State legal services ‘at risk’ over higher private sector pay

Retention of solicitors in public sector increasingly problematic as economy recovers

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heard the starting salary for solicitors in the public sector is about €30,000, while the equivalent for trainees in private firms stands at about €60,000.  The latter figure was revised to a maximum of €50,000 in Dublin by legal sources. File photograph: Getty Images

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heard the starting salary for solicitors in the public sector is about €30,000, while the equivalent for trainees in private firms stands at about €60,000. The latter figure was revised to a maximum of €50,000 in Dublin by legal sources. File photograph: Getty Images

 

The State’s legal services are being undermined by the private sector offering significantly higher salary levels to attract qualified solicitors and creating a scenario which “poses a serious threat” to the sector.

Chief State Solicitor Eileen Creedon and Barry Donoghue, deputy director at the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), have warned that since the onset of economic recovery, the recruitment and retention of staff has become increasingly problematic.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heard the starting salary for solicitors in the public sector is about €30,000, while the equivalent for trainees in private firms stands at about €60,000.

The latter figure was revised to a maximum of €50,000 in Dublin by legal sources.

Mr Donohoue said the issue was “likely to become more acute in the coming years”, while Ms Creedon, whose office currently has 13 vacancies, said it is “posing a significant risk to [her] office”.

“With the economy picking up there are more attractive financial opportunities in the private sector,” Ms Creedon told the committee, adding discussions were under way with Government to address the pay gap.

“In 2014, eight solicitors resigned, with a further 14 resigning in 2015. It has proved difficult to attract replacements.

“I am currently discussing this matter, which is posing a significant risk to the office, with Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. ”

This is of particular concern given the amount of court-based work in particular, and Ms Creedon said specialist knowledge had to be maintained.

The same concerns were aired by Mr Donoghue, who said the problem of “retaining high calibre staff” was likely to develop.

“Now that the economy is recovering, it is becoming increasingly difficult, for the public service, because of its relatively low starting salaries for lawyers, to attract and retain the calibre of legal staff required,” he said.

“After a period of retrenchment, very attractive salaries are again on offer to even newly qualified lawyers in the private sector. If we cannot attract and retain the requisite level of expertise required by the work of the prosecution service, it will create real problems in both maintaining standards and may also adversely impact on our ability to deal with all of the prosecution work requiring attention.”

Speaking to The Irish Times, Ken Murphy, director general of the Law Society, said recovery in the jobs market was “patchy”, depending on geographical location and the size of practice in particular.

“I am not surprised to hear that a gap has begun to open between long-frozen salaries for solicitors in the public sector and pay in the private sector - particularly when compared to larger commercial law firms in Dublin,” he said.