Three weeks on from the scrapping of the trainee minimum wage and the decision looks more ill-thought through than ever, argues Oxford University Bachelor of Civil Laws (BCL) student Richard Ridyard
The thousands of LPC graduates without a training contract have choked off the arteries of confidence in the legal graduate market. We find ourselves at a crossroads. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has made a bold step by abolishing the minimum wage for trainee solicitors. But now that the dust has settled and we have had a chance to reflect on that decision, was it the right one? Here, I argue that the four reasons Legal Cheek gave to explain why the SRA acted as it did are flawed.
1. No other professions have a minimum wage.
It is important to re-emphasise how unique the legal sector is. The enormous costs involved in the vocational stage prior to the training contract is drastically different to professions such as accountancy, which allows you to work while obtaining your qualification. Consequently, the comparative argument holds little weight.
2. The minimum wage isn’t the best way to foster diversity
The SRA raised doubts as to the minimum wage being the best way to foster socio-economic diversity, but this is surely undermined by their failure to take the opportunity, when abolishing the minimum wage, to announce a new diversity scheme. By not giving the term ‘grass roots projects’ any discernible meaning, yet more concerns are raised.
3. The minimum wage wouldn’t apply to the work-based learning set to be widely introduced by the SRA – and keeping it would lead to a two tier system
The work-based learning model was deemed successful in collaboration with Middlesex University, a non-Russell group institution. However, not only is this model susceptible to the same over-supply problem that the existing LPC route suffers from, but its viability for students could be compromised, over time, by law firms employing less solicitors and more paralegals.
This risk is compounded by the fact that the SRA has failed to cap the number of paralegals a given solicitor can supervise. Consequently, one of the presumptions behind the work-based learning model – that law firms will want paralegals to become solicitors – could be false.
4. Removing the minimum wage may enable recession-hit firms to offer more training contracts.
This point is arguably the most misleading and damaging. For any increase in the amount of training contracts available under this initiative will be artificial, with the over-supply problem postponed rather than solved by shifting the problem further up the bottle neck – moving from the training contract stage to the point of qualification.
By dropping the minimum wage, it appears that the SRA has shifted its efforts away from helping aspiring practitioners from low income families to instead protect over-optimistic educational consumers and self-interested course providers.
The position may not get any better as the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) promises to pioneer no new dogma. Not wanting to vie for the title of Dr. Doom, but we may find ourselves with a lost generation of talent in the profession if we continue to place obstacles in front of those from low income families. This is an event with long-lasting negative implications for an industry that cannot afford a blemish of this magnitude.
Additional reporting by Daniel Money