abolishing minimum salaries.
Claims by firms that they are unable to afford the minimum salary are at the root of the argument. But the TSG points out that £10,000 is not the true minimum paid to trainees, as many firms are granted waivers allowing them to pay as little as £8,000. They can also claim back money which has been forwarded to trainees to complete legal practice courses. This can be as much as £4,000, which theoretically leaves trainees with £4,000 to live on.
This issue has proved so emotive because many trainee and recently qualified solicitors claim its loss would mean denying access to the profession for all but the most wealthy students. They feel the proposal is just one example of how professional standards are currently being compromised by economics.
Hannah Wiskin, who is the current TSG chair, thinks the possible scrapping is part of ongoing de-regulation by the society in a bid to make the the profession more commercial.
She is highly critical of such initiatives. “Having a regulatory role means having a responsibility to look beyond financial interests,” she says.
Trainees feel they have been both ignored and manipulated within the consultation process, which totally bypassed them.
Against this back-drop, it was the final straw for the TSG when Simon Baker refused to address the situation throughout the conference.
He gave no reason why the society has deemed the results of its survey to be confidential. He refused to provide any indication of what the society was planning to do next.
This had the effect of overshadowing his announcement that the society had adopted an “Investors in People” scheme to promote better treatment of both clients and employees and launched the new Careers Advice Network for students.