The average legal worker in New Zealand is working nearly a day for free each week, the results of a report released today by the Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union (ALWU) reveals.

The New Zealand Legal Industry Employment Report 2022–2023 presents the results of ALWU’s latest survey of legal workers, providing a unique snapshot of the pay, working conditions, and wellbeing of those employed in the legal industry in Aotearoa.

The results show that the average amount of overtime worked per week has jumped by 25% since 2021, with the average legal worker now working nearly six hours more than they are contracted for each week.

Working overtime is the norm for the overwhelming majority (78%) of legal workers. Rates of overtime work are highest in large private firms, where 92% of respondents regularly work overtime.

In the vast majority of cases this overtime work is unpaid, with most employment agreements lacking entitlements to paid overtime or even time off in lieu. When overtime is compensated, it is largely discretionary and takes non-monetary forms, such as gift cards.

Legal workers being squeezed to increase profitability

This data supports anecdotal evidence ALWU has received of firms increasing profitability without greater staffing by increasing “utilisation rates” of existing staff, the report notes.

It is likely that greater provision for working from home following the pandemic has contributed to the growth in overtime by legal workers, as it becomes harder to protect home life from the demands of an increasingly connected workplace.

“Employees in the legal industry are being squeezed to increase profitability – that’s not right,” says ALWU co-president Oliver Neas.

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“The average legal worker in New Zealand is working nearly a day for free each week. That’s six hours of work which the employer can bill to the client without paying for the work.

“This is happening in a context in which a significant number of legal workers continue to effectively be paid below the minimum wage, or have seen pay cuts in real terms over the past two years because of inflation.”

The number of legal workers working for less than the minimum wage increased by 50% in 2022, the report shows, with 11% of respondents working for below minimum wage due to the number of hours spent working per week.

Time for paid overtime

“It’s time for legal employers to pay their staff for every hour they work. There’s no reason firms can’t pay their staff for all the hours they work – they’re charging clients for it,” Neas says.

“Paid overtime is not only the fair thing to do, it’s also essential for addressing the well-known problems with law firm culture.

“Right now, partners at law firms don’t need to manage their staff properly because there’s no cost to them for making employees work long hours. Paid overtime will push firms to properly manage and resource their staff, helping make firms safer by helping reduce burn-out and overwork.

“Paid overtime – as was recommended by the Bazely Report into Russell McVeagh in 2018 – is essential to changing this culture to ensure that the law is a safe and inclusive profession to work in.

“Unionisation is the most effective way to achieve these changes, by empowering legal workers to have a greater say over their pay and working conditions.”

Key findings

The key findings from the New Zealand Legal Industry Employment Report 2022–2023 include the following:

  • Increasing numbers of legal workers are working beyond their contracted hours, and in almost all cases without being paid for this overtime work. The average number of overtime hours worked per week rose by 25% from 2021.
  • Median salaries for junior lawyers either fell in real terms or only just kept up with inflation. The employers of nearly half of respondents took no action in response to rising inflation and the cost of living crisis.
  • The number of legal workers working for less than the minimum wage jumped by 50% in the last year, likely reflecting the increase in the amount of unpaid overtime work undertaken by junior lawyers.
  • Under-recording of work is widespread, with more than three quarters of legal workers not recording all their time working on their workplace’s time recording system. This suggests that unrecorded time may not be recognised by some employers as work relevant for the calculation of remuneration.
  • Among legal workers, those working in private firms are least satisfied with their pay and job overall, and job satisfaction is marginally higher among male legal workers than female legal workers.

The full report can be accessed here.

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