Overworked & underpaid

BEHIND the polished façade of `wellcompensated` young lawyers lies a troubling reality. Within the legal fraternity, associates receive minimal compensation despite being subjected to gruelling hours and a challenging work environment. This concealed reality, often obscured by the prestige of the profession, begs scrutiny and reflection.

Fresh law graduates, encouraged to apply for positions at law firms, often receive meagre salaries ranging from approximately Rs15,000 to Rs30,000. The prevalent minimum wage in most provinces and Islamabad is, in fact, higher than the aforementioned remuneration range, which is ironic for a profession tasked with upholding the law of the land.

Moreover, there are distressing instances of certain practices where unlicensed lawyers are not remunerated, despite their valuable contributions.

This exploitative practice has been aided by the oversaturation of the legal market. The root cause of the excessive supply of lawyers can be traced to the subpar bar exam standards and lenient evaluation in interviews, essentially allowing anyone to enter the legal profession with ease. The surplus of lawyers often leads to employers taking advantage of the situation and paying less to their subordinates.

The Lums Law Alumni Association (LLAA) held a thought-provoking session titled, `Law Firm Economics in Pakistan: What Are You Worth?` on Sept 14, 2023, featuring a panel of renowned lawyers.

The session aimed to address the pervasive issue of junior lawyers being underpaid by most law firms operating in Pakistan.

Many employers frequently question the value brought by associates to their firms. This prompts a significant point, also discussed during the session: the comparison of the ordeal of associates at law firms with the experiences of fresh graduates under `management trainee` programmes adopted by companies, which typically span two years. Fresh graduates of any field need practical exposure to apply their degree. The discrimination and underpayment faced by fresh law graduates, who work at law firms under the pretext of training, raises critical concerns.

It appears that we are still adhering to the colonial-era perception of the legal profession as an apprenticeship rather than a conventional career. The perspective is deeply ingrained in the legal fraternity, stifling the ability of young lawyers to challenge these norms, at least until now. Associates suffer from this exploitative practice to a certain extent because oflack of information exchange with fellow colleagues and the absence of uniformity, as they are pitted against each other.

These individuals are discouraged often put down from questioning not just their remuneration, but also the long hourstheyareexpectedtoputin.Thereis a widely accepted sentiment that characterises the legal profession at law firms as a `lifestyle` rather than a conventional profession. While being repeatedly encouraged to pursue side hustles for additional income, it frequently comes at the cost of compromising the quality of work or advancement within the firm. The demanding workload in law firms further serves as a deterrent. Side hustles or not, is it really justified to expect associates to seek alternative employment to meet their basic financial needs? Time and again, young lawyers are confronted with a difficult decision while looking for their first job: whether to prioritise career growth in the legal profes-sion or secure enough income to cover their basic expenses. This dilemma forces them to choose between employment at a law firm or pursuing inhouse or development sector positions. This distresseffectively restricts participation in the legal profession at law firms to individuals from stable or privileged backgrounds.

The situation is further exacerbated for female lawyers, introducing a dimension of gender disparity. Women lawyers are commonly paid lower than their male counterparts because of the perception that women do not bear the added responsibility of financially supporting their households.

To tackle this pervasive issue comprehensively, a collaborative approach is imperative. Associates should openly discuss remuneration and work conditions with their peers and request employers to compensate them fairly. Employers, on the other hand, should adopt more humane policies with higher compensation, benefits, and clear work timelines.

At the national level, robust regulations and their implementation should be enforced to enhance industry standards with barriers to entry and a potentially standardised remuneration policy for fresh graduates. • The wn~ters are lawyers and members of the Lums Law Alumni Association.

Read more