Someone is having a laugh, newly qualified lawyers aren’t worth £142,000

Once, I was a trainee lawyer in the City. I left before qualifying but I’d gained an insight into the profession, knew how the firms were run, how they thought, what the career structure entailed.

Which is why, when I read that newly qualified lawyers are being paid £142,000 a year, I am shocked. That’s how much Kirkland & Ellis, the US firm, is now paying its newbies in London.

One senior partner has gone on the attack. “The levels of pay in major private practice law firms are completely unsustainable,” said Richard Foley, senior partner at Pinsent Masons, at the Innovative Lawyers Summit. “You see stuff in the press about £125k as a starting salary for an NQ [newly qualified lawyer]. If I was on the other side of the table, I would be thinking how much more value am I going to get from that person?”

There’s only one group paying so much in hourly fees for newly qualified lawyers to make a six-figure wage worthwhile, and that is the clients

Quite right, too. When I was training I took papers on a conveyancing matter to a client’s house to be signed; I frequently stayed up half the night proof reading documents; I’d spend hours photocopying; I was told to deliver a package by hand; I’d prepare bundles of evidence and compile files, I would sit in client meetings taking endless notes, none of which were ever read. All of this and much more was duly charged out. The point was, I was learning little that was of any genuine use – not anything that if I’d gone on to qualify would have warranted those fees.

From being a trainee to becoming “newly qualified” was but a relatively short step. Overnight my contemporaries who stayed the course did not acquire experience and practical knowledge. They too were novices.

The idea that anyone who has just qualified is worth so much money is madness. Apparently, there’s a bidding war going on for the most talented young City lawyers. That’s why such a sum is justifiable. It’s also said to be why rival firms are not that far behind. White & Case has upped the salaries of its NQs by £25,000 to £130,000; Dechert is paying them £120,000. The “Magic Circle” of Linklaters, Slaughter and May, Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Freshfields are nudging £100,000 for theirs.

It’s crazy. Competition for future stars is not new, it’s always been thus. Sure, the US names are trying to make inroads but they’ve also being doing that for years – it’s not a recent development.

If they really were serious, if there really was a desperate shortage and the firms were anxious to shore up their long-term prospects, then they would dip into their own pockets to make that happen. Or at least they should.

I suspect that’s not how it works, though. There’s only one group paying so much in hourly fees for newly qualified lawyers to make a six-figure wage worthwhile, and that is the clients. The firms are offering remuneration on this scale because they can, because they know the clients will pay.

But these are people who by and large have worked their socks off to get a good law degree or to do well in a law conversion course. While completing their qualifying with the firms they’ve been little more than dogsbodies, putting in long hours doing mind-numbing, thankless tasks. Are they able to bring creativity and nous and lateral thinking to an issue, can they draw on something they did previously and apply it here? Can they heck.

These people, don’t forget, are NQs, they’re not partners with 10 or so years under their belts. Consider, too, that the newly qualified associates are unlikely to be leading a substantial brief themselves – they will be part of a team. Above them may be a more senior associate and a partner, perhaps two.

It will be explained to the client the breakdown of the various rates, the time incurred, and the services undertaken. All of it leads to a lump sum. It will be accompanied, too, by the assertion, sometimes implicit, other times explicit, that “by using us you’re receiving the best advice possible”.

They will claim that the client is getting superb advice, that the rates they charge represent excellent value. The same argument is made time and again across the City, not only in law – “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”.

There’s no way of checking that claim – unless something goes wrong and a complaint for negligence ensues. It’s just made repeatedly over and over, so that it’s accepted wisdom.

The fact that much of the practice of law is about form and process and legislation and learning by rote, and is available in precedents and legal textbooks, is never mentioned. Neither is the reality that if an issue is complex and may require expert understanding and counsel, the sort of input that may yield value in other words, the solicitor will rush to a barrister at the drop of a hat – that is what the latter is for.

Someone is having a laugh here. If I was a client I would be wiping the smiles off their faces, saying “enough”, and going elsewhere.  


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