We demand action: why people are worried about the law industry

We take a look at the serious concerns being raised by the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division, looking at where the legal industry needs to reassess or improve: from training contracts to health and wellbeing.

  • Last updated Jun 11, 2019 3:11:52 PM
  • Emma Finamore
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Law industry insiders are voicing concerns about the challenges facing young people entering the legal profession, ranging from worrying mental health issues to the deregulation of training contracts. 

James Kitching, corporate solicitor at Womble Bond Dickinson—who also sits on the executive committee of the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society of England and Wales—wrote an open letter to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in April. The SRA is the regulator of solicitors and law firms in England and Wales, regulating more than 180,000 solicitors. 

Its purpose is to protect the public by ensuring that solicitors meet high standards, and by acting when risks are identified—which is exactly why James and the Law Society reached out to them. Here are the main points he raised. 

Deregulating training contracts 

In winter 2016/17, the SRA announced it was going ahead with its plan for the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)—over the next decade the entire process by which people qualify as solicitors will change. The GDL and LPC will disappear and—for some—so will the training contract as we know it. The new system is coming into force soon: the SQE will start from 2021. 

First of all, the Law Society’s open letter flagged up issues around the deregulation of training contracts, quoting the SRA’s own words about it earlier this year: “We no longer regulate training contracts directly, by directing or enforcing the terms of the contract, or approve training principals. But we do authorise firms as training providers and can take action if they fall below standards in that respect, as well as the standards in our code of conduct.’

In the Law Society’s eyes, action needs to be taken before issues arise, to prevent unhealthy working cultures and training environments developing in the first place, rather than trying to resolve them after the fact. 

As James says himself in his letter: “We urge the SRA to reconsider its decision to no longer regulate training contracts and training principals. We are particularly concerned that with the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) coming into force, no action will be taken by the SRA in this respect. We therefore take this opportunity to urge the SRA to consider how it will regulate the work experience element of the SQE.

“We must stress, and again bring to the SRA’s attention, that if no action is taken to regulate the work experience element of the SQE then junior lawyers will be exploited in unhealthy cultures, work and training environments, and inadequate training will be provided.” 

The SRA thinks allowing this to happen will lead to solicitors qualifying via work experience that falls below the standard that should be expected of the profession. This could be detrimental to users of legal services—which arguably makes it an ethical question—and be damaging the reputation of the legal profession. There may also be ethical issues that impact junior lawyers as a result of such failures. 

Concerns around junior lawyers’ wellbeing

The Junior Lawyers Division has just published its third resilience and wellbeing survey, receiving over 1,800 responses and some concerning results. It shows over 93% of junior lawyers felt stressed in their role in the month before completing the survey, with almost a quarter of those individuals being severely/extremely stressed as a result of their work. 

The key findings of the survey are: 

• The main stress factors for junior lawyers are high workload, client demands/expectations, lack of support and ineffective management. 

• Over 77% of respondents said that their firm could do more to support the levels of stress they were experiencing at work. 

• One in 15 junior lawyers (6.4%) experienced suicidal thoughts as a result of stress at work, in the month leading up to taking the survey.

• The number of junior lawyers experiencing mental ill-health has increased significantly from the previous year, with nearly half (48%) experiencing mental ill-health in the month leading up to the survey. 

As James said on a recent Law Society blog, the results make for “grim reading”. In his open letter he welcomed the fact that the SRA has launched a ‘Your Health, Your Career’ campaign, to assist solicitors facing difficulties and that it is working closely with a wide range of organisations. But the latest findings from the resilience and wellbeing survey make it clear that the legal profession as a whole needs to do more to support positive mental health and working environments, including regulators, representative bodies and those employing junior lawyers. 

“This includes the SRA holding firms to account and taking all necessary action against firms and others who employ junior lawyers and solicitors that are fostering toxic work environments,” James explains in his letter. 

In his recent blog, James also highlighted how technology can increase pressure on young people in the law industry. 

“We as individuals and our firms need to find a way to get a balance between finding the right tech to support our work and finding a way to switch off from it,” he said. “We need to be able to live a life away from the office, which will hopefully allow us to enjoy the job we do. After all, isn’t that why we went into law in the first place?” 

Minimum salary for trainee solicitors

The open letter also raised concerns about the SRA’s decision to remove the requirement for a mandatory minimum salary for trainee solicitors, in August 2014.

They say this has an especially negative impact on social mobility, equality and diversity in the profession, by making it harder for young people from less affluent backgrounds to follow that career path. James points out that rectifying this is a legal obligation as well as an ethical one: “Under the Legal Service’s Act 2017, section 1(1) (f), the SRA has an obligation in ‘encouraging an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession’ and the removal of the minimum salary, in our opinion, is contrary to this statutory obligation.” 

He points out that a survey on this matter showed that people are strongly in favour of the introduction of a recommended minimum salary, and that of those agreeing this, 88% of individuals and 26 out of the 33 (79%) responding law firms agreed this should be based on the Living Wage plus an adjustment for an average yearly LPC repayment.

In November 2015, the Law Society announced that it would recommend, as a matter of good practice, that providers of training contracts should pay their trainees a minimum salary of £20,276 in London and £18,183 outside of London. This figure is reviewed annually in November and most recently the recommended minimum salary was increased to £22,121 in London and £19,619 outside of London (with effect from May 1, 2019). 

Next steps 

At the end of his letter, James summarises the concerns and requests raised: that the SRA should review its position on both the move to deregulate training contracts and training principals, and the removal of the mandatory minimum salary for trainee solicitors. He also urges that the SRA develop safeguards to protect junior lawyers undertaking work experience, and asks requests confirmation on how it intends to ensure that aspiring solicitors are not exploited.

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