Melbourne lawyer Graeme Efron will be forced to provide back pay to a law student who slogged at his firm for 11 months on a “work experience placement”.
Mr Efron is also facing pecuniary penalties in a case that will send a warning to firms about how they treat graduates trying to get their foot in the door.
Federal Circuit Court judge Suzanne Jones last month found Mr Efron’s firm Efron & Associates had failed to pay law student Saul Finberg his proper wages and entitlements while he was employed from March 2013 until February 2014.
Judge Jones found Mr Efron, who has acted for a colourful list of clients, had also breached the Fair Work Act by failing to provide Mr Finberg with pay slips and keep proper employee records.
The case comes amid growing concern at the number of law graduates being pumped out by universities in a tough legal market, with one Adelaide firm recently trying to offer graduates the chance to buy themselves a job for $22,000.
Mr Efron instructed Mr Finberg to describe himself as a “law clerk” and charged clients for his time — while paying him a paltry $10 an hour.
Mr Finberg juggled his legal studies at Melbourne’s Monash University with long hours at the firm, including a trip to Adelaide to assist counsel during a trial. The 25-year-old, who has since completed his degree, conducted legal research, drafted court documents and correspondence to clients and attended a property settlement unsupervised, among other tasks.
Three months after his employment ended, Mr Finberg sued his former boss for $28,883 plus interest he said was owing to him and pecuniary penalties.
Mr Efron, who did not respond to The Australian’s request for comment yesterday, at first argued Mr Finberg was at all times on a “work experience placement”, admitting only shortly before the final hearing that he was an employee.
The Melbourne lawyer’s client list includes colourful property identity David Marriner, who was recently embroiled in a high-profile dispute with developer Albert Dadon over a $12.4 million payment for 10 apartments.
Mr Efron also acted for Opes Prime director Anthony Blumberg and former music promoter Milorad “Michael” Trkulja, who successfully sued Google and Yahoo! for defamation over their publication of pictures that purported to link Mr Trkulja to gangland figures after he was shot in the back.
Warlows Legal managing partner Harriet Warlow-Shill, who acted for Mr Finberg, said she decided to take the case because she “really had sympathy for the plaintiff in this case”.
She said she believed the amount of graduates being churned out by law schools was “irresponsible”.
“We have effectively flooded the legal market so it just begs for this sort immoral work arrangements being made and law students being taken advantage of,” she said.
Ms Warlow-Shill joins a growing list of senior lawyers and academics who have raised concerns about the issue, with the most recent figures collated by the federal Education Department revealing the number of law graduates had jumped 10.2 per cent in a year.
The increase comes amid a tough legal jobs market, with the number of graduates recruited by the leading firms slumping 11.7 per cent last year, according to The Australian’s partnership survey.
Adelaide firm Adlawgroup, an offshoot of established Adelaide commercial law practice WBH Legal, recently tried to offer graduates the chance to buy themselves a job for $22,000 but the Law Society rejected its business model.
Ms Warlow-Shill said she believed the case sent a “great message” to law firms.
“As lawyers we are standard setters for the community,” she said.
“We should be the first ones to be maintaining human rights and an important human right is to be paid for the work that you do.”
Judge Jones found that Mr Finberg had been employed as a Level 4 legal, clerical and administrative employee under the award.
The matter is due back in court in December to determine the amount Mr Efron owes to Mr Finberg and any pecuniary penalties.