The Law Society which in 1979 regulated the life of the Solicitors profession had just about begun to consider the lot of the Articled Clerk. Some people considered the Law Society to be one of the closed shops of professional life that were more interested in lunching its members than protecting the public and to an extent they were correct. The Law Society was run by and for Solicitors. We members were Officers of the Court and, consequently, were predisposed to be moral, ethical and reasonable. Of course we were.
It followed therefore that we should regulate ourselves and if someone complained about our services, well, we were best placed to decide if the complaint was well founded. After all we were by nature and nurture moral ethical… you get the picture. Not for us the grubby notion of outsiders deciding if our work was of an appropriate standard. No, no, no. It would be many years before an external body – The Solicitors Regulatory Authority – would be set up under statute and charged with the task of independent oversight.
Sadly, by the same logic it was assumed that solicitors would, naturally, look after their junior brethren. We trainees. We Articled Clerks. All bollocks of course.
To try and correct this idea of an exploitative wild west in the dried up bogs of the lower ponds of legal practice, some local law societies began to introduce guidance of a sort, one set of guidance being suggesting minimum wages for the articled clerks. My firm was based in the West End of London so it fell to the Westminster Law Society to promulgate a recommended minimum. Which they did. Which was….
Woop-di-do. That of course what I was to be paid. No reason to go above that.
If you apply a calculator, converting it into a ‘what’s it worth today’ you get to about
To give you some context, someone today earning the National Minimum wage (so any job, not someone who put in the best part of 5 years in education and umpteen infernal bloody exams) they would be on (for a 35 hour week)
Not a lot in it really. Certainly none of your living wage riches that you might get today. No no no.
From this princely sum, tax and national insurance were deducted. Oh yes, even at this paltry level we had to pop a little back to the State. The residue that was my take home was so small I was actually paid in cash, in one of those little brown envelopes beloved of building sites, including a little wage slip. Each week for that first year as a trainee solicitor I took home £36.
My rent was £18.50 per week. On top I shared gas and electricity with my flat mates. I couldn’t afford to pay for the bus or the tube to work so I had no choice but to cycle. Briefly I had a motorbike the wages I’d earned working at the chemical company where my Dad worked the previous summer (take home pay an astronomical £70 a week!) but that was sold about four months in for £160 and £25 0f that used to pay for a nice push bike (the balance naturally evaporated over that year, paying for the occasional item of clothing I might need).
That bike lasted me a long time. It was undoubtedly stolen – the shop I bought it from, recommended by another articled clerk – was based on the outskirts of Brixton which even today after nearly 40 years of gentrification is still home to boarded up shops and cannabis farms – but it went like a charm. A Peugeot – who knew they made bikes – with 5 working gears and brakes that synced. If you lost such a bike in the London area circa 1978/1979 then I can only say sorry, not sorry.
So I had about £10 to live on. Which meant food was pretty much an optional extra come Wednesday and Thursday before pay day. Pot noodles featured a bit, as did cheap bread and toast. Occasionally I’d receive a fiver in a letter from my folks and use it to go home for the weekend, stacking up on food that was dry and could be carried back to London. That was when I discovered muesli, that then newfangled Swiss breakfast. Sadly the resident mouse in our flat discovered it too – I only realised when the mouse droppings appeared outside the slightly torn paper bag – the tears being oddly teeth shaped.
Lunches were, however subsidized by the expedient of the luncheon voucher. Some businesses were generous with these paper creations but the minimum (and of course I got the minimum) was 15 pence per day. For that I could buy two thirds of a cheese sandwich in Marino’s our local greasy spoon on Marylebone High Street or, as I did, cash them in at the local supermarket and make my own. Two slices of sponge board aka cheap bread and a slice of Edam or similar wax-masquerading-as-cheese and there you go.
Why 15p a day? Tax. Or rather how to avoid it. In the 1970s the then Labour Government made such a discombobulating horlicks of the economy that at one point the top marginal rate of tax was 98%. Consequently a lot of effort was put into devising ways to get benefits to employees outside of the taxable income net. Oddly governments encouraged this illogical behaviour and a whole host of schemes was spawned, one of which were luncheon vouchers upto 15p per day. After that the value was added to your income and you were taxed on it. The cashier at my firm even tried to argue that giving us more in luncheon vouchers would only increase our tax bill so by sticking to 15p a day she was doing me a favour. Prannock.
There were complicated car schemes, share option structures and all sorts, though most of these were aimed at the executive level, not at one as humble as me. This was all tax avoidance and it was ingrained in the culture . Today avoidance schemes and evasion schemes are treated as almost the same even though the former remain perfectly legal and the latter are still criminal. We are expected to be such morally perfect beings that we naturally want to pay as much tax as possible, and those who try and exploit the inadequacies of the draughtmanship of our laws are up there with Hannibal Lecter and the Honey Monster as the incarnations of evil.
If you lived in the 1970s avoiding tax was part of everyone’s mindset. How we have changed. The top of the Holier Than Thou mountain is a crowded place.
Life did get better. I was paid travel expenses to go to the courts and on by-hand deliveries. If I used my bike then I could pocket those expenses. I learnt to check with whoever was sending me how quickly they needed me at my destination; if it was urgent then a taxi might be employed – in truth, even in 1979, over a distance of five miles or under I was pretty competitive, speed wise with a cab. And five miles pretty much covered my circuit. And a cab fair could be up to a fiver for the round trip. That could keep me fed beyond Tuesday…
By taking myself off on my bike, I also learnt where things were and how to get about in London. It wasn’t foolproof. To help me, I was given an AtoZ by my mother that belonged to my long dead grandfather. In theory this showed me the street layout of the city. Sadly it came from 1936 or some such since several roads had disappeared – bombed out of existence probably sometime in the 1940s – so occasionally I’d come up against a building that, according to my book, had no right to be there. I probably learnt more, working my way around those erroneous pages than at any other time.
After a year I was given a pay rise; I can’t remember by how much but it certainly took my wages above £3000 a year. Which might have seemed pretty good save for the fact my girlfriend had now finished her degree and moved to London to start work as a trainee Insurance Broker. The Textiliste – for it was she – joined Guardian Royal Exchange in offices in St James in 1980 and was paid £4250 per year. Once again I was to be the poor relation. But at least I learnt early how to cope with having a relationship with a more successful woman. Yes, I liked being subsidised.