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The good, bad, and discontented

Last week, after a three-hour long panel talk hosted by my university’s alumni group on young lawyers’ low compensation and opportunities in Pakistan, I took to Twitter and decided to type out my experience as a young lawyer. I wrote about my decision to no longer work at law firms.

What followed was at once surprising and tragic, hundreds of comments started pouring in from people working in the legal profession. Some left practice because they could not make ends meet. Others felt that privilege and a strong financial background provided a cushion to some who could wait it out with low salaries, till they eventually have the experience to make a living.

Much ink has been spilled on highlighting the disparity, and it is safe to say that a fresh graduate earns below minimum wage, and is sometimes compelled to work for free. A few law firms in Karachi and Lahore may pay their associates around Rs40k-50k, giving themselves a pat on the back for paying above the market.

The demand? Law firms should pay their associates a living wage.

Sympathizing with the ‘plight of young law graduates’, a senior lawyer laid out the perspective of employers and the dynamics of law firms in Pakistan. He provided explanations for the meagre salaries of fresh graduates on following grounds, which need to be closely reviewed:

The uselessness of a fresh law graduate: I will start with the punchline: “a fresh graduate is a net loss for a law firm.” The reason given is a young lawyer’s lack of expertise and “ability to save a senior counsel’s time.”

Let me outline what a young lawyer may add to a firm: they conduct research, go to courts for markings and adjournments, help seniors in compiling files for court, make notes during client meetings for the partners and senior associates to refer to and cross-check or proof-read documents. While young lawyers at certain firms may not do all these tasks, even doing some of these tasks constitutes labour that must be compensated accordingly. In my personal experience, with the right level of exposure and training, a competent associate can draft applications, rejoinders, legal opinions and entire plaints within a few months of practice.

It is a given that a fresh graduate in any field requires guidance, investment, and assistance to be of use to their managers and seniors. Many companies have structured training programs and paid internship periods to allow employees to adjust into the new job.

Greener pastures and retention: The second argument made is that young lawyers tend to leave. This is followed by the argument that senior lawyers invest their time and money on fresh graduates when there is a high probability that fresh graduates would leave the law firm to pursue higher education, in-house or independent practice.

Graduates in other professions also leave for foreign degrees and are open to other opportunities while working with their respective employers. The risk of the worker leaving is assumed by any entity looking to hire. Yet how is it that these very common and obvious preferences are used as arguments to severely under-compensate fresh law graduates? Intuitively, any individual who spends five years or three years to enter a field would not jump ship unless there is a system that disincentivises them. The low retention rate of law firms should be treated as a symptom of employer practices, not a cause for mistrust.

Female lawyers and societal pressures: The article insinuated that young female lawyers may leave law firms “after the first year” due to marriage and societal pressure.

Such statements are dismissive towards women in the legal profession, who already brave the unfriendly environments in courts and chambers. Instead, some self-reflection is required by employers on how marriage may deter young people, men and women, from coming back to law firm work because of the additional responsibilities that cannot be supported, or even alleviated, by the compensation and career progression in law firms. Such ‘observations’ set back a movement championed by women such as Asma Jehangir which has achieved great strides (an example being the recent elevations of two female Supreme Court justices).

Payment: The argument that law firms bill in lump-sum amounts as opposed to billable hours does not explain the pay disparity. Even if a partner at a large law firm takes up 2-3 new clients per month, they should be able to pay their associates a living wage. Having worked in both litigation and corporate law firms, I can confidently say that depending on the firm, there is a mixture of clients who pay in lump sum amounts, clients on a retainer basis and clients that are billed by the hour.

Additionally, it is stated that experienced lawyers are preferred. That is understandable, but this is usually a way for senior lawyers to placate their employees and justify low salaries and benefits in the meantime. As the article relies merely on anecdotal evidence, let me state that there are also stories to the contrary where lawyers with 3-4 years of experience are struggling to make ends meet.

Nepotism: Nepotism is also cited as a reason why hiring and firing is complicated in law firms, where it is difficult to say no when familial ties are involved.

It is no secret that networking and references are important for landing a job in any part of the world. However, an organization can only thrive if there are measures beyond ‘getting the foot through the door’ and a hiring policy consisting of testing and interviews are in place so that the minimum level of competency is achieved. This, of course, requires some effort from employers. A small example of such policies is the law clerkship programme at the Supreme Court, where aspirants fill out detailed application forms with legal propositions, gather references and are then invited to interview.

The way forward: In addition to increasing base salaries, a few suggestions are as follows: law firms could provide breakdowns of how the salary may be used, such as a transport allowance or a phone allowance. Employers can also implement a mechanism where associates can show receipts for expenses incurred on court days or on-site client meetings (such as transport and food) and then claim these amounts from the firm. These are just starting points and can be built upon further. But more importantly, a shift in mentality needs to happen. On a higher level, better regulatory controls on the profession, and an overhaul of the legal education system is required.

The chief justice of India, during a recent press conference summed up the shift that is required: “too long we regard the youngsters in our profession as slave workers, why? Because that’s how we grew up. We can’t now tell the young lawyers today that ‘that’s how we grew up.’”

We can continue to argue that no one is inherently good or bad, and that the market forces and demand-supply are to be blamed. But in all this crossfire, it’s the profession that ends up being ugly.

Aman Rehan, "The good, bad, and discontented," The News. 2023-09-28.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Supreme court , Nepotism , Employers , Pakistan