There are a few responses to all those young graduate lawyers complaining about hard work, long hours and low pay.
The first is: “Welcome to the real world.”
If they don’t like being a lawyer they could try running a small business.
Small business owners regularly report working 60 or 70 hours a week. Even if young lawyers think they should be earning more for their time, at least they’re still getting paid.
If you’re starting a small business there’s every likelihood you’re not paying yourself, and if you fail all you’ve got left are loans that must be paid back somehow.
Another response to unhappy law graduates is: “No one is forcing you to be a lawyer.”
In this newspaper on Tuesday it was reported that a young lawyer responded to a survey from the Law Society of South Australia by saying he made more money from bar-tending than from his first legal job, at which he worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week for a salary of $600 a week.
Such a claim might be true.
But there’s also a chance that for a young person fresh from tertiary education – where they’ve grown accustomed to spending half the year on holidays, and when they’re actually at university, studying and attending lectures for four or five hours a day – working in an office in a full-time job under anything other than the idyllic conditions of undergraduate life might seem onerous.
That could lead to the evils of their condition being somewhat exaggerated.
Inevitably, there have been calls for the government to regulate the pay and conditions of young lawyers, because the long hours effectively mean they are being paid the equivalent of less than the minimum wage mandated by law.
However, one of the hallmarks of a ‘profession’ is the ability of members of that profession to regulate themselves in matters such as the terms of employment, the conditions of entry into the profession, and disciplinary processes.
Ultimately, it must be up to law firms themselves to decide what is and isn’t an appropriate workload for their staff. Furthermore, it should never be forgotten that firms have a responsibility not only to their employees, but also to their clients.
During the Hayne royal commission, there were numerous stories of the ridiculous and unreasonable hours being worked by lawyers at firms representing the banks. Many complaints were levelled at the firms, when in fact a more appropriate target of those criticisms would have been the commission for initiating demands for documents and evidence according to timelines that in many cases were completely unreasonable. If a royal commission wants all the documents relating to a particular transaction to be delivered to it within 24 or 48 hours, no bank or law firm representing that bank can say they can’t comply because their staff have gone home to sleep.
Not all of the grievances of young lawyers are unfounded. Low pay as a graduate employee comes with the territory and applies in many other kinds of employment, not just the law. The same applies to working long hours. But there is a point where the expectations that young lawyers might have about work hours turn into demands that are manifestly unreasonable. Where that line is will vary according to circumstances and it is a line impossible to legislate for. Which is why the government should not and cannot enforce a hard-and-fast rule on working hours for lawyers.
The more the government regulates an area of employment, the more it becomes an industry and the less it is a profession. Unfortunately, that’s why school teaching ceased to be a profession many years ago.
More government regulation of young lawyers’ employment is certainly an option – but it’s the wrong option.
If the fees that top-tier firms charge their clients increase, as a result not only of higher wages but also from the costs of complying with new regulations, then the costs will inevitably flow through to mid-tier firms and eventually suburban practices. The end result will be that for normal people, legal advice will become even more unaffordable.