Hard work, low pay: A need for a prescribed minimum wage for candidate legal practitioners

November 1st, 2020
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Recently, the Legal Practice Council (LPC) has amended the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 (LPA) rules providing that it is now a misconduct for a law firm to require prospective candidate legal practitioners to be in possession of their own vehicles (GenN375 GG43514/10-7-2020). Albeit, a progressive development, candidate legal practitioners are still faced with different challenges in the legal profession. These challenges include, among other things, minimal remuneration, lack of gender and race representability and limited exposure to legal procedures (Clement Marumoagae ‘Driver’s licence: A barrier preventing entry into the attorneys’ profession’ 2017 (Nov) DR 42).

Every year, South African universities produce a large number of LLB graduates. Some of these graduates are absorbed into large law firms earning high salaries, others are absorbed into small law firms earning low salaries, and many other graduates are unable to obtain practical vocational training (PVT). Usually, candidate legal practitioners that are employed by small law firms are offered minimal remuneration. Small law firms may remunerate candidate legal practitioners as little as R 2 000 per month. Large firms usually recruit white LLB graduates and small firms recruit black LLB graduates. This deepens Apartheid spatial economic patterns. Candidate legal practitioners earning a minimal remuneration may struggle to sustain themselves during their vocational training period. This results in a negative impact on their PVT, thus some candidate legal practitioners are unable to complete their training.

In 2019 the National Minimum Wage Act 9 of 2018 commenced, setting a national minimum wage. However, many candidate legal practitioners are still earning a lower income than the set national minimum wage. In this article, I argue that law firms, particularly small law firms, must take the National Minimum Wage Act into consideration when employing candidate legal practitioners into their law firms.

Minimal remuneration

The LPA gives a law firm the liberty to determine how much a candidate legal practitioner may earn. Some candidate legal practitioners may feel ‘exploited’ as they may receive very low remuneration. Section 27(1) – (2) of the LPA provides that –

‘(1) The Council must in the rules, determine the minimum conditions and procedures for the registration and administration of practical vocational training.

(2) The rules contemplated in subsection (1) must regulate the payment of remuneration, allowances or stipends to all candidate legal practitioners, including the minimum amount payable.’

The remuneration a candidate legal practitioner receives may depend on the size of the law firm. A large law firm usually has more than one office location, or over 50 employees, middle-sized law firms usually consist of between 11 to 49 employees and a small law firm consist of ten or less employees. Candidate legal practitioners at large law firms, generally receive a higher remuneration compared to those at smaller law firms. Large law firms are able to offer higher salaries, as they have existing clients and large volumes of work, which result in writing higher fees (Emmie de Kock ‘Large law firms v small law firms’ 2018 (Jan/Feb) DR 20). Small and medium-sized law firms generally offer lower salaries, however, candidate legal practitioners are more likely to get exposure to different types of matters and clients (De Kock (op cit)). Small law firms may face more financial difficulties as compared to large law firms thus resulting in candidate legal practitioners receiving low salaries. There is a huge gap in salaries received by candidate legal practitioners in a large law firm compared to those in a small law firm. In some cases, candidate legal practitioners are made to do the maximum work and do not even receive a fraction of the pay for the work they do.

Candidate legal practitioners usually have no option but to accept the minimal remuneration that they are offered. With a larger number of LLB graduates being produced, those that are able to find PVT, usually find themselves receiving low salaries. While many candidate legal practitioners are barely surviving on the low salaries, some are still expected to pay their own practical legal training (PLT) costs. This puts many candidate legal practitioners at a disadvantage.

National Minimum Wage Act

The National Minimum Wage Act came into effect in 2019. Schedule 1(1) – (2)(a) – (d) of the National Minimum Wage Act provides that the national minimum wage stands at R 20,76 for each ordinary hour worked with, inter alia, the following exceptions –

  • farm and forestry workers are entitled to a minimum wage of R 18,68 per ordinary hour worked;
  • domestic workers are entitled to a minimum wage of R 15,57 per ordinary hour worked; and
  • workers employed pursuant to an expanded public works programme are entitled to a minimum wage of R 11,42 per ordinary hour worked.

When applying the national minimum wage of R 20 per hour, a person will earn a general monthly minimum wage of
R 3 500, if one works for 40 hours a week, and R 3 900, if one works 45 hours a week.

The reality at present is that candidate legal practitioners from small law firms earn less than R 3 500 per month. According to s 2 of the National Minimum Wage Act, ‘the purpose of this Act is to advance economic development and social justice by –

(a) improving the wages of lowest paid workers;

(b) protecting workers from unreasonably low wages;

(c) preserving the value of the national minimum wage;

(d) promoting collective bargaining; and

(e) supporting economic policy.’

This is true notwithstanding the reality that many candidate legal practitioners continue to get unreasonably low wages.

Conclusion

There is a vast difference in salaries earned between large law firms and small law firms. While small law firms may face more financial challenges compared to big law firms there needs to be a minimum salary set for candidate legal practitioners. The national minimum wage stands at R 3 500, however, there are candidate legal practitioners earning R 2 000, which is well below the minimum wage. The issue of low wages may be seen as a disadvantage to many candidate legal practitioners, and prejudices persons from disadvantage backgrounds. Most candidate legal practitioners may be inclined to feel disadvantaged by the salary they receive.

The LPC’s provincial councils need to intervene in setting a minimum wage for candidate legal practitioners to avoid them from being disadvantaged. There must be a balance, which will be able to accommodate small firms without crippling them financially. The national minimum wage must also be applicable to candidate legal practitioners. Furthermore, candidate legal practitioners must receive medical aid, payment for PLTs and paid leave days. Candidate legal practitioners must be given fair and proper salaries in return for their work.

Mashudu Monica Mulaudzi BA LLB (Wits) is a candidate legal practitioner at Noko Ramaboya Attorneys Inc in Pretoria.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2020 (Nov) DR 47.

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