A recent article in the Financial Review published on 21 January 2020 suggested that top tier law firms are reviewing more graduates’ hours and workloads due to potential underpayments (David Marin Guzman & Hannah Wootton, published on 21 Jan 2020, Financial Review).¹ Further, it has been reported that the Law Council are reviewing whether coverage of the Legal Services Award 2010, should extend beyond Law Graduates. This is a welcome development.
Most people will agree that recently admitted Lawyers should not be excluded from receiving fair and reasonable working conditions merely because they work in the field of law. Further, coverage of the Legal Services Award should reasonably extend to admitted lawyers with at least a few years’ experience, in recognition of the many hours they usually dedicate to their work, especially during litigation where it is not uncommon for law graduates and junior lawyers to work beyond the normal 7.6 hours in a day on a matter.
It is irrelevant whether or not the law firm is able to track hours worked of the graduate or junior solicitor and it ought be incumbent on all legal practices to monitor not only the workload of junior staff but also their compliance with the Award.
The Legal Services Award 2010 presently does not cover nor applies to admitted lawyers and so the industry has left the setting of pay rates and conditions of junior lawyers to individual or enterprise bargaining. At least in my experience, at a time when junior lawyers are keen to progress their careers and in circumstances where they are keen to establish client relationships and collegial relationships within their firm (on top of doing their best for clients), it might be further from their minds that they may well be underpaid or not paid enough. However, both graduates and junior lawyers ought not be excluded from the value they put into their work. This is not to say that any of the firms mentioned in the article are guilty of underpaying staff, or not paying staff appropriately, however it is a timely reminder that professional service entities (not just law firms) should monitor the work hours of their staff who dedicate significant hours to achieve results for their clients. A proper valuation or assessment of time spent against remuneration paid may reveal that significant adjustments need to be made to their rate of pay.
Extending coverage of the Legal Services Award 2010 to junior lawyers achieves a number of important safeguards. Firstly, legal firms have a benchmark within which to work from when setting remuneration rates. Secondly, junior lawyers have some safeguards in place which would ensure that they are paid for ordinary and overtime hours, even if they are paid “an annualised salary” (see clause 30 of the Award). Market rates can always be negotiated between junior lawyers and firms above the minimum Award rates if the parties desire. Thirdly, and not less significantly, any breaches of the Award have serious consequences to an employer and any knowingly involved accessory or individual, thus ensuring compliance.
It is good practice all around to ensure staff are remunerated reasonably and fairly, that attractive rates are paid to hire and retain talented staff and their workloads monitored as part of an employer’s duties under the OHS legislation. So it may not be a major leap for coverage of the Legal Services Award 2010 to be extended to junior solicitors as a starting point.
¹ Lawyer Pay faces regulation as scandal spreads to Allens, Minters dated 21 January 2020, authored by David Marin Guzman & Hannah Wootton, published on 21 Jan 2020.