We are legal sector workers developing an ambitious plan to overcome systemic inequality and exploitation within the industry by using finance to transform our workplaces.
Solicitors firms are typically organised along an equity partner model, whereby a small elite receive all the profits. Meanwhile the lowest paid staff struggle to pay their rent on poverty wages. A growing number of paralegals do more work with less supervision for less money. These bottom-rung workers perform vital functions and generate value for law firms.
Exploitative practices can also be found amongst many barristers’ chambers. The criminal bar provides perhaps the starkest contrast, with a small number of high earning silks sharing the robing room with increasingly embattled junior barristers unable to afford their rent. Years of austerity and cuts to Legal Aid have left newly qualified junior barristers impoverished. Criminal practice is becoming increasingly closed to all but those with access to independent wealth.
The political economy of the legal sector is poorly understood, under-theorised, and rife with neoliberal logic and assumptions. The by-product of this are toxic work environments, staggering inequality of wealth and income, and mental health crises. Consequently, our already flagging system of justice is undermined further by our failure to protect the rights and economic interests of the legal workforce.
Past attempts to build a better system
The recent past has seen some attempts to solve these problems. Criminal defence lawyers have been particularly militant in agitating for better pay and conditions. The high point saw solicitors and barristers take work-to-rule industrial action. That achieved some limited concessions from a government hell bent on gutting legal aid budgets as part of a political ideology predicated upon the dismantling of the welfare state.
However achieving unity in the profession has proved difficult. Barristers and solicitors trade bitter accusations about who should bear the burden of industrial action. The Ministry of Justice plays one side of the profession against the other in a cynical strategy of divide and rule. Representative associations exist to further their members’ interests but there is no single trade union, denying the possibility of cohesive and decisive industrial action.
Trade unions like Unite and GMB have legal sector branches. But union density is low, and unions have done virtually nothing to create a unified strategy for organising the profession. Junior workers in the legal sector, including the authors, are currently in talks with several unions to determine just such a strategy. Yet progress remains slow, and is hindered by the prevalence among lawyers of conservative, anti-union politics.
Crucially, no serious time or thought has been given to organising the most precarious and vulnerable workers in the profession. The paralegals, clerks, support staff, cleaners and security guards are not meaningfully included when barristers and solicitors discuss taking action. There is a veritable gulf separating the qualified and the unqualified.
Towards a fairer ideal
Despite the prevalence of problems, a more egalitarian law firm is not difficult to imagine. Such a firm might constitute itself by reference to clearly defined principles, including pay ratios that approach 1:1, a four day working week, and a greater commitment to job rotation between lawyers and non-lawyers.
A small number of such egalitarian institutions already exist. Embattled law centres across the country continue to hold the flame for a different, community-centred approach. Certain firms, like the workers’ cooperative criminal defence firm Commons Legal, are attempting to create fairer and more democratic workplaces.
Evidence from the Demand a 4-Day Week Campaign suggests that shorter working hours improve productivity and mental health, while benefiting the environment and reducing gender inequality. The fair law firm might also create genuinely democratic, emancipatory, gender-balanced and participatory management structures, ensuring that any management functions are performed by recallable delegates.
How can finance transform existing legal sector workplaces?
Overcoming inequality in the legal sector will require a concerted move away from exploitative LLP and chambers-rent models. Law firms are already revisiting their corporate structures en masse, as LLPs are increasingly viewed as economically unstable and less financially resilient than limited companies. This sector-wide restructuring provides the Left with an opportunity to revisit the overarching balance of power between labour and capital within the profession.
Rather than attempting to preserve or tweak those pre-existing internal structures, our proposal is to use finance to radically redefine them. Instead of building fairer law firms from scratch in the interstices between traditional workplaces, we intend to use private equity to purchase existing firms and transform them from within.
Private equity is ordinarily a hyper-aggressive, neoliberal mechanism for buying the equity in existing companies and using the resulting operational control to make drastic changes in pursuit of profit. As People’s Private Equity have outlined elsewhere, the attempt to repurpose private equity to serve socialist ends will face many serious challenges. Yet despite these obstacles, workers in the legal sector are crying out for change.
When our 'People’s Private Equity’ fund begins to transform legal sector workplaces it will be a catalyst for change. That might create the momentum necessary for a sector-wide shift, and could even rebound into other sectors of the economy.
The neoliberal centre is experiencing a profound and protracted crisis. That crisis has supercharged the creation and consolidation of oppressive, unequal and exploitative workplaces. We believe the time is ripe for bold proposals for a transformed economy. As workers in the legal sector, we here submit our nascent proposal and invite fellow workers to subject it to constructive criticism. A fairer legal sector is possible and within our grasp. We are serious about building it.
Zachary Whyte is a trainee solicitor and co-founding member of Materialist Lawyers’ Group writing in a personal capacity