Is the minimum trainee salary furore a tempest in a teapot?

Anna Williams - Is the minimum trainee salary furore a tempest in a teapot?

Having decided to blog about last week's decision by the Solicitors Regulation Authority to scrap the minimum trainee salary, I've looked for a fresh angle on the subject. There are plenty of impassioned articles and blogs on the rights and wrongs of the decision, mostly highlighting concerns that legal training beyond the commercial law arena will become unaffordable to anyone but the rich. Some articles have reignited the debate about limiting law school places.

The minimum salary was introduced in 1982 by the Law Society, which had identified two issues: that the profession needed to attract high-quality graduates and new entrants should be protected from exploitative employers. Back in 1982, there was no national minimum wage, and the profession was full of solicitors who had actually paid their own (or their parents') money to be taken on as trainees (then called articled clerks). 'Articles' typically lasted two years, just as a full-time training contract does now.

I dug into the Law Society's archive of data to see if I could measure whether it had achieved the first of these goals. If the aim of attracting more high-calibre graduates was realised, then perhaps I was looking for a rise in the number of new solicitors admitted from 1984 onwards. Did that happen? 'Not immediately' is the simple answer. Some 2,704 individuals were admitted in 1984 (up almost 5% on the previous year, but then the number fell again in 1985 to 2,652. By way of comparison, in 2009-10, 8,480 new solicitors were admitted to the roll. What the old stats couldn't tell me of course was whether all those new solicitors were 'high-calibre'.

And what of 1986 onwards? Be aware that 1986 was the year of the Big Bang, which deregulated the financial markets and propelled the City of London to its pivotal role in international banking. By the late 1980s, there was a clear increase in demand for junior lawyers and articled clerks, particularly in the capital. Around that time, the number of articled clerkships located in Central London rose as a percentage of the national figure. I see this as further support for the argument that it is real-world demand that increases or decreases new professional opportunities, not minimum wage regulation or even modes of qualification. When - and where - there has been genuine demand for new trainees, salaries have risen accordingly. Similarly, whenever the profession has experienced the effects of recession, trainee salaries have stagnated, or even dipped slightly.

My encounter with those old Law Society stats did clarify something else. In 1982 35% of new solicitors were female. Within five years that figure had risen to 45%, and by 1989 the genders achieved momentary parity before the junior end of the profession became female dominated. The scales remain tipped in favour of women at the junior end. I doubt the minimum salary was responsible for this gender-based evolution, just as I doubt that its removal will directly cause a narrowing of access to the profession. Similarly, with work-based learning on the way, some solicitor hopefuls will have additional scope for clawing their way to qualification, but again, will it be a game changer?

Frankly, the profession has bigger fish to fry. In relation to consumer legal services, it's quite likely that new (larger) ABS employers will influence the salary market. Meanwhile, legal aid cuts will continue to squeeze firms out of this type of service provision, the zombie stagger of the Eurozone economies will continue to stifle demand in the commercial sector, and simpler legal tasks will continue to be outsourced to lower-cost locations and jurisdictions. In light of these issues, the minimum salary debate begins to look like a tempest in a teapot.

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