The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is to consider retaining the minimum salary for trainee solicitors at the level of the national minimum wage after discovering that without it trainees would be classed as apprentices and so could be paid just £2.60 an hour in their first year – less than £5,000.
The SRA is currently consulting on whether it should continue to set the minimum salary – having been clear  that it does not think it should – and said the discovery came as it examined the legal framework which would apply if the minimum was abolished.
In a statement, the SRA said: “Advice has been received that trainees would be classed as apprentices within the terms of the National Minimum Wage Regulations 1999. The regulations would apply a rate of £2.60 per hour for apprentices in their first year, and £6.08 per hour (the standard minimum wage) for subsequent years [around £12,000 a year].
“The board is keen to canvass views on the potential impact of deregulation of the minimum salary, as well as on an option to retain a prescribed minimum salary which is set at the level of the standard national minimum wage for the whole period of a training contract.
“The SRA’s concern, and that of all stakeholders, is to ensure that the profession continues to attract high-calibre, motivated students from a diverse range of backgrounds.”
However, the amended consultation paper says that the SRA board does not believe that the advice affects the regulatory arguments for a review of its role in the setting of a minimum salary.
Of the 9,088 trainees presently registered with the SRA, 30% receive the minimum salary. A higher proportion of black and minority ethnic trainees (42%) are paid the minimum salary than their white counterparts (27%).
Minimum trainee salaries, currently £18,590 in central London and £16,650 elsewhere, have been in force since 1982, long before the national minimum wage was introduced.
The Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) said the legal profession will be the “preserve of the rich” if trainees were paid £2.60 an hour for their first year.
Vice-chair Heather Iqbal-Rayner said: “Apprentice wages are designed for school leavers who are usually living with their parents and about to enter a profession. Solicitor trainees will have completed four, five or even six years of study by the time they begin a training contract and may have children and mortgages, not to mention a mountain of debt from studying.
“Implementing these changes will deter large numbers of people from entering the profession and have a negative, knock-on impact on equality and diversity.”
Last week the JLD issued a call for a delay to the consultation citing, amongst a range of issues, a lack of assessment on the impact the move would have on diversity and social mobility in the legal profession, and the fact that the Legal Education and Training Review is currently going on.