VICTORIA’S entire legal profession stands on the brink of the unknown, with the State Government set to re-introduce award conditions for support staff and junior lawyers for the first time in a decade.
Lawyers Weekly can reveal that Victorian Attorney-General and industrial relations minister Rob Hulls is currently reviewing a draft Bill from the Federal Government, which would effectively impose a wholesale set of working conditions on law firms.
In May of this year, Hulls passed the Federal Awards (Uniform System) Act 2003, effectively facilitating the application of common rule awards to Victorian workplaces. Canberra has responded with its proposed legislation, the operation of which would be regulated by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC). Hulls is yet to rubber stamp the federal draft, but will proceed nevertheless with a state award overseen by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) if agreement cannot be reached.
Either option compels all businesses, including law firms, currently operating award free to comply with a prescriptive set of broad conditions.
The mooted changes have sparked uncertainty and a degree of confusion among Victorian law firm managers, most of whom admit being totally unfamiliar with employing staff under an award.
Already, the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) is conducting information sessions with the assistance of Baker & McKenzie IR partner Ian Dixon and independent consultant Kriss Will, to educate and help prepare members.
Dixon, along with others closely monitoring developments, predicts the most probable award that will cover the legal system under the new regime will be the Victorian Legal Professional, Clerical and Administrative Employees Award (1993).
Developed by 11 labour law firms, Slater & Gordon and Holding Redlich included, a decade ago in response to then-Premier Jeff Kennett’s decision to dump Victorian awards, the agreement stipulates minimum weekly pay rates, overtime, loading and other allowances for law firm clerical staff. It is also well accepted that articled clerks and all solicitors with three years or less post admission experience will be provided for.
Since the award’s creation, pay rates have been updated. Under current provisions AC’s are to be paid a minimum of $583.90 per week, first year solicitors $686.20, and second year solicitors $786.50.
Dixon and LIV president Bill O’Shea believe most large law firms are already paying rates above those levels. However, any Award could still cost firms dearly if no ‘transitional provisions’ — effectively allowing better paying employees to use their higher rates to offset other demands such as overtime and holiday loading — are not included.
“That is a very important part of all this,” Dixon said. “But we still don’t know anything until Mr Hulls releases the legislation.”
According to Will, continued uncertainty on a number of levels was to blame for many lawyers she had spoken to being gripped by premature bouts of panic.
“On one level we don’t know whether it’s going to be Federal or State, and on another level even when [the change] is going to take effect,” she said.
Will described the award’s prescriptive approach to job classifications as “supremely unworkable” in the context of the legal profession, which accommodates business structures and approaches of a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
Her comments are supported to some extent by many of the award’s pioneering law firms, who have since deserted it in favour of workplace agreements negotiated with employees and union officials.
When a similar scenario involving top-end-of-town firms was mentioned as a possibility, Will and Dixon could appreciate the irony.
“Yes, it would be a foreign thing for a union to be sitting at the bargaining table with those firms,” Will said wryly.