You get what you pay for: the SRA and the minimum salary

This week, it appears, I am regulator bashing. It’s not much of a sport as it’s so easy to do, but hey, we all have to get our kicks somewhere. Yesterday I was rather disparaging about the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) website for consumers. Today I am taking them to task over their ‘consultation’ on whether to scrap the minimum salary for trainee solicitors.

Unlike consumer websites, the training of solicitors and their remuneration is not really my area of expertise, but I was struck by the SRA’s proposal and the report it has produced on the potential impact.  I’m no economist or business analyst, but it seems to me to be a leap faith to assume that doing away with the minimum salary will encourage more firms to offer training contracts.

In fact, their research, only showed that 70 per cent of firms that don’t currently offer training contracts would ‘consider’ doing so if the minimum was abolished.  I expect some of them would, but almost certainly not all.  For a start, I am quite sure there are other issues firms take into account when deciding whether to take on trainees or not.

The SRA research also found that around half of trainees and students said they would be unable to train as a solicitor without this minimum, which is also a pretty unreliable indicator as to how people would really behave if it really happened.  But I take the view that it is a bit of a no brainer that students from poorer backgrounds are less likely to enter the profession if there is no realistic chance of getting at least a half decent wage to try and pay off their tuition fees.

The report suggests this was no more likely to be the view of those from groups  generally regarded as more at risk of disadvantage from abolition .  I am afraid I find it difficult to be reassured by this. At a time when there are continuing warnings about the lack of social mobility within the profession, it does come across as rather cavalier to imply that removing the minimum salary is unlikely to have a negative impact.

It is also somewhat premature even to make such a proposal when there is a root and branch review of legal education still going on.  I have zero ability to comment on the review itself,  but would consider that much of its work must ultimately be about diversity and access.

The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) has found, for example, that training partners at City firms will mainly recruit from ‘top universities’.  I’ll let you work out for yourself which those are, but it does mean there are hundreds of law students in other universities who haven’t a cat in hell’s chance of getting into the career they aspire to.

Just 7 per cent of the UK population is educated in fee-paying schools, but more than half of partners at magic circle firms graduated from one.  At the Bar, the figure rises to a shocking 68 per cent, with an even more shocking 80 per cent of barristers coming from just two universities (yes, you know which they are).

Aside from the depressing picture this paints of social mobility in Britain generally and the legal profession in particular, it does nothing to ensure our justice system represents and understands the society it serves.  I don’t think that’s acceptable whether we are talking about city firms, barristers, high street practices or legal aid firms.

It is staggering that the SRA can be so blasé about the impact their proposal will have on female, black or minority ethnic trainees or those educated in state schools, who are more likely to work in the small firms currently paying at or near the minimum.  It is rare for me to agree with the Law Society on anything, but on this they are bang on when they say scrapping it will create an image that will ‘neither benefit the profession nor promote social mobility within it’.

I do hope someone at the SRA has thought to look at the LETR ​discussion paper published at the end of April, which, while recognising the progress in increasing diversity in the legal profession, expresses concern that it still embodies a system 'where early social and educational inequalities have a long reach forward [and that] actually rewards the most socially advantaged’.

No-one expects the legal profession to put right all the wrongs inherent in our education system, which is where the real social entrenchment takes place.  But it is their responsibility to promote a diverse profession, which means taking trainees from a range of backgrounds and paying them a decent salary.

And while it is not the profession’s fault that there are far more law graduates around than there will ever be training contracts, I fail to see how encouraging more training contracts than there are jobs is going to help anyone.  That just shifts the bottleneck and transfers the responsibility for misleading students from legal educators to the legal profession.

Far be it for me to second guess which side the SRA will fall when it comes to making a decision about the minimum salary, but in my experience, once there is a public consultation on something, the die is cast.  I’d also be highly suspicious of a process where questions are asked on the impact assessment after the substantive consultation has closed.  But that’s just me.

The minimum salary trainee solicitors get is not huge: I got paid about the same in my first proper job after university over 15 years ago and in all honesty I wasn’t doing anything half as difficult or important as legal work (now of course, what I do is very difficult and important).  The legal profession has made painfully slow progress on diversity, but it is at least going in the right direction.  Do we really want all our lawyers to all be arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk?

Posted in: Employment law

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