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Opinions of Monday, 19 February 2018

Columnist: Anonymous

Law; the prestigious profession that pays ‘peanuts’ in Ghana

For a profession considered prestigious, the reward that comes with it in Ghana is rather discouraging. Most law firms pay a terrible pittance to their lawyers. The structure of most firms revolve around one person or one family of lawyers who ride the backs of their lawyer-staff so strongly but never share the large profits that come to the firm or if they do, share very little of it.

It is ridiculous that as at 2014, I personally knew only three law firms that were paying their lawyers more than GHC1, 500 or GHC2000 a month, and I know a lot of firms because I've been working in different firms in various positions for 12 years now. The situation is not very different from today.

In Ghana, lawyers are people who have been in tertiary level schooling for at least 8 years yet they make such pittance. There are big (and I mean big) law firms today paying their lawyers less than 1000gh a month. I know a big law firm in Labone paying lawyers GHC600 today.

My friend actually quit that firm a few months back. There's this famous lawyer that every law student and lawyer knows who doesn't even give a salary at all - he pays commissions on cases worked twice a year. If you run out of money anytime during the year while working for him, he expects that you make it to work somehow by 7am and yes, he also has no closing time (an affront to our labour laws). Some of his lawyers are summoned to his office even on Sundays. That's how ridiculous it is.

Many senior lawyers do this too - it works great hardship on freshly called lawyers who are expected to work for their own living expenses. Using myself as an example, the highest money I earned while working for someone was 1000gh even as a qualified lawyer, all the way up to the end of 2015. And I was working crazy hours from 7am to sometimes beyond 8pm. My salary never took me beyond 12 days.

Sometimes I just couldn't make it to work because I didn't have the funds to transport myself there, which also led to squabbles with my bosses frequently, all of which was a great dampener to my spirit. Ever since I moved on, by the Grace of God, I have flourished because I work when I have work and I stay home when I don't. I don't spend money on transport and food that I don't have or don’t have to spend while working a slave routine every day for 5 days a week.

The freedom and space that having your own job brings is in itself wealth and it can't be quantified. There is a fight that needs to be waged today for the economic security of lawyers, particularly young lawyers, in Ghana.

SOLUTION:

-The GBA and GLC need to set a minimum living wage for lawyers employed by its registered law firms. As a minimum, they can peg it to the basic salaries of State Attorneys as a start (it is an unfortunate upside-down fact that lawyers in public sector employment make more money per month than most of those in private firms).

-They must enforce this on registered law firms employing lawyers other than its founders or partners. Since all the money in a firm goes to the founders or partners, they themselves can choose to take salaries beneath the minimum wage set but if they employ anyone who is not immediately a partner (a profit sharer), they must necessarily pay them nothing less than the minimum wage set.

This would stop the exploitation that is currently in the legal employment industry. The "bosses" will be forced to either pay a proper living wage or do all the work themselves or make lawyers they wish to work with profit sharers immediately upon employment, if they wish to shed the yoke of a minimum wage set by the GBA/GLC.

- They must review these basic salaries regularly (biennially) and these salaries must be in place even if the firm chooses to incentivize its lawyers with added commissions on cases worked. In other words, commissions must not be a substitute for salaries. A lawyer must earn a basic salary even if his/her firm awards commissions on cases worked.

- The GBA/GLC must provide a safe platform for lawyers to report to it economic and other work place abuse and act to protect such whistle-blowers from backlash at their firms AND within the legal employment industry itself. Because for e.g., a senior lawyer badmouthing a whistle-blower lawyer to other senior lawyers can spell doom for that lawyer and his/her chances of employment.

-Law firms that do not meet these requirements ought to be struck off the register of law firms or their renewals at the end of each year must be refused.

-These measures must be enforced whether or not a practice is being run as a "law firm" or a "chamber". Senior lawyers have found a funny way of distinguishing between these two, all of which is aimed at paying lawyers under that structure less money.

I believe strongly that these are measures that can be implemented to improve the quality of life of lawyers in Ghana today. If the GBA is able to put together committees to bring out scheduled SCALE OF FEES on a regular basis, it can definitely commission a panel to set minimum wages for lawyers employed by law firms in Ghana today.”