Chambers overtake law firms in pay battle for junior talent

Barristers’ chambers hike pupil pay by a third, but newly qualified solicitor salary cuts spread across the UK

Darren Burrows

Darren Burrows

A clear divergence has opened up between law firms and the bar as ­chambers up the stakes in the war to attract talent.

While firms in the regions are beginning to follow the City’s lead by slashing salaries for newly qualified solicitors (NQs), a number of sets have upped the sums they award to those about to start their bar training.

London set One Essex Court will have the highest-paid pupils at the bar after setting its pupillage pay for the October 2010 intake at £60,000. This represents an increase of 33 per cent on the £45,000 this year’s intake will receive.

Wilberforce Chambers is increasing its £40,000 pupillage award to £48,000 for the 2011 intake, while Essex Court will increase pay from £40,000 to £55,000 for 2010.

One Essex Court senior clerk Darren Burrows said that by upping the pupillage salary to £60,000 the set was demonstrating “the seriousness of our intention to get the best people”.

He added: “We see ­ourselves at the top of the market, recruiting the best people year-on-year, and we understand who they refuse when they come here. There’s ever-increasing competition for those ­people.”

Acknowledging that ­significant investment was required to pay such high salaries, Burrows said: “The return is significant. We think it’s viable. Others may spend money on a fancy party or yo-yos, but we feel the money can be better spent elsewhere.”

Essex Court Chambers’ Jeffrey Gruder QC said the bar was looking to hike the awards paid because pupils generally foot the bill for the BVC themselves, so begin their pupillages with a lot of debt. By contrast, many trainee solicitors are funded for the GDL by the firm they will go on to train with.

Gruder said: “Our intention – and it’s the intention of most top chambers – is to get the top people. We don’t want to put people off because they can’t afford to join the bar. It would be easy to put forward the fat cat argument, but we’re trying to make sure we get the best.”

Wilberforce Chambers senior clerk Danny Smillie agreed that upping ­pupillage payments was a way of attracting quality candidates, adding: “It used to be the case that the bar was always behind the law firms on salaries, then they caught up, and now they’re ahead.”

This bold stance from the bar comes as law firms in the regions have started ­cutting back the salaries paid to solicitors who have completed their training, following the lead set by City firms earlier in the year.

Hammonds is cutting its regional NQ salary by 15 per cent, from £40,000 to £34,000, while the ­payment made to NQs in Addleshaw Goddard’s Manchester and Leeds offices has dropped by 9 per cent, from £40,000 to £36,500. Leeds-based Walker Morris has cut NQ salaries by 5 per cent, from £40,000 to £38,000, while Bristol-based Burges Salmon’s salary has dropped by 7 per cent, from £43,000 to £40,000.

Head of personnel at Burges Salmon James Fountaine said: “The cuts are mainly down to the fact that we’ve put a freeze on salaries across the firm in response to the current ­economic climate.

“We had to think very hard about how much we cut our salaries by, because we still want to secure the top talent, and therefore have to have a high salary to reflect that.”

Hammonds HR manager Issy Freeman said the firm had reduced its NQ pay in response to external market conditions.

Earlier this year (21 May) reported that Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer was the first major firm to announce that it was reversing its associate salary bands, with NQ salaries dropping from £66,000 to £59,000.