Why Should Law Firms Compensate Fairly?

There is now an open admission of the cycle and layers of exploitation at play within the legal profession that does not regulate its law firms in safeguarding the rights of employees, associates, staff and clients.

Why Should Law Firms Compensate Fairly?

The question of compensation in law firms for lawyers in Pakistan has been an underlying issue that the law graduates and associates have traditionally whispered amongst themselves. 

Only now, they have started to have more open, candid and honest conversations on this matter, highlighting the cycles of exploitation, discouragement and patriarchy that underlies the power structures on which the law ‘firms’ stand. 

Consequently, it is not surprising that justifications for the status quo or rather explanations for why the status quo exists have started to pour in already from the quarters who now hold the gates and call the shots as far as remuneration and access to opportunities in the legal profession go. 

All these years what we had heard from our seniors, recruiters and employers in the profession in terms of how little we as young lawyers contribute, what a liability we are and how grateful we should be for the exposure we are getting in exchange for little or no pay, stipend or a salary that could sustain the job itself, if nothing more, was recently conceded to via an op-ed. 

This particular article serves as an admission of the cycle and layers of exploitation at play within the legal profession that does not regulate its law firms from perspective of safeguarding the rights of employees, associates, staff and clients, despite the provincial and Islamabad bar council having the power to do so under Section 56 (m) of the Legal Profession and Bar Council Act 1973. 

The inadequacy of regulation also leads to a lack of any human resource policies regarding the rights of employees/workers such as regulated working hours, minimum pay, equal pay, non-discrimination, clear entry and progression track in the firm and a conducive working environment in general. Currently, this is mostly discretionary and lacks transparency.

It is quiet appalling actually to see that while the world has moved on to talk about equal pay and pay transparency, we are still struggling with establishing a case for stipends for interns and basic living wage for associates in a profession that is premised on rights. 

At the outset, it must be stated that the right to be paid is an inalienable right inherent in the dignity of person and their right to work.

It is not something that ought to be measured in terms of the amount of time a senior can save by the input provided by the associate, but one that must be measured with reference to what is fair and reasonable remuneration depending upon number of hours, travel costs, inflation, experience, education, qualifications and other skills brought in by the associates. 

Under no circumstances can there ever be less than a living wage so that access to work remains equally accessible to all and not merely to those who can ‘afford’ it. In this way, firms will also be able to benefit by being exposed to all potential candidates rather than only a restricted pool of candidates from privileged backgrounds and will have a higher chance of finding and retaining the right resource. 

Secondly, it is important to be mindful of the unequal bargaining position and power dynamics between a firm and their staff and associates. Law firms are important steppingstones, learning, and networking spaces for young lawyers.

In absence of regulation, however, there are no standard operating procedures, codes of conduct, or internal human resource policies that offer clear entry or progression routes in the firm for employees. 

In a survey conducted in 2021 for our study on Fair Representation in Law (comprising of 102 respondents including female law students, female lawyers and legal community including male members), 91% of the online respondents revealed that there were no formal policies of recruitment in the law firms which is why neither were they displayed nor shared with the employees.

In the same survey, 86% respondents said that there were no clear policies or routes for progression either from entry to partner level positions in the firms. The hiring and progression largely remain a discretionary, arbitrary, need-based, and informal process in most firms.

Progression, in particular, depends on how much ‘business’ the individual lawyer in question brought to the firm as opposed to the metric of number years in service. One of the respondents even doubted whether the progression of employees was even an objective of the employer as most employers tended to run their practice as a ‘one-man show’ projecting and securing their interests and success rather than being interested in developing a culture of learning and growth for collective advancement of the associates working under them. Only three firms out of the twenty we sampled for this study had mentioned any clear track and progression timelines on their websites.

The reason why law firms have such a central role in the entry and advancement of lawyers is that firms are hubs of work opportunities and clients, especially in the initial and early days of the career when a young advocate is less likely to find their independent clients or work.

In absence of a stipend or any financial security, the young advocates have to depend on finding work with their seniors or placements at law firms. Through these platforms, when they can work on cases and appear before the courts, they not only get the requisite experience and chance at networking but also can show their attendance in court or their names as counsels in any judgments that get reported in the cases on which they are working during this time.

These reported judgments and attendance in court serve as important aspects for progression in the legal profession as a whole because when applying for a license of Advocate Supreme Court, a list of fifteen cases of the applicant in which he/she has appeared as counsel is required to be filed along with other documents. Likewise for High Court license also similar technical requirements apply. 

Furthermore, for positions in the subordinate judiciary evidence of at least two years of ‘actual legal practice’ is required. The same is true for the Chief Justice to be able to nominate a lawyer for a vacancy in the High Court or the Supreme Court, he must know of the advocate.  

Advancement in the profession in various sectors, whether as advocates of the Supreme Court, as candidates for bar elections, or for being eligible for being nominated for the higher judiciary, etc. is centered almost exclusively on the ability of the candidate to show ‘active legal practice.’ 

This is why litigators are often placed at a high pedestal and crowned ‘actual lawyers’ as if everyone else doing corporate advisory or other work is not; therefore, it becomes imperative for the young lawyers to be associated with seniors and work for them in initial years leading to an increase in the supply of workforce pushing the salaries down. 

In the absence of regulation and protection of young lawyers that appears to be worse than domestic workers which is still regulated by law, it appears that the issue of living wage and other HR related matters concerning workforce in legal profession such as regulated working and billable hours, parental leave policies, flexible work arrangements, clear progression tracks all take a back seat. This is largely because gatekeepers find no incentive to reform the cycle of exploitation that benefits those who are maximizing their capital gains and appear unwilling to accept any reductions in their take home earnings. 

It is unfortunate that the recent Lawyers Protection and Welfare Act also fails to take into account of the concerns of young as well as of female lawyers particularly with regard to stipends, parental leaves, day care and other needs; but it is not difficult to see why that is so. 

The level of involvement of young lawyers and of female lawyers and their consultation and role while drafting of such laws is minimal if not non-existent and therefore, the disconnect between those who lead the profession and those who are affected by the policies, laws and/or lack thereof is reflected so strikingly in the outcomes that ensue. 

The disconnect also prevails at other levels but one of its most profound manifestation is between the underprivileged and privileged classes. The privileged members do not realise that continuing to work despite pay is not a sign of ‘hard work’ and you cannot determine hard work with reference to how long an associate can work for free or remain undercompensated, or how many extra jobs they can take on and manage to survive and succeed. 

This is not to take away from those who have worked multiple jobs to advance in the profession, it also does in no way mean that young lawyers must not put in the work required at their end or compromise on any of the work ethic on their part. 

Of course they must do their bit whatever reasonably can be expected of them to show their commitment to learning and growth. 

Neither does this indicate that you cannot find individual examples of people of modest backgrounds who do work hard and achieve success in the profession but what it does mean is that this is not an issue to be viewed from a personal or individual-centric lens insisting that if so and so did it then why can’t others?

It really is a matter of realizing that the system is broken to begin with and that as a matter of principle, no one should ideally have to work multiple jobs to afford to remain in litigation in particular which is where the ‘active legal practice’ experience comes from and which is so essential for advancement in the justice sector, not just within the firm but as a whole. 

It is important that determination of living wage be viewed as a human rights and dignity issue as opposed to how-much-of-a-senior’s-time-can-be-saved perspective. Incentivizing the workforce and fairly compensating them and offering them clear progression tracks and enabling environment can enhance their productivity and lead to a long-term commitment towards the firm that is alleged to be currently missing on part of the associates.

Law firms must understand that repeating the cycles of exploitation and nepotism (that was also acknowledged in the admitting article) will only perpetuate the issue of high employee turnover with which they all grapple. 

It is easy to state that young lawyers quit either for marriage or for their own legal practice (in the hope for making higher returns, but why would you blame them for that when you cannot pay them a decent wage?) but apparently more difficult for them to accept that prevailing exploitative practices have a significant role in pushing the junior lawyers towards this culture of not staying committed to the firm. 

For instance, it is easy for seniors to identify the patriarchal limitations on women after marriage but very little effort on their part to offer flexible arrangements or daycare provision (whether monetary or infrastructural) to support their needs to ensure they can retain their jobs and continue to work at the firm. 

Likewise, by not reasonably remunerating their male staff, munshis and/or associates, they are themselves sowing the seeds of discouragement and creating grounds ripe for them to either quit or take on additional jobs or private cases and/or ancillary tasks at the expense of the firm. 

Where is the introspection on part of the firms to build a culture of attraction and retention of best of talent and what have the firms ever done to ensure that there is long-term growth prospects for their trainees and associates? Perhaps it is not their intention to retain associates for long-term either as otherwise they would show some planning and pathway for that but it seems that in Pakistan, firms would like to remain closely knitted circles led by personalities as opposed to institutional reckonings. 

For developing and sustaining lasting professional association with their employees, it would be in the best interest of the firms to review and reconsider the structures of compensation and agree on guidelines of best practices for the recruitment, retention and progression of lawyers with clear entry and progression targets and transparency in the routes, rights and duties for entry, promotion and growth. 

Proposed guidelines for law firms can be found here.   

The writer is diversity and Inclusion advocate and founder of Women in Law Initiative Pakistan.