Swelling junior lawyer salaries ‘only a sticking plaster’, Sir Nigel Knowles warns
DWF chief calls on law firms to find better incentives to retain talent
Big law statesman Sir Nigel Knowles has cautioned against City law firms offering junior lawyers “huge” starter salaries and to instead find better ways of incentivising them or risk losing them to more “enlightened” industries.
In a letter to the Financial Times, DWF‘s chief executive said:
“Offering more and more money to young people is only a sticking plaster. It is not a sincere, sustainable or healthy solution for anyone. Failure to find better ways of incentivising people and building a healthier workplace environment means the British legal industry risks losing talent to more enlightened sectors.”
Continuing in the letter, published this morning, Sir Nigel shared the typical efforts of what he believes to be a more “progressive” firm. “Those tend to have leadership teams that champion diversity and inclusion, encourage a modern work-life balance, and are creating physical environments and culture that are much more meaningful than relying on huge, but ultimately one-dimensional, starter salaries and ad hoc payments,” he said.
“Bright young people have many exciting options these days. They could join a fintech, an ecommerce start-up, ESG consultancy, advertising agency or a charity. The legal industry must wake up to the realities of modern employees, workplaces and society at large.”
Sir Nigel previously served as chairman of DLA Piper, taking it from a small regional outfit in Sheffield to, via a series of bold mergers, one of the world’s biggest law firms. He left the firm after 38 years at the helm, joining DWF as chairman in 2017. Two years on, DWF became the largest law firm to list on the London Stock Exchange, and a year later, Sir Nigel took over as the group’s CEO.
His comments come amid a recent flurry of pay rises from magic circle and other UK law firms who face increasing pressure to keep pace with the mega-paying US ‘MoneyLaw’ firms in London. Goodwin Procter tops the newly qualified (NQ) lawyer pay league, our Firms Most List shows, offering £161,500 upon qualification. Magic circle firms Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Linklaters and Slaughter and May, meanwhile, pay NQs recently improved salaries of £107,500.
Sir Nigel isn’t the first legal figure to raise concerns over spiralling junior lawyer salaries. One of the country’s leading in-house lawyers said last month that junior lawyer pay is “out of control” and the profession must find new ways of attracting, retaining and rewarding talent otherwise “people will get hurt”.
Back in 2020 the managing partner of Fieldfisher, Michael Chissick, made headlines after he described how his “heart drops when I see newly qualified lawyers in US firms earning more than some of our partners”. He received support in the form of Pinsent Masons senior partner Richard Foley, who described the skyrocketing rates as “completely unsustainable”.
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Let’s make sure the industry sees actual, tangible improvements in culture and WLB before chatting BS like “cautioning against” pay rises and that “overpaid” NQs will “get hurt”.
These are bright trainees that are going in open-eyed to US / MC firms operating top of the market, and if they decide they don’t like it they can always leave for another firm (if indeed there are other firms with better WLB for respectable pay – something which is a bit of a unicorn these days). Fieldfisher or DWF would be seeing massive lateral volume if they are really walking the talk.
These guys love to plaster their bruised egos by acting wise and woke, but in reality if the pay increases end you’re going to end up with no movement on the culture and WLB front and rapidly decreasing per hour, post-tax income for young people who are trying to get on the housing ladder, build savings etc.