Junior lawyers have warned that aspiring solicitors risk being exploited if they are not paid a minimum salary while completing the work experience element of the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).

In a letter to Paul Philip, chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) urges the regulator to reinstate a mandatory minimum salary for both trainee solicitors and would-be lawyers undertaking the SQE.

Due to be introduced in 2021, the SQE will be in two parts, a computer-based assessment which will include multiple choice questions and a test of practical legal skills to be taken after a period of work-based training.

The JLD said under the proposed format, aspiring solicitors could be ‘exploited’ by gaining the work experience required to pass the second stage of the exam without receiving any remuneration. ’The SRA should ensure that a mechanism is in place which means that aspiring solicitors gaining their “work experience” under the SQE are not working for less than the National Living Wage … and that entry to the profession genuinely is open to all,’ the letter states.

The JLD also expresses concern over the SRA’s decision to abolish the minimum salary in favour of the national minimum wage. The letter warns that social mobility and access to the profession ‘cannot improve’ while firms are allowed to pay as little as £14,814 before tax.

The letter also revisits concerns previously raised regarding ‘toxic’ workplace atmospheres.

The JLD references the results of the 2019 resilience and wellbeing survey – published last month. The survey, completed by more than 1,800 people, revealed that more than 93% of respondents reported feeling stressed in their role in the month before completing the survey. One in 15 junior lawyers reported that they had experienced suicidal thoughts as a result of stress at work, in the month leading up to taking the survey.

‘The findings make it clear that the legal profession as a whole needs to do more to support positive mental health and working environments, including regulators, representative bodies and those employing junior lawyers. This includes the SRA holding firms to account and taking all necessary action against firms and others who employ junior lawyers and solicitors that are fostering toxic work environments,’ the letter states.

The JLD represents students through to solicitors with five years’ PQE.