The Law Society has called on law firms to pay aspiring lawyers at least the minimum wage for work experience and to limit any unpaid positions to just four weeks. In new guidance, drawn up in collaboration with the Society’s Junior Lawyers Division, Chancery Lane urged firms to make sure any work experience opportunities was ‘clearly defined’ and ‘openly advertised and fairly recruited’.
A 2013 study by the Young Legal Aid Lawyers – One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back – argued that unpaid work experience had become ‘a significant barrier to social mobility’. Most young legal aid lawyers (89%) had done unpaid work experience, according to YLAL. ‘Those from lower income backgrounds simply cannot afford to work for free as a stepping-stone to qualification,’ the group said. In 2014 Duncan Lewis advertised for 20 legally qualified graduates to work free of charge for four weeks as ‘volunteer’ paralegals, as reported by Legal Cheek (here). The firm removed the ad.
‘While work experience is generally considered to be a good thing for aspiring trainee solicitors, sometimes the reality does not live up to expectations,’ commented Leanne Maund, chair of the Junior Lawyers Division. ‘In some cases, candidates we heard from appear to have been taken advantage of.’ The Law Society guidelines recommend that work experience opportunities be ‘remunerated to national minimum wage or above, where possible’ and, where they are unpaid, they should last ‘no longer than four weeks.
The Law Society pointed out that the number of law graduates has increased by 45% in the past decade. ‘In 2014, over 16,000 students graduated with a law degree but there were just 5,000 training contracts available,’ it said. ‘When competition for work experience is intense there is the potential for people seeking a placement to be faced with a choice between taking a position under conditions that are not in their best interests or not taking placements at all. This raises significant equality, diversity and social mobility issues, both for students and for the future of the profession.’
Chancery Lane cited as an example where work experience might be unpaid as where ‘a firm does not have the means to pay individuals coming in for work experience and would cease to be able to host such placements if payment was required’. ‘This will most likely apply to sole traders, small firms or firms operating in the social advice sector,’ it adds. It offered as a second example where the work experience student was still at school or sixth form college.
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