The trainee debate

Your editorial, "A short-term view", The Lawyer 21 March, is aptly titled but misconceived. It dismisses concerns about the exploitation of students, the representativeness of the profession and debt. Your short-term view is that by abolishing the minimum salary these problems will be solved. They will not.

It is vital that some basic facts are considered. Historically, the number of training contracts has always been linked to the economic performance of the profession. The minimum salary has not hindered this; rises in salary have been matched by rises in the number of trainees.

The current position on training contracts is improving; a five per cent rise last year in the number of contracts took us to the second highest number of trainees ever. Interestingly, this expansion was not City-led. It was outside central London that the numbers increased. The early signs for this year are also positive. Training contracts are up and economic indicators suggest that firms are moving out of the recession.

Importantly, however, there are already indications that the number of qualifying trainees is not capable of being absorbed into the profession. Newly qualified unemployment is growing and over 50 per cent of trainees are worried about job security.

For students and trainees, the expense of the LPC and the collapse of local authority funding has meant an enormous increase in debts. The PSI Study, having contacted thousands of students, found a significant narrowing of social characteristics as a result of financial pressure.

The Law Society's experience on waivers is an interesting indication of how things would go if the minimum salary were abolished. Firms do and would wish to pay trainees salaries below half the graduate average (which is estimated to be u13,000), some firms do and would wish to pay nothing at all. Some students are and would be willing to accept this. These students are far more likely to have parents who supported them through law school, who give them board and lodging during the training contract, or even have their own private incomes. Their qualifications are also likely to be poorer.

These students would be able to make their way into the profession not because they are the best but because they or their parents can pay for it.

It is also important to look at the effect of abolition on those now considering a career in the law. The PSI study already shows us that about one in three are put off by financial considerations. There will be a large number of bright, second year undergraduates looking at the profession this summer who do not want to work in big City firms. They will look at the cost of the LPC, they will look at the number of contracts available and will look at drastically reduced salary levels and they and their banks will decide they can not afford it.

The profession will exclude these students. It is the brightest and best from ordinary backgrounds who will either be channelled even more quickly into the City or will be lost to other careers. They will have no other choice. This is market rigging at its worst because no one will take responsibility for it.

The profession has a responsibility to itself and to the public to recruit the best and to recruit from all sections of society. Welcoming only those who can pay to be solicitors into low cost, low quality training contracts is not a strategy which can sustain the profession's integrity or economic interests. The profession should reject such a strategy and signal its intention to seek and train the best nationwide, it should support the minimum salary.

Richard Moorhead

Chair

Trainee Solicitors Group

Sheffield SE1 2EL