Working back-breaking hours, for little or no money, brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘pro-bono’, says Iain Mackinnon

We've all been there; been left out of pocket after completing a piece of work. It’s common enough in many lines of work, and certainly very common for those who are self-employed, as barristers are.

There’s a lot written about how the legal profession is dominated by the middle classes, and what might be done about it [Read People Management’s feature on the subject here]. There’s wide recognition that the high costs of the training are a big factor in that bias, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about the fact that junior barristers so often work for nothing.

My daughter got paid £50 the other day, for some work she did back in 2008.  2008! It’s a tiny part of the more than £20,000 she’s still owed for work she’s done as a junior barrister, most of which she will probably never see.

Apparently, it is common practice for solicitors to avoid paying junior barristers at all, for work they’ve done. And it’s quite blatant. On one occasion a solicitor she regularly worked for was so impressed that my daughter had won a particular case that he said: “Do you know what, I’m going to pay you for that one!”

And at one stage she had an “aged debtors” list – people who owed her money – which topped £50,000.

It gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘pro bono’.

It does seem a remarkable burden to ask a junior barrister to carry when their initial earnings are so poor. One month in the early days my daughter was paid just £50. Earnings pick up, and she’s doing well now, but junior barristers have got to fund those early years somehow.

My daughter had a scholarship and she lived at home, rent free, but others aren’t so lucky and really struggle, or never try in the first place.

The practice is so well-established that even the Inland Revenue makes allowance for it. For the first seven years after a barrister is called to the bar, they are taxed on what they earn, rather than what they invoice.  In other words, they don’t get taxed on the money they are owed, only the bit which actually reaches them.

My daughter’s now reached that seven-year point and she faces a dilemma:  Does she write off what’s still owed (removing her potential tax liability), on the basis that most of it will never reach her, or pay the tax and ask the clerks in her chambers to re-double their efforts to get it back for her?

More senior barristers are sympathetic, and it was certainly worse in their day. It’s the norm that more senior colleagues always buy the drinks for juniors, and so on, but the seniors still tolerate the practice.

There’s swings and roundabouts: a solicitor who pays a junior nothing, may also bring in some much better paid Crown Court work for more established members of chambers. And keeping in with key solicitors is an important part of the business side of the law.

All that works if junior barristers can afford to carry the huge cash flow burden in the early years – or have parents who can afford to help out. But would you call that good HR practice? And would you design the system that way if you were trying to encourage wider entry into the profession?

I suspect the answer is probably not.