Keeping up with the Joneses: Staggering NQ salaries

But are they proportionate to how much partners take home, and are they worth it, wonders Pippa Allsop...

A few months ago, Magic Circle firms announced salary increases for their trainees and newly qualified (NQ) lawyers. With first years at some of these firms now receiving an average of around £40,000 per annum, and NQs earning anything between £65,000 and £70,000 per annum, it is hardly surprising that some people are questioning the appropriateness of the already astronomical salaries these ‘newbies’ receive.

I was left wondering whether the critical reaction to this salary hike is a fair or disproportionate one. The question for me is: what is the trade-off for such a high salary at such a young age? I cannot deny that, when looking at the figures for the first time, it is almost impossible not to have the initial reaction of acute, gut-wrenching jealousy. Then, I immediately remember the reality of this compromise: when I know that I can use lunchbreaks to go and run (okay, walk) in the countryside in the 'sunshine', when I can cycle to work through the woods along the river, and when any day that ends past 10pm is an incredibly late finish (which more often than not are few and far between), I find it easier to remember why, aside from lack of ability, I never aspired to trade all of this for a massive wedge of cash and a 1,900 hour target.

Of course, firms are not just focusing on their junior employees. When seen in the context of some Magic Circle equity partners’ drawings of circa £1.5m per year, there is surely an argument to be made that trainees and junior solicitors (often those who shoulder the ‘grunt’ work at all hours in a desperate bid to impress) should be justly rewarded and brought comparatively into line with those higher up the chain.

Nevertheless, it isn’t just these Magic Circle and US/London firms who are raising their juniors’ salaries – there has also been an increase from ‘Silver Circle’ firms, too. This is fairly unsurprising, as the changes are bound to trigger similar revisions at all levels in the industry.

The competition element, also, is a huge contributor to the recent raises. A large part must be attributable to the showboating that goes on between all law firms. If a firm does not adjust salaries in line with its competitors, then not only are they putting themselves in danger of not attracting and keeping the best talent that is available, they may also risk making an indirect comment about their solicitors’ calibre – or worse, their capability as a whole.

For me, however, cliché as it may sound, it is absolutely imperative to look beyond salaries to understand whether a firm really values its employees, at whatever level the firm (or the employee) might be. Of course, this is not to say that significant pay disparities are justified or that they don’t reflect a firm’s attitude regarding how much they value their people, in particular their junior lawyers versus other employees. However, there are more important elements which should be evaluated in deciding ‘who is best’, and I refuse to believe that factors such as loyalty, workforce cohesion, and job satisfaction can be determined by simply looking at how much firms pay per year.

 This article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 23 June 2015 and is reproduced by kind permission of Solicitors Journal.