Concerns Over Aspiring Solicitors Being Exploited While Completing SQE

The Junior Lawyers Division (JLD), who represent students through to solicitors with five years Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), have expressed concern for up and coming solicitors being at risk of exploitation if they are not paid the minimum wage while they are undertaking the work experience section of the new SQE.

Following their worries, The Law Society’s JLD wrote a letter to the chief executive of Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), Paul Philip, to voice their opinions on the matter and ask that they reinstate a compulsory minimum salary for both trainee and aspiring solicitors completing the SQE.

While the SQE will not be introduced until 2021, the assessment criteria will consist of two parts; multiple choice questions and a practical legal skills test which will commence following a period of ‘on the job’ training.

JLD felt that in the current SQE arrangement, would-be solicitors could be taken advantage of when gaining work experience needed to pass the second element of the exam if they are not being given a wage.

In the letter to SRA’s chief executive JLD said

“The SRA should ensure that a mechanism is in place which means that aspiring solicitors gaining their ‘work experience’ under the SQE are not working for less than the National Living Wage … and that entry to the profession genuinely is open to all.”

Furthermore, JLD expressed additional concern following the decision made by the SRA to eradicate the minimum salary to replace it with the national minimum wage instead – with the letter saying it will inhibit the profession if firms can pay only £14,814 before tax.

Already previously mentioned by the JLD before, the letter also revisited their fears over stress in the workplace, by referencing the findings of the 2019 Resilience and Wellbeing Survey – where it was revealed more than 93% of respondents reported feeling stressed in their job leading up to completing the survey. Even more worrying, one in 15 junior lawyers reported that they had suicidal thoughts due to the extreme stress in work too.

The letter continues to state

“The findings make it clear that the legal profession as a whole needs to do more to support positive mental health and working environments, including regulators, representative bodies and those employing junior lawyers. This includes the SRA holding firms to account and taking all necessary action against firms and others who employ junior lawyers and solicitors that are fostering toxic work environments.”

With nearly 70% of solicitors suffering high levels of stress, according to the latest findings from the Bellwether Report 2019 titled ‘Stress in the Legal Profession: Problematic or Inevitable’, it certainly highlights that stress is an endemic issue in the legal profession.

However, a legal mental health charity, LawCare announced today, the first day of Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, running 13-19th May, that they will pilot a new webchat service from 1st July.

The charity, which offers emotional support to legal professionals and staff in the UK and Ireland through a free confidential helpline and peer support network, received their highest ever number of helpline calls in 2018.

Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare, said:

“We are very excited to be launching webchat in July. More and more people in the legal community are reaching out to us for support every year so it is vital we expand our support service. We also know that many young people are more likely to seek help online than pick up the phone. Our webchat service will allow anyone working in the legal profession to contact one of our trained team members online for emotional support on any issue that is troubling them.”

LawCare works to raise awareness of wellbeing issues across the legal community and tackles the stigma surrounding mental health. The charity also offers training and talks to legal organisations, and information, resources, and factsheets. The charity’s legal mental health webchat will be available from July 1 at www.lawcare.org.uk or www.lawcare.ie. The helpline is 0800 279 6888 in the UK and 1800 991 801 in Ireland.

A conveyancer role can be an extremely demanding position, often because of the fast-moving pace at which they need to work at, jumping from one client file to the next, often juggling many client files which can be at times very stressful – especially on Fridays as this is the busiest day of the week for conveyancers where most completions take place – so, is it time for the welfare of the legal profession to be supported?

As a conveyancer, what is your opinion of JLD’s comments on aspiring solicitors/young professionals being exploited? In regards to mental health, do you think more needs to be done to support up and coming solicitors and legal professionals as a whole?

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