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Tuesday June 25, 2024

Ramen and robes: a legal comedy

By Muhammad Rafeh Hyder
September 24, 2023

In a recently penned article, a capitalism-themed justification was provided for peanuts in paychecks for budding lawyers. To put it in Shakespearean words, ‘Verily, what a time to be a recent graduate in the noble field of law! The realm of jurisprudence doth unfurl its gates, embracing these youthful, zealous intellects with warm embrace, only to swiftly acquaint them with the harsh truths of existence. It doth cause concern to witness certain elder brethren of the fraternity opine that fledgling advocates ought to harbour eternal gratitude for the paltry morsels bestowed upon them.’ Let’s dive into this alternate perspective, shall we?

Sure, we can concede that young lawyers might face a teensy-weensy bit of financial hardship. Yes, they may not be rolling in wealth like their engineering or medical counterparts. And yes, they might have to subsist on ramen noodles for a few years. But hey, who needs a comfortable living when you’ve got the prestige of being a lawyer? A law junior would only hope to get paid more as this debate evolves but as Ghalib has once rightly said: “Hazaaron khwahishen aisi ke har khwahish pe dam nikle/ bauhat nikle mire arman lekin phir bhi kam nikle”.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the belief that senior lawyers are entirely equitable and magnanimous when it comes to compensating their junior colleagues. It’s worth noting that their remuneration of fresh graduates is not perceived as unjust in a country where, as of today, petrol prices have soared to Rs330 per litre, and electricity costs more than Rs50 per unit. After all, those degrees from prestigious law schools serve as nothing more than decorative adornments for the wall.

Thus, it’s only fitting for recent graduates to express gratitude for the invaluable learning experience they gain – even if it sometimes feels like they’re teetering on the edge of financial bankruptcy.

Let us now venture into the realm of the lump-sum fee model, a system that appears to embrace a unique form of compensation equity. In this intriguing dimension, senior lawyers receive a substantial sum upfront, and their earnings are further enhanced by the efforts of their junior counterparts. While a seasoned attorney may command a substantial fee from a client for representing them in the high court, the junior lawyers who toil diligently behind the scenes, drafting intricate legal documents, often receive little more than the assessment that they are a ‘net loss’.

However, should a junior lawyer manage to bring a case into the firm, they are then required to part with a significant portion, typically 75 per cent or more, of the case fee. They must also remain grateful because they shall collect ‘finder’s fee’ which is an act of generosity by the senior lawyer. It truly represents a symbiotic relationship. Senior lawyers maximize their earnings, while junior lawyers strive earnestly to meet their financial commitments. A harmonious equilibrium, indeed!

Of course, we should also appreciate that fresh graduates are essentially useless. Who cares if they’ve spent years studying law and preparing for this moment? They should be ready to perform miracles on day one, saving the senior lawyers’ precious time. Forget about the learning curve or the fact that every profession requires some training; young lawyers should be legal prodigies from the get-go! Where every MNC or local corporation hires fresh graduates on a pay scale over 70k to train them, the legal fraternity is too delicate to pay the same amount if not more.

The legal profession is just a revolving door, and everyone’s invited to jump out whenever they please. Female law graduates not only have the distinct honour of facing sweeping generalizations about ‘post-marital work’ but also the typical challenges of the legal profession. Why aim for gender equality and a fulfilling career when you can experience the delightful rollercoaster of being a female lawyer.

The assertion that “a fresh graduate is a net loss for a law firm” and that many young lawyers consider alternative career paths such as marriage, pursuing foreign degrees, in-house positions, or independent practice is indeed quite revealing. It’s evident that the core issue lies in low retention rates within law firms. In essence, the problem doesn’t revolve around career choices or transitions; rather, it stems from the inadequate compensation provided to junior lawyers, which leads them to seek better opportunities elsewhere.

Moreover, let’s consider the idea that marriage and the pursuit of foreign degrees are detrimental to a legal career and a negative return on ‘investment’ made by senior lawyers in young lawyers. It is somewhat insensitive to anticipate that budding lawyers should suspend their personal and educational endeavours merely to conform to the conventional path of a legal vocation. The whole expectation of the legal profession here seems to be one of indentured servitude. Individuals lead multifaceted lives with aspirations extending beyond their professional sphere, and a forward-looking approach to the legal profession should acknowledge and accommodate these diverse realities.

While remarks are made about the expenses incurred by senior lawyers in hiring young lawyers and how it reduces their profitability, one must remember to differentiate between a human and a cash cow. The former, at least, must not be exploited at minimum-wage rates after five years in college.

In conclusion, young lawyers, your struggles are clearly overblown. It’s a privilege to be paid next to nothing, to be perpetually learning, and to have an uncertain future. Who needs fairness and a reasonable standard of living when you can have the unique experience of being a lawyer? Embrace the sarcasm, my fellow legal warriors, because sometimes, laughter is the best way to cope with the discontents of lawyering.

The writer is a lawyer.