A year ago, the esteemed Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud attended a function organized by the Bar Council of India and there he urged the senior lawyers of the country to pay proper stipends to Young lawyers. “For far too long, we have regarded youngsters in our profession as slave workers. Because that is how we grew up….. They have rent to pay, transportation, food…This must change, and the burden of doing that is on us, as senior members of the profession.”
This led to a massive debate in India about the struggles that young lawyers face. Similarly the same is happening in Pakistan. On 14th September 2023, the LUMS Law Association held a thought session titled ‘Law Firm Economics in Pakistan: What Are You Worth?’ which has led to some outcry on the deplorable conditions young lawyers find themselves in and whilst there is some discussion happening regarding this injustice, it is far greater than what is displayed. Remuneration is a question that exists only for select firms, which are commonly known as transactional firms or corporate firms which are the one percentile of the legal firms in Pakistan. The question of remuneration in the rest of the 99% doesn’t exist or is absurd. The plight of a young lawyer is directly related to the condition of the firm.
The transactional firms are where the .01% of young lawyers go, as you need foreign degrees and powerful references to enter the firm. Your skillset is secondary. They provide remuneration to select employees after they complete an unpaid probation period, which depends on the generosity of the working partner or the reference in question. This remuneration is a pittance compared to the magnitude of the work that is demanded and this is for years, with many spending more than earning to work in such a firm.
Then we have corporate firms and while they are more open to employment towards local graduates, they demand an established skillset. Most of the time, the young lawyer will either have to be sharp enough to immediately learn the ropes or simply wallow in the sidelines, where she will be tasked to do sundry work such as marking attendances or filing power of attorney for various cases. Compensation for travel outside the division may exist in some cases, but salary is out of the question. These firms function on the brilliance of select individuals and payment is only provided after an unpaid probation period, which can last a year or two at least, after which a starting salary is provided. The said salary is less than half of the minimum wage of an unskilled worker, and if one raises an issue, she is swiftly told that she is not a worker nor an employee, but simply somebody who is paid a stipend for their monthly work. Some specifically tell the young lawyer that this is not a salary.
When a young lawyer enters the field, she is immediately discouraged from asking for remuneration and is told to devote her life to said senior and treat them with utmost reverence and respect for a decade to be entitled any compensation, which is to be decided by the mercy of said senior. If the senior asks you to jump from a cliff, you better be down there before the sentence is finished.
After which we have the 99% of firms which you can divide into political and non-political chambers. The political chambers have many lawyers, and that is how these chambers maintain their influence in bar politics, and they offer no remuneration of any kind. Only a handful of individuals in these chambers get paid, and this is after they have accumulated years and years of experience. Some chambers pay them through secondary files, like a criminal chamber may pay such an experienced associate by referring them to small applications through which they may earn some pittance. In the best case, it leads to them establishing their own practice but in all cases, these individuals have spent above a decade with said seniors to establish such a network and they never leave that shadow.
The non-political chambers are not large and they have a handful of individuals, of whom only one single individual gets paid and the payment is often always less than the minimum wage of an unskilled worker.
The level of work demanded in all the aforementioned chambers is often gruelling, and always includes ancillary work, such as a political chamber may demand their young lawyers to partake in election campaigns of the chamber, or a corporate chamber may demand that young lawyers work on their projects such as magazines, research or websites. The concept of working hours doesn’t exist in most firms, as the young lawyer can expect seniors to call in the middle of the night to prepare a preposition, a terminology we used when asked to prepare regarding legal questions and arguments.
In addition to these established difficulties, the environment that the young lawyer faces is equally soul-crushing. In our field, peer pressure is very real due to the sheer number of peers that provide said pressure. Thus, when a young lawyer enters the field, she is immediately discouraged from asking for remuneration and is told to devote her life to said senior and treat them with utmost reverence and respect for a decade to be entitled any compensation, which is to be decided by the mercy of said senior. If the senior asks you to jump from a cliff, you better be down there before the sentence is finished. Absolute loyalty is demanded, and if the young lawyer leaves said senior, then it is considered treachery.
A young lawyer enters this established snare and is immediately told that compensation is taboo and that remuneration is the experience with the firm.
Yet the issue isn’t limited to the senior lawyers of the field. It is the environment that looks to snare a young lawyer and this role is best played by their own colleagues who do everything to discourage a young lawyer from taking remuneration. I would relay my own personal experience. As a young lawyer with a family and household to run, I decided to join a firm because a normal chamber demanded a decade of absolute loyalty before compensation could be discussed. I joined and on my first day, I asked a senior associate about what type of pay is provided. What followed was an hour of grilling, which highlighted how ungrateful I am, and how I should be thankful that I am breathing the air in the office, there is a line outside the office begging to be let in and I am being paid in experience, which is far greater than any monetary compensation. I was not alone, there were others who faced similar situations in other chambers and if the evidence of hubris and entitlement is not satisfactory, then one only needs to read the piece by a renowned senior, who declares young lawyers a “net loss.”
A young lawyer enters this established snare and is immediately told that compensation is taboo and that remuneration is the experience with the firm. For women, it is even worse, as they are considered a flight risk, since they will supposedly vanish after marriage, which is a rubbish assertion. I have seen many hopeful female advocates choose marriage as an option because the field disappointed them, leaving them with no choice but to pursue a non-career life. This worse-than-slave treatment has not only alienated some of the most brilliant individuals from the field, but has curtailed and removed all critical thinking within the law chamber. With associates looking to only serve to revere their seniors for any crumbs, it has killed the juristic principle of critical legal thinking that was found in a chamber as fresh minds discussed with experienced minds newer understandings of the law. This snare has not only made the legal profession an undesirable career choice, but has also created close-minded individuals, who can never think outside the box to establish new legal principles.
There is no doubt that this problem has been allowed to fester and there is no question that seniors have allowed this to happen. This problem can only be solved through an open discussion, where remuneration and job descriptions are openly advertised and are not considered taboo, and impossible demands like decades-long displays of loyalties before any compensations are rewarded are thrown into the bin - where they belong. Only then can we start our journey towards removing this growing discontentment in the field where, with all due respect to the Honorable Justice Chandrachud, a young lawyer is treated worse than a slave.