Sasha Borissenko: Some legal workers effectively on sub-minimum wage

A new report reveals a world of low pay and elusive bonuses for legal workers – and junior lawyers are often in a similar position, even if some progress has been made at big firms recently.

The Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union recently held its third annual general meeting.

The union advocates for 1100 members. It’s got a law subcommittee, and a pro bono panel that provides free advocacy for its members.

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In the co-presidents’ address, Bridget Sinclair and Indiana Shewan said Covid-19 has led to redundancies, and a reduction in salaries for some of its members, without necessarily a corresponding reduction in their hours of work.

On a positive note, some firms have provided one-off payments to acknowledge the extra financial support required in lockdown; care packages, daily check-ins, and hosting virtual drinks or events; additional annual leave and flexibility provided for staff; and reimbursements for power and internet, and home office equipment.

“We have come a long way in the period between the two major lockdowns,” Sinclair and Shewan said.

“In the first, employees were asked to absorb the uncertainty of the pandemic. We saw some of Aotearoa’s largest law firms receive the wage subsidy and employees asked to take pay cuts.

“Now, we see firms properly supporting their legal workers and getting creative with different ways to support and check-in. This is heartening progress,”

An Employment Information Survey of 245 legal workers identified a disconnect between the profession members wanted to be a part of, and its reality, the union leaders said.

The report found 15 per cent of respondents working at large firms had worked for less than the minimum wage when their fortnightly salary was divided by the number of hours worked.

Bonuses for junior legal workers were opaque, rare, of low value, and at the partner or manager’s discretion.

For example, while 56 per cent of respondents working in the private sector could be eligible for a bonus, only 19 per cent received one.

Only 20 per cent of respondents knew of a formal overtime policy, and only 6 per cent received an overtime payment of some kind.

Just 25 per cent of respondents reported that their employer had a formal time off in lieu policy.

And while public sector legal workers reported being the most satisfied with their work-life balance, overall, more than 75 per cent of respondents said their mental health had suffered as a result of their work.

Following the report, between June and August 2021, the country’s largest firms – Chapman Tripp, Bell Gully, Russell McVeagh, MinterEllisonRuddWatts, Buddle Findlay, Dentons Kensington Swan, Simpson Grierson, DLA Piper, Duncan Cotterill, and Meredith Connell – increased junior lawyers’ salaries by an average of 15 per cent. Chapman Tripp was the first to do so.

“Junior lawyers’ salaries over the last 20 years have remained largely flat compared to inflation, despite substantially increased profits and productivity over this time,” Sinclair and Shewan said.

The process of making this change was a thing of beauty, in my humble view.

The union wrote to the firms who hadn’t increased their payments in line with other firms to inform them of the increase.

Large firms followed suit, and increased salaries in a matter of weeks.

This has yet to happen in small or medium-sized firms, however.

“This demonstrated two things. One, the market is fixed to an extent that when one firm shifts, the others follow quickly and without question. Two, law firms are capable of being very agile and responsive.”

According to a further study on support staff, a third of respondents found they weren’t fairly compensated for the work completed.

One in four reported experiences of bullying, 6 per cent experienced racism, 12 per cent experienced sexism, and more than half of the respondents weren’t given opportunities for promotion and career development.

One in five people were asked to take a pay cut as a result of Covid-19.

“The key message [the union] hopes its members take away from its report is that support staff are incredibly important in a law firm. This conflicts with some support staff members’ experience that they are not valued compared to lawyers.”

New leadership

As Indiana Shewan, Bridget Sinclair and the rest of the union executive bid farewell, it’s now time to welcome the new executive:

After frolicking overseas, founding member and Chapman Tripp alumna Tess Upperton has come back to take up the role of co-president, alongside NZEI union organiser and campaigner Isabella Lenihan-Ikin. Ministry for Primary Industries solicitor Jaini Patel will be the next secretary, and Otago University law student Charlie Robinson is the student representative.

The general executive is now made up of Katherine Nordmeyer, Tanuvi Garimella, Anna Ou, Julia Marshall-Mead, Josephine McNaught, Kalyani Dixit, and Cornelius Botha. Godspeed!

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