The average legal staffer is effectively working a day a week for free.
That’s according to the Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union, which has released its annual report on pay and working conditions.
The union surveyed 307 people over December and January. 83 per cent worked as lawyers, with 76 per cent of those working in private law firms.
It found 78 per cent worked beyond their contracted hours, without compensation.
Paid overtime was provided for in just 5 per cent of respondents’ employment contracts.
Just 38 per cent of respondents worked for firms that provided time off in lieu, which was generally afforded on an ad-hoc discretionary basis, or after a specific threshold.
Those effectively working for less than the minimum wage - by dint of their number of hours - increased by 50 per cent in 2022, with 11 per cent of respondents effectively working for less than the legal minimum.
Median salaries for junior lawyers either fell or adjusted to inflation. Employers for almost half of the respondents took no action in response to rising inflation and the cost-of-living crisis.
“This data supports anecdotal evidence ALWU has received of firms seeking to increase profitability without increasing staffing by increasing utilisation rates,” the report read.
“A possible explanation for this trend is that the practice of working from home, which became more common during the pandemic, has made more private time available for work and increased the amount of unpaid overtime worked by legal workers.”
The result: “Among legal workers, those working in private firms [were] least satisfied with their pay and job overall,” the report said.
I approached Bell Gully, Buddle Findlay, Chapman Tripp, Dentons Kensington Swan, Duncan Cotterill, Meredith Connell, Russell McVeagh, and Simpson Greirson for their views. Here are those that responded:
The firm’s policies include time off in lieu “for working beyond expectations for sustained periods, active management of workflows, and monitoring of leave-taking,” said human resources director Louise Alexander.
“Work levels are monitored and reported on monthly, and there are robust mechanisms to ensure we meet all our legal obligations, including around minimum wages. Where needed, we address pressures by bringing in additional staff to assist.”
Various initiatives, surveys and feedback mechanisms provided for the firm’s focus on mental health and wellbeing.
Engagement surveys placed the firm ahead of industry benchmarks for professional services at home and beyond, people and culture director Lucy Ryan said.
The Living Wage-accredited firm had mechanisms in place to monitor all hours worked. While overtime was not paid for every single hour above the industry standard of 37.5 hours per week, additional time was acknowledged via time off in lieu, flexible working conditions and vouchers.
Dentons Kensington Swan
Bless Dentons Kensington Swan for directly responding to my questions. Partner and chair Hayden Wilson said overtime was provided for in employment contracts.
Any pre-approved hours worked above 40 hours a week would be paid in time off in lieu or cash, sometimes. Lieu time was the default, to provide staff with time off to rest, following a busy work period. There was also a meal and travel allowance policy.
On the issue of inflation, Dentons increased base salaries in addition to the firm’s remuneration review for all permanent and fixed term employees by 7.5 per cent. In the 2022/2023 period, on average summer clerks earned a 17 per cent increase, graduates earned a 10 per cent increase, and solicitors earned a 9 per cent increase.
Discretionary bonuses ranged from 3-15 per cent of the total base salary paid during the financial year. To qualify, staff must have achieved at least 105 per cent of their billable hours for the year.
While the firm was not living wage-accredited, the firm introduced a mandate in 2016 to pay at or above the living wage.
Engagement surveys, tri-monthly development discussions, a $500 wellness allowance, discounted medical insurance and gym memberships, volunteer leave, flexible and remote working, and additional Covid-19 leave were some of the initiatives to support wellbeing and job satisfaction.
“The wellbeing of our people is a key focus and we are proactively managing the hours being worked and workloads,” chief executive Jo Avenell said
Those who needed to work extended hours to meet client needs were offered time off in lieu.
Lawyers were expected to record all of their hours and overtime would be compensated via lieu time.
On top of free counselling, the firm’s May staff engagement survey garnered high participation rates, with people reporting high levels of engagement and inclusion, Avenell said.
Salaries were reviewed annually, and an additional 7.5 per cent salary increase was “given to employees last year to thank them”.
Like Dentons, the firm had a bonus scheme depending on performance and financial contribution.
“We can confirm we pay the living wage to all our employees and monitor minimum wage compliance. We have recent confirmation all our core suppliers are paying Living Wage and we are progressing accreditation.”
Overtime was paid to part-time workers, a Simpson Grierson spokesperson said,
While there was no formal overtime policy for full-time employees, hours were actively monitored.
In the event of overworked hours, staff could qualify for time off in lieu, recovery days, and financial compensation.
While the firm was not accredited, the spokesperson said all staff were paid a living wage.
there were workshops, seminars, mentoring, and a generous sick leave offering were initiatives to improve mental health and wellbeing.
“Our regular engagement surveys get very high response rates from our people, providing us with good information on job satisfaction and anything in the workplace that we need to address,” the spokesperson said.
As you can see, there are very stark differences between the firms’ take on working conditions and those doing the work.
Positive working conditions almost seem incompatible with the business model in my view.
Efforts to change the status quo are all well and good until you realise the bottom line means profit and clients will always come first.