Law Society ducks the salary issue

The future of the compulsory minimum salary for trainee solicitors hangs by a thread. On Thursday, the Law Society council will debate the issue and decide whether or not to endorse the Training Committee's recommendation that the 15-year-old minimum salary be retained.

This is one of the most important matters to come before the council in recent years. The debate raises questions which range beyond the specific issue of trainee salaries to the central issue of the role of the Law Society in today's profession.

Recently I have become increasingly concerned about the way the debate has been handled. It seems to indicate an increasing reluctance on the part of the Law Society to exercise in an even-handed manner its dual role of "trades union" to members of the profession and regulator of the profession in the public interest.

I am drawn to such a grave conclusion because despite being regularly assured that "the minimum salary is doomed", those involved in the campaign for its retention have yet to be offered a single cogent reason why the profession should not wholeheartedly embrace the concept.

A suspicion exists that abolition has already been promised as a way of indicating the society's commitment to lessening the burden of regulation.

In some quarters the minimum salary is viewed as an easy target, a swift and painless means of recouping credit lost amidst the Regis Computer, the High Street starter kit and the indemnity fee miscalculation fiasco.

And yet the profession as a whole should be intimately concerned with the fate of the minimum salary. Without it how can we:

hope to attract the brightest and best to our profession in the face of increased competition from other professions?

ensure that the high street and legal aid sector is still able to attract able and motivated candidates?

hope to make the profession a legitimate aspiration for all those of genuine ability regardless of parental wealth or social background?

These are questions of vital professional importance, but the public interest issues raised are, if anything, even more momentous.

If the minimum salary is abolished how can we hope to convince society that we are committed to limiting the wage discrimination suffered by women and ethnic minority trainees? What message do we send out as a profession concerning our commitment to improving access to justice for all? How can we persuade the new government that we attach sufficient priority to our public interest responsibilities to be allowed the right to regulate our own affairs?

With so much at stake council members and members of the profession might be forgiven for expecting a senior member of our professional body to make the case for retention at Thursday's council meeting. After all, if the leaders of our profession do not feel strongly about issues as significant as these, what on earth are they for?

They will be as surprised as I am then to discover that this onerous responsibility will be discharged by none other than Hannah Wiskin, a 26-year-old newly-qualified solicitor and current chair of the Trainee Solicitors Group. The powers that be have succeeded in their apparent desire to depict the issue of minimum salaries as one of primary concern to students and trainee solicitors only.

I have no doubt that Miss Wiskin will acquit herself admirably. After all, she represents a body that has consistently argued for retention. She also knows that her opponents have consistently avoided a public debate of the issues, so unimpeachable is the case for retention.

But it would have been far more encouraging to have seen leadership on this issue. Instead the Law Society has hidden behind counsel's opinions – anything to avoid standing up and saying what needs to be said. Namely that this is an issue of such public importance, an issue which has so many public interest ramifications, that it should be supported clearly and unequivocally.

On Thursday council members must make up their own minds, and despite the apparent belief of some that abolition is a formality, I look forward to a full and reasoned debate.

It is something of a PR disaster that the issue is being contemplated at the time when the new government is implementing its own minimum wage proposals, but nevertheless I implore council members to consider the issue on its merits. If they do so I feel sure that only one conclusion is possible.