Salary wars should not mean junior lawyers accept exploitation | Opinion

Linda D. Garrow

An acquaintance told me last week that their friend working as a junior lawyer in a City firm routinely starts work at 9am and finishes at gone midnight. The average clocking off time for juniors leaving the office was, apparently, 11.45pm. Thank goodness for the night bus, I guess.

Not that those in such positions are not handsomely rewarded. The slightly undignified bunfight between firms desperate to attract talent has taken newly-qualified salaries soaring past £100,000 a year.

The question is: what is demanded of these young people in return for such sums? Is their wellbeing placed at the top (or even near the top) of the firm’s priorities? Are staff encouraged to take breaks and not to work into the small hours? Are junior lawyers assured that they can own up to mistakes and not necessarily cost themselves the kind of salary most of their peers could only dream of?

The SRA should be asking these questions of every firm which has joined the salary wars – and prepared to clamp down on those who don’t have the answers.

This week’s new guidance on the workplace environment suggests it might. The regulator issued a welcome clarification of what it expects of firms and how they can ensure staff wellbeing.

Too often in the past the SRA seems to have gone after the symptom of toxic workplaces rather than the cause – prosecuting the low-hanging fruit of the defenceless (sometimes literally) junior and ignoring the work surroundings which preceded their misconduct.

Now the regulator states that it will take action against a firm where there is evidence of ‘wholly unreasonable workloads or targets’. There is no definition for what constitutes ‘wholly unreasonable’, but we can safely assume that where a junior is reduced to tears in the office or getting by on just a few hours’ sleep, these would fall under that banner.

Firms must also show they have effective systems and controls to supervise or support staff and prevent serious incompetence or performance issues. Senior partners knowingly ignoring junior lawyers’ struggles will not, it would appear, be tolerated and could land them in trouble with the regulator.

Whether the SRA has the resources or inclination to back up these pledges remains to be seen. The biggest firms have the deepest pockets and would easily outmuscle the regulator if they choose to pick a fight.

Many firms – hopefully the majority – paying huge salaries to newly-qualified solicitors will not expect them to sacrifice their mental health and wellbeing. This is not to say that six-figure wages automatically mean recipients are treated unfairly.

But equally it is easy to imagine some firms – and even the junior lawyers themselves – accepting that unreasonable workloads is a quid pro quo for the huge salaries on offer. We should welcome the SRA’s attempt to stop this crossing the line into exploitation.

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