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The truth about lawyers' salaries

The attraction of high salaries may draw a lot of people to law, but the reality can be very different. Law salaries vary greatly depending on the type of work you do, which type of firm or organisation you work for, and where in the country you work.

You should do as much research as you can in the areas you are most interested in to get the most accurate information on what the salaries might be, and to make sure your expectations are realistic.

Be aware that the law evolves, and with this comes the risk that some areas of law become less widely applicable over time, less commercially viable, and therefore less profitable – meaning lower wages. The law is not immune to outside pressures and was affected just as badly by the 2008/09 recession as any other service industry.

Many law firms were forced to consolidate their operations, and in many cases had to make redundancies.

A City solicitor tells you everything about salaries…

“Don’t expect an easy ride: people see the big salaries, but that isn’t always the case, particularly as you make your way up the ladder. The glamorous image that people imagine after watching Suits, SilkLA Law or Ally McBeal just isn’t the case.

As you work your way through law, legislation is constantly changing, meaning that areas of the law that might have been lucrative in the past may no longer be. You never know the changes that may come along as the law changes.

For example, the Jackson Review on civil litigation costs was published in December 2009, with implications as to how cases be funded, especially “no win, no fee” arrangements.

Similarly, the introduction of licensed conveyancers has changed the property law/conveyancing market. You no longer have to pay qualified solicitors’ rates to get conveyancing work done, which has reduced the value of this kind of work.

Furthermore, when a recession hits, the legal market can be badly affected. I know of several firms where entire departments were made redundant. It’s getting better now, but you have to bear in mind that even full qualification is no guarantee of a job for life.”

Trainee solicitors' salaries

Until September 2011, the Law Society set a minimum salary for trainees. For trainees working in London this was £18,590, and for those working outside London it was £16,650. However, following a consultation on the minimum salary system, the Solicitors Regulation Authority announced in May 2012 that no minimum wage would be obligatory for trainees from August 2014 onwards.

The only obligation for employers would be to pay the national minimum wage. Many commercial firms pay their trainees at a competitive rate, though; some firms (inside and outside London) pay around £25,000, and some of the larger City firms pay in excess of £40,000.

Again, do your research. Many firms publish their trainee salaries on their websites, as part of their strategy to recruit the best applicants. If it is difficult to find out how much you are likely to be paid, then it is reasonable to ask a firm what the expected or current income ranges are.

You may not feel comfortable asking about earnings in an interview, but there should be an opportunity to ask human resources (HR) or another representative along the application process. This can be done either when making initial enquiries, or perhaps when following up on an application.

If a firm is reluctant to give you an indication of salaries in writing (including by email), then you may have more luck making a phone call and asking for a ‘ball park’ income estimate, on the understanding that this is just to help you get an idea of what to expect.

Paid to take a year out?

There was a lot of press activity in 2009 and 2010, when trainees at some larger firms were paid sums of around £10,000 just to defer their training contracts for a year. It’s as well to treat this as an unexpected upside to the recession at the time.

It was cheaper for these large firms to pay their (relatively numerous) trainees a sum that was much lower than their salaries would have been over the same time period than to take them on as trainees.

Since then, more drastic measures have been put in place by firms to reduce their trainee intakes. In some cases trainee recruitment has been frozen altogether, until the economy stabilises. This has had a big impact on the number of training places available.

The paid deferral phenomenon looks to have been a one-off – so if you’re successful in getting a training contract, make sure you snap it up. Don’t set your sights on getting paid to take a year out.

Qualified solicitors' salaries

A newly qualified solicitor in a regional firm or smaller commercial practice may expect to earn around £25,000 to £40,000. Starting salaries for newly qualified solicitors in larger commercial firms and those in the City will be from £58,000 to £65,000, with the larger City firms paying £80,000 or more.

Salaries at American firms based in the UK will be higher still: some trainees are paid £40,000 or more, while their starting salaries are reputedly as high as £100,000.

There is considerable variation in salary range for more senior or experienced solicitors. Senior lawyers in commercial firms who are not yet at partner level may earn between £60,000 and £90,000 or more, depending on expertise and area of work.

Partners may expect to earn salaries from £80,000 to £100,000 or more, with anything up to seven figures being possible, particularly at the larger City and American firms.

Pupil barristers' salaries

The minimum salary for pupil barristers is £12,000 for the year of their pupillage, although some barristers’ sets may pay a lot more than this, upwards of £50,000 for the year.

This does not look like a lot of money when the outlay on course fees alone – before you even set foot in chambers on the first day of your pupillage – is between £25,000 and £35,000.

Practising barristers' salaries

The salaries available to barristers range greatly according to the type of work, and level of experience. As a very rough guide, a barrister may expect to earn between £12,000 and £90,000 in the first year of qualification. For some criminal work, a junior barrister may earn as little as £50 per day.

As a barrister’s level of experience grows, so their clients and cases will increase in value: a barrister with five years’ experience may expect to earn a salary between £50,000 and £200,000, while wages for those with 10 or more years’ experience might range from around £65,000 to over £1 million.

Employed barristers will have their salaries determined by their employer according to market rates, with less variation than their self-employed counterparts.

Starting barrister salaries may be around the £25,000 mark, in line with other junior-level skilled professional roles, and may rise to more than £130,000, depending on experience and sector.

Extract adapted from Working in Law 2013 by Charlie Phillips.

Working in Law 2013 (published by Trotman) is the definitive guide to getting a career in law for both graduates and non-graduates, giving advice on what to consider before applying for legal training roles, as well as providing details on what the different professional associations offer, the sectors they specialise in and how to obtain a training position.

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