Graduate recruitment is headed for disaster under the new national Legal Services Award 2010, according to Kriss Wills, managing director of Kriss Wills Consulting, Management & Training.
The award, which came into effect on 1 January 2010, is the first to give national coverage (except unincorporated firms in WA) to law graduates and dramatically changes requirements relating to salary, work hours and study leave.
Under the award, firms will have to pay pre-admission graduates a minimum wage - which represents an increase of more than 25 per cent in NSW alone - as well as overtime for every hour worked above the 38 hour threshold.
Graduates will also be entitled to four days of paid study leave per subject of their practical legal training, as well as paid leave to attend lectures.
According to Wills, this could signal catastrophe for many smaller and mid-tier firms and will lead to a dramatic drop in the number of graduate places offered.
"It is just becoming prohibitive for smaller firms," Wills told Lawyers Weekly today.
"It is a disaster ... in terms of employment for graduates. At one level it looks like graduates will be getting more pay, but fewer people will be getting it. You've got to question whether that is really a win."
And while the changes in relation to salary do not take effect until 1 July 2010, and firms can take advantage of transitional arrangements to gradually meet salary requirements, Wills predicts that many firms will simply be unable to cope with the additional costs.
"I have a concern in regards to access to justice. I just don't think we are going to have smaller firms, especially in regional areas, where we already have incredible problems," she said.
"To get this, on top of what we know is already a massive shortage, is a real concern."
But it is not just the smaller firms that will encounter difficulties in relation to the award.
"It's an issue for larger firms too, because they are accustomed to people actually working longer hours. But they are not accustomed to having to monitor every hour they are there after 38 hours," she said.
"[Graduates] may be given a salary package [which is above the minimum wage] but firms will have to monitor every hour worked. Everybody is trying to work this out."
While the outcomes of the award appear to be well-intentioned as far as minimising exploitation of graduates, Wills believes it may have gone too far.
"It will be a telling year as to how this plays out. Anything that makes it more difficult and more costly to train graduates is not good for anyone," she said.
- Claire Chaffey