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Why lawyers, especially juniors, can benefit from unions

Unionising is “always a good idea”, says one senior lawyer, because “there is power in the collective”, when it comes to addressing issues like wages and workplace behaviour.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 06 June 2019 Big Law
Why lawyers, especially juniors, can benefit from unions
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Speaking last week on The Lawyers Weekly Show, Electrical Trades Union senior legal counsel Alana Heffernan said that issues such as low pay rates, poor working conditions and sexual harassment and bullying in the legal profession can effectively be addressed by unions for lawyers.

“From my experience of working in private practice and in a unionised law firm, it was the junior lawyers, the grads, and the paralegals who benefited the most from their union membership. The law firm I was at had an enterprise agreement, which is an instrument that the employees, through their union usually, and the employer have agreed to, and it prescribes everyone's rates of pay and their conditions,” she explained.

“So, there was pay transparency for lawyers right up until about their third year in practice. You know what the person next to you is earning, and you know what you're entitled to.”

 
 

The alternate scenario, Ms Heffernan said, can see one miss out on “far superior rates of pay but also things like health and wellbeing leave and commitments to improve training for lawyers, and relocation costs and the like”.

“A good friend of mine that I went to school with worked for one of the top-tier intellectual property firms who does not have an enterprise agreement or a union presence at all, and I mean, by the time you work out how many hours she’s working a day, she’s earning less than the Australian minimum wage.”

Wage issues are especially important here, Ms Heffernan posited, when lawyers have claims to recover wages but don’t want to be ‘that person’ who sues an ex-employer and garners a negative reputation.

“If there is a systemic issue happening in a workplace like that, because I’m sure it’s not just affecting the one person, and the workplace is unionised, then the union usually addresses it directly with the employer, instead of individuals having to be involved.”

“You never really have to put your hand up or your neck out for yourself or for your colleagues. Just the fact that you have banded together and have a union means that the union will do that for you. I think that’s very important,” she reflected.

With regard to workplace behavioural issues, union fees are “money well spent”, Ms Heffernan posited.

“To go down the path of trying to deal with sexual harassment as a complaint or trying to prosecute it or trying to deal with bullying at work or trying to deal with discrimination when you’re trying to just access some flexibility or come back from parental leave, these are the types of things that are huge in the legal industry, can cost you tens of thousands of dollars.”

Furthermore, unions are good at negotiating things that “we might not necessarily think of”, she continued, such as health and wellbeing leave.

“Employers don’t just give that to people out of the kindness of their heart. They give it to them because the unions have agitated for it. And it’s recognition that you do need a couple of days every year to yourself, without having to call in sick, where you can just take some time out and recharge,” she said.

A union for lawyers, Ms Heffernan added, can act as an insurance scheme of sorts.

“If, unfortunately, your employment is terminated in some way, or even worse, you’re bullied or harassed or discriminated against, the union is there to advocate for you.”

Stigma surrounding unions is a hurdle to be overcome, she ceded, particularly in a profession like law.

“People don’t want to be identified as the one guy who joined the union. [But] you have a right to keep that information from your employer to a certain extent. The more powerful or dense your union is in your workplace, the less of an issue it is,” she said.

“So, if you have, say, 80 per cent of your lawyers are all members of the union, then the employer can’t exactly start trying to pick people off, because they think that they’re a union member or they’re an agitator or the like. Where a small group, say two per cent of the workforce being union members, they would feel significantly more vulnerable and would actually struggle to effect any real change in the workplace anyway.”

To listen to Jerome’s full conversation with Alana Heffernan, click below:

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