Sarah Kerrich assures her: she would not see herself doing anything other than her job as a lawyer. After spending two and a half years working for a law firm in Lille as an associate, she decided to start her own business last July, mainly in the criminal field. At 29, she tames with some anxiety the pangs of this liberal profession. “Each month, I set myself a gross income of 2,500 euros: I can’t go below, otherwise I’m putting myself in financial danger”she explains to franceinfo, pointing to the very substantial charges and contributions that she must assume, of the order of 50% of what she earns.
In her pocket, the young woman pours therefore 1,000 to 1,500 euros per month, for more than fifty hours of work per week. “When I compare with my other friends who have the same level of studies (bac +7), most are 1,000 euros net more. Lawyer, it’s really a job that you have to do out of passion, certainly not for the money”she breathes.
His situation is far from isolated. While the Estates General of Justice – wanted by Emmanuel Macron – have been going on since October 2021, franceinfo has chosen to focus on the reality of the legal profession, which has little to do with the very idealized image that one can sometimes have of it. So much so that many choose to reorient themselves, often in the private sector, to be corporate lawyers. In the first ten years of activity, they are thus 30 to 40% to leave the dress, according to a report submitted to the Ministry of Justice in 2017. “There is a real disillusionment, with an absolutely enormous investment of time compared to the income, which is all in all very modest”, notes Simon Warynski, president of the National Federation of Unions of Young Lawyers. In practice or on their own account, “the hours are not counted” for a “income hardly higher than the minimum wage”.
Young lawyers are not the only ones sticking out their tongues. Virginie Marques was sworn in sixteen years ago and has been working on her own for ten years in Seine-Saint-Denis, mainly in criminal law. She always says to herself “super anxious” concerning the financial management of his practice. “You never have the same salary every month, you have to be very far-sighted, put a lot aside”she explains to franceinfo.
“The charges and the contributions are such that there are months when I can still be limited. It is a permanent source of stress which often wakes me up at night.”Virginie Marques, lawyer
She specifies that she has nothing to complain about on the side of her clientele: business is coming in, word of mouth is having an effect. But like many of her criminal colleagues, she considers her remuneration too low in relation to the time worked. “I am between 2,500 and 3,000 euros net monthly, working from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., with very dense days. My dream is not to earn a lot of money, but I would like to have a little bit more, so that I don’t have to worry. But I work in the poorest department in France… It’s a militant act to have settled in Seine-Saint-Denis”she tempers.
Jonathan Sorriaux, based in Compiègne (Oise), does not say anything else. Specialized in immigration law, he opened his firm in 2018 and considers working “65 hours a week, working six days, sometimes seven days a week”for a remuneration of “from 2,000 to 2,500 euros net per month”. Most of his files –“70%”– are the responsibility of legal aid, financial support granted to people with low resources, allowing them to be represented by a lawyer, who is therefore paid by the State. Each file is associated with a salary scale.
For an appeal procedure, aimed at responding to a notice of expulsion from the territory, this 30-year-old is paid 476 euros for “receive the client, study his documents, do research, draft the appeal, see the client again or ask him questions, and then all the administrative part”explains the lawyer. “If we look at the hourly rate, it would be better if I worked at McDonald’s”he lets go with a nervous laugh.
Sabrina*, 37, a criminal lawyer for seven years, also notes the very time-consuming aspect of certain cases. “I mainly get paid on a flat-rate basis, setting in advance the time I think I should spend on such and such a case. Sometimes I win, but often I lose.”
“I do not take into account the hours of waiting in court for example: it very often happens that I am at 2 p.m. in court for a case taken at 7 p.m. Criminal matters are the subject par excellence where we lose time.”Sabrina, lawyer
Sabrina considers working between “50 and 80 hours a week” for a remuneration that it deems “ridiculous” of “2,200 euros net approximately each month”. In March 2020, at the time of the first confinement, she believed that she was going to have to put the key under the door, like many others within the profession. Justice found itself at a standstill, but the lawyers had to continue to pay their charges, calculated on the previous year.
Only a few weeks will have been enough to make part of the profession crack: 28% of the lawyers questioned in a survey carried out by the National Bar Council (CNB) in April 2020, i.e. in the midst of the first confinement, believed that they were going to have to change profession, illustrating the quirks of a just-in-time economic operation.
Since, “It’s always difficult from a financial point of view”confides a lawyer to franceinfo, assuring that the profession “has not returned to the 2019 balance”. In another survey carried out by the CNB in March-April 2021, i.e. one year after the end of the first confinement, 57% of the lawyers who responded declared that they had a pessimistic approach to the future of the profession.
Despite the difficulties of the profession, the number of lawyers is exploding and competition is stronger than ever, particularly in criminal matters, business law and family law. “For the over 50 generation, this question did not arise when they took the oath, the cake was large enough for everyone”analyzes Simon Warynski, citing the example of Strasbourg, where he officiates: “Ten years ago, my colleagues were 400. Today, we are 1,200.” From 2009 to 2019, in France, the number of lawyers rose from 50,314 to 68,464, an increase of 36% in ten years. The big cities are particularly competitive, starting with Paris, which concentrates half of the profession.
Consequence: customers have become more and more demanding, sometimes bringing competition into play by trying to drive prices down. “Now, I don’t even try to fight anymore: if someone says to me ‘So and so is cheaper than you’, I answer: ‘Very well, go see him then'”comments Sabrina, a bit annoyed.
To this pressure is added the lack of consideration of certain clients for the work of the lawyers. Many are reluctant to pay their services or discuss the bills presented to them. This permanent negotiation exhausts Virginie Marques, who has the feeling of constantly having to justify the work done. “A client told me again the other day that he did not understand why he had to pay me a consultation, because he had the impression that we had just had a simple discussion when I was advising him at the regard to my knowledge and skills”she explains.
“When clients see us pleading, they understand what we are doing, but they find it difficult to consider all the work done upstream, it is nebulous for them.”Virginie Marques, lawyer
To this lack of consideration, the lawyers interviewed by franceinfo also point to the very recurring problem of unpaid bills. Paul David, who works in Montpellier, has had the problem several times. “We find ourselves doing the equivalent of lawsuits to get paid, but it’s long, complicated and sometimes we prefer to give up and sit on a few hundred euros”he regrets.
After having often been confronted with this situation, Virginie Marques now asks her customers to pay her as they go. “It still happens that I don’t get paid the day before the hearing, after weeks of reminders. Before, I went there anyway, I had confidence. But I’ve been so taken in that now I don’t don’t plead if I haven’t received at least the first installments. I feel guilty, it tears my heart out, but you have to be firm”she assures.
In the profession, the question of money is still very taboo. “I can’t tell my clients that I don’t earn a living. They don’t imagine that their payment depends on my rent or my week’s vacation”says Sabrina. “For many people – including colleagues – a poor lawyer is necessarily a bad lawyer”she assures.
Paul David concedes that he never had discussions with his lawyer friends on the question of possible economic difficulties. “I have been in the profession for seven years and the subject remains difficult to broach, there is a lot of modesty. We pour out very little, mostly out of shame.”
*The first name of our interlocutor has been changed at her request, for the sake of anonymity.