The support the Labour Movement calls for includes improving wages and extending basic employment benefits.
The Labour Movement is calling for trainee lawyers to be accorded fair wages and basic employment benefits during their practice training period (PTP).
NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Patrick Tay made the call in Parliament on 7 November 2023 during the second reading of the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill.
The bill was first tabled on 3 October 2023 and would introduce changes to the process law graduates must undergo to be called to the bar.
The changes include doubling their PTP from six months to a year, decoupling admission to the bar from the completion of a PTP and granting trainees limited rights to practise after six months of training.
In his speech, Mr Tay acknowledged the noble intent of the PTP – to provide trainee lawyers with a longer runway to pick up, grasp, and hone their skills to be better lawyers.
However, he expressed concerns about the lengthening of the PTP, especially its potential financial impacts borne by trainee lawyers.
Mr Tay said trainee lawyers typically work long hours and are paid monthly honorariums of between $1,000 to $2,500 each month during the PTP.
“Some firms offer training contracts with only a pittance as an allowance, which I find can be seen as exploitative,” he said.
He added that the honorariums pale compared to fresh graduates in other industries, who work shorter hours and draw between $3,500 to $5,000 each month.
Mr Tay said that it is important to pay trainee lawyers fairly as they provide valuable contributions to the law firms.
“Is there more that can be done to ensure our trainees are paid reasonably, especially during the lengthened PTP? How can we encourage the firms to pay more in terms of the monthly allowance?
“How can the bigger firms also pay more for those on training contracts as they currently set the ‘de facto’ upper limit? How can we help those from the lower income families, who may need the income to support their families?” asked Mr Tay.
Mr Tay said paid annual and sick leave should be extended to trainee lawyers during the PTP.
He said that everyone falls ill, especially amidst multiple COVID-19 waves and flu strains every year.
Under existing rules, breaks taken during the PTP are excluded from the computation of the PTP.
He recognised that there is value in the computation rule – to ensure that trainees complete the entire training period.
Mr Tay proposed that trainees would be accorded sick leave if they are unwell while requiring them to make up for the same number of days at the end of their PTP.
He also expressed concerns about trainee lawyers’ overall mental health and wellness.
He said it is also useful for trainee lawyers to have paid annual leave.
“Any positive move and step can better our workers’ welfare overall,” Mr Tay said.
To reiterate his calls for trainee lawyers’ basic employment rights, Mr Tay cited examples of how the PTP is similar to employment contracts.
First, law firms exercise substantial control over the trainee’s work.
Mr Tay said that besides training the trainee, supervising solicitors or other lawyers in the firm set timelines, guide, review, and provide input to the trainee’s work before the work is sent to the client for approval.
Second, trainees are interviewed by and selected by the law firm.
Mr Tay said this is presumably based on the individual’s skills, character and fit to retain the trainee at the end of the PTP.
“This contrasts with a contract for services, whereby a particular vendor is engaged to provide general services,” he added.
Third, trainees have access to and use the firm’s equipment and resources in the course of the trainee’s work. The equipment and resources include the firm’s laptop and legal research websites.
Fourth, the trainee is remunerated through regular honorariums rather than commissions or tips.
Fifth, some PTP contracts stipulate trainees’ working hours and duration, which contrasts with independent contractors, who have flexible schedules.
Sixth, trainees are typically only allowed to work for one employer or law firm at any point. Should the trainee wish to change firms, the trainee must notify the Singapore Institute of Legal Education (SILE) beforehand.
This is unlike independent contractors who may work for multiple service buyers simultaneously.
Lastly, he said that if a ‘contract of service’ defined under the Employment Act includes an apprenticeship contract, a training contract offered to graduates should likewise be classified as a ‘contract of service’ with attendant benefits.
In her response regarding honorariums and leave benefits during the lengthened PTP, Senior Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) Rahayu Mahzam said that the ministry understands these concerns.
She said these issues are in discussions with the working group consisting of MinLaw, SILE, the Supreme Court and the Law Society.
She added: “We encourage training SLPs (Singapore Law Practice, or firms) to provide fair and reasonable honorarium that recognises trainees’ contributions and allows them to meet their financial obligations.”
Mr Rahayu recognised that larger honorariums would have to be balanced against potential increases in costs to firms, particularly the smaller ones.
“At present, there is no legislation prohibiting training SLPs from charging [clients] for trainees’ work. The Law Society has released guidance on such charging, which could help defray some costs of a longer PTP.
“Charging up for trainees’ work would also recognise trainees’ contributions and engender a greater sense of belonging within the profession,” she said.
Regarding paid sick and annual leave, Ms Rahayu said that MinLaw, SILE and the Law Society are looking into granting leave days and medical leave as part of the lengthened PTP.