A case to be heard
A PAY rise for law graduates is one of the predicted outcomes from changes to the national legal services award system.
Law experts say graduates will have to wait and see if the changes affect their chances of being employed in the first year after they graduate.
The changes were made as part of the Federal Government’s award modernisation process to bring varying state awards under one national system.
Law graduates must wait and see if new employment regulations affect their chances of securing work.
LAW graduates can expect to start their careers on higher salaries from July when a new national award system comes into affect.
But the new Legal Services Award 2010 has been described as ‘‘disastrous’’ for graduate recruitment in New South Wales, where preadmission graduates will receive a 25 per cent increase to their minimum wage.
The base rate for graduates under the former award, which covered workers in several industries, was $614.90 and the new award has a base rate of $767.20 and is legal specific.
Law experts are taking a ‘‘wait and see’’ attitude to determine if fewer graduates will be hired by firms who are unwilling to pay higher rates.
Firms face additional costs as graduates receive overtime for every hour worked above the 38-hour threshold, as well as paid study leave, under the new award.
Kim Eldridge, chair of the Law Society of SA’s young lawyers committee, is still unsure how the award will impact on the legal fraternity, but says it will be disappointing if graduate recruitment is affected.
‘‘We don’t want the benefit of a higher salary to be at the cost of putting on more students,’’ Ms Eldridge says.
‘‘But we’re not really sure (what effect the award will have) because, obviously, it’s fairly new and we don’t have any data to be able to analyse.
‘‘What the young lawyers committee is looking at doing over the next 18 months is speaking with student organisations to see how many (graduates) are working in the profession.
‘‘We might just be worrying over nothing. We really need to wait and see.’’
Australia Law Students’ Association (ALSA) president Jonathan Augustus concedes law firms may face a substantial increase in costs to employ law graduates but disputes comments from NSW that the award will be disastrous.
‘‘It is important not to overreact and simply paint an increase in remuneration for law graduates as not good for anyone,’’ Mr Augustus says.
‘‘Like many stakeholders, ALSA will keep an eye on the long-term effects of such changes, however, the objective of reducing potential exploitation of law graduates is one ALSA commends.’’
But Andrew Stewart, from the University of Adelaide Law School, says the national award is expected to have little impact in South Australia.
Professor Stewart says the award applies to graduates undergoing practical training with a law firm before they can be admitted to practice in the Supreme Court.
In SA, Flinders University law graduates are automatically admitted to practice, however, Adelaide University graduates must complete a Law Society course to qualify – during which time the award will apply.
Prof Stewart says pre-admission graduates will see little changes under the new award, compared with previous state regulations.
He does not believe the minimum wage conditions – which come into effect in July – will be anything like the increase set to occur in NSW.
‘‘New South Wales was the most unregulated (under the previous state-based awards) so it’s not surprising that the complaints (about the new Legal Services Award) are coming from New South Wales,’’ Prof Stewart says.
‘‘I would seriously doubt it (minimum pay changes in SA) will be anything like (the 25 per cent expected in NSW).
‘‘I would expect starting salaries (in SA) could be only slightly higher than now.
‘‘But there’s no common pattern of qualifications to be admitted as a lawyer – it happens in different ways with different amounts of practical training. So it’s simply not possible to make neat comparisons between those different ways.’’
Law firm Kelly & Co chief executive Stuart Price says the new award will make no difference to the firm’s recruitment policy.
Mr Price says law graduates employed by the city-based company typically take one month to qualify to practice in the Supreme Court, during which time the award will apply.
While a key concern under the new award is the increased rate of minimum pay, Mr Price says Kelly & Co graduates already receive more than is specified under the award.
‘‘We view graduate lawyers as being vital to the future of our firm as it is from their ranks that we identify and develop our future partners,’’ Mr Price says.