Unity through a working salary

As the Law Society Council prepares to vote on the minimum salary, Hannah Wiskin makes the case for its retention. Hannah Wiskin is chair of the TSG.

Reviewing the future of the minimum salary is becoming an annual exercise for the Law Society. To date, the society has favoured its retention. In the light of recent events, the Trainee Solicitors Group (TSG) has little reason to believe that this year will be any different.

The minimum salary is £10,850, rising to £12,150 for trainees working in central London. That is well below the average graduate starting salary of £13,500. One of the reasons for this is that the level of the minimum has not been increased since 1993.

So what is new about this year's debate? For a start the Law Society decided to consult with the profession. Questionnaires were sent to law firms, local law societies and interest groups, such as the TSG, the Young Solicitors Group and the Association of Women Solicitors. But law students, CPE students and trainees were not included in this exercise.

To redress the balance and to ask more searching questions than those posed by the Law Society questionnaire, the TSG commissioned its own survey of a random sample of law students and trainees. Just as it was little surprise to anyone that the majority of respondents to the Law Society survey favoured abolition of the minimum salary, more than 70 per cent of TSG members surveyed demanded its retention. A score draw, you might say. However, where the results of the TSG survey did differ was in the surprisingly damning statistics on student financial hardship and inequality of pay for women and ethnic minorities.

The Law Society policy on the minimum salary is debated in the training committee which makes recommendations to the council, which have traditionally been adopted. This year the debate took place in April and the TSG was delighted that the training committee voted nine to six in favour of maintaining a minimum salary. All that remains is for council to ratify that recommendation at its meeting on 5 June 1997.

There are a number of reasons why the minimum salary should be retained. These reasons should be uppermost in council members' minds when voting on the matter in June.

Tales of student hardship are familiar in this era of the devalued grant. What makes the aspiring solicitors' position even worse is the requirement that he or she undertake a very expensive year of postgraduate study, namely the Legal Practice Course. Unless the student receives financial support from an employer or private sources, large debts are inevitable. The TSG survey has found that one in eight trainees has debts of more than £10,000, with the average being £5,000.

The effect of this on access to the profession is clear. Students with large debts will be less likely to accept a training contract on a salary which does not enable those debts to be serviced. This was the position of 63 per cent of those surveyed. Merit quickly gives way to financial necessity.

Perhaps the most worrying statistics in the TSG survey relate to pay disparity. White male trainees are paid, on average, £779 a year more than their female counterparts who are also more likely to be on or below the minimum salary. And 50 per cent of ethnic minority trainees are on the minimum salary compared with 26 per cent of trainees as a whole. So it seems that abolishing the minimum salary would hit these sections of the profession particularly hard.

At a time when claims on the Solicitors' Indemnity Fund are increasing, the profession should be committed to ensuring that standards do not fall. Those surveyed who are on or below the minimum salary are five times less likely to be satisfied with the quality of their training. This statistic begs the question of whether a firm that cannot afford the minimum really has the resources (or commitment) to invest in training. The TSG's view is that the retention of the minimum salary will encourage all practitioners to take training seriously.

The firms most likely to benefit from the abolition of a minimum salary are smaller, high street and legal aid practices, with lower profit margins. But does the profession as a whole really want to encourage a development that will hit the high street operators especially hard? At a time when the profession is split on the virtues of specialisation compared with general practice, should the Law Society be effectively discouraging bright law students from entering general high street practice by allowing such firms to pay well below the market rate? The TSG believes that abolition will drive a wedge between the profession at the very time that unity is called for.

In making its decision on 5 June, the TSG hopes the council will be guided by these considerations. Hopefully, it will recognise the Law Society's responsibility to its younger members and the public and will be prepared to temper the short term interests of some of the profession which have surfaced in this debate. One respondent to the Law Society consultation said: “No respected profession pays its trainees much or treats them well.” If this is what some members of the profession really think then a decision to abolish the minimum salary will be a grave error.