New Zealand Law Society - Half of respondents to union survey say they are working for less than the minimum wage

Half of respondents to union survey say they are working for less than the minimum wage

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The Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union (ALWU) says junior lawyers at large law firms who aren’t being compensated for the long hours they do would be as well picking up shifts at McDonald’s or KFC instead of working overtime.

The union, which was formed earlier this year, has unveiled the results of its survey on pay and conditions for young and new legal professionals.

Among its findings is that 50% of respondents who were working at large law firms reported that they had, or believed they had, worked for an effective hourly wage of less than the minimum wage when their fortnightly salary was divided by the number of hours that they had worked.

That figure improved slightly to 42% when medium-sized and small firms were taken into account.

ALWU co-president Morgan Evans says the union had heard many stories of being paid relatively low wages in their first years of work prior to undertaking the survey.

“As a consequence, we were not surprised to see the salaries that were reported in the survey.  However, what was surprising was how uniform salaries at junior levels are across large firms despite legal workers at some firms working significantly more hours per week and being required to bill far more of those hours out to clients,” he says.

As for the finding that half of respondents at large law firms said they worked of overall an hourly rate below the minimum wage Mr Evans says even though legal workers’ base salaries are higher than the minimum wage, “the effective wage that they are paid for the time that they are actually working may not be.”

Alternative work may be required to push up earnings

“In fact, given the report’s finding that bonuses are either not available or very difficult to obtain at junior levels, many junior legal workers would be financially better off if they gave up working additional hours to beat their budgets and took on a few shifts at a fast food restaurant.”

Other findings of the survey of 212 young lawyers are:

  • Almost all respondents reported consistently working overtime. However, virtually no private-sector employers have a transparent and consistent method of providing time off in lieu or payment for overtime work.
  • Bonuses for junior legal workers are opaque, rare and of low value, especially when compared with the hours legal workers are required to work to get them.
  • Public sector legal workers reported being the most satisfied with their work-life balance, and were the most likely to recommend their employer to a friend.
  • Female respondents were both less likely to say they were satisfied with their work-life balance and to recommend their employer to a friend than male respondents.

On the last finding Mr Evans says gender issues are nuanced and there will be a range of factors that have driven female respondents to report that they are less likely to recommend their workplace to others and less satisfied with their work-life balance at that workplace than their male counterparts – at least where they are working in the private sector.

“One factor that ALWU has identified and highlighted is the relatively low numbers of women in leadership roles in large law firms,” he says.

“Given that women have made up the majority of law school graduates since before the turn of the century, it is hard to believe that men make up more than 70% of partners at most of New Zealand’s large law firms.  ALWU would like to see that change, and it believes that doing so will drive other positive changes for women in law firms.”

The ALWU hopes the findings will assist its drive to transform legal workplaces through advocacy and action.

“One of ALWU’s strengths is that it can gather information about issues that employers may not otherwise be aware of and bring them to their attention.  The report shows that the issues that ALWU has been discussing with employers to date are real and are affecting legal workers in a significant way, and it looks forward to tackling those issues alongside employers with renewed vigour following the report’s release,” he says.