Paying aspiring lawyers to undertake work experience makes both moral and business sense.
Five years ago the Junior Lawyers Division polled members about being asked to work for free. There were some shocking stories, including one lawyer with both a GDL and LPC distinction who worked full-time for free for two years before taking a job on the minimum wage and commuting 36 miles a day.
As some parts of the profession continue to struggle under legal aid cuts or market pressures, financial forecasts from the Law Society suggest that – on the whole – things are looking up for 2015 and beyond.
It is hardly a 1980s boom, but I hoped that as the economy got back on its feet things might start improving for budding junior lawyers. Unfortunately, the findings of our latest JLD Early Work Experience Survey suggests that all is not rosy. While pressure may have been removed from some firms, junior lawyers continue to feel the squeeze of increased legal education costs, dependence on family for financial support and continued pressure to undertake unpaid work experience.
Nearly four in five junior lawyers have undertaken unpaid work experience hoping it would help secure a training contract. While many thought some tasks were tedious, half did find the overall experience useful and 91% thought they had gained experience. Research from the Association of Graduate Recruiters, cited in a recent Sutton Trust report, suggests that work experience does pay off, with at least half of entry-level vacancies at leading law firms filled by graduates who have already completed work experience at the firm.
Our own research revealed some interesting points on paralegal work. Many graduates who are unable to secure a training contract turn to paralegal work hoping to get a second chance at a training contract. Just over half make the jump, but with regulatory changes and apprenticeship schemes on the way, the paralegal route could be the future.
The cost of education and the amount of debt are affecting the areas of law that graduates pursue. Two-thirds of junior lawyers have had to prioritise short-term earning potential over long-term career goals to pay off debt. This will ultimately present shortages in the future for less lucrative areas of law such as family and legal aid.
Seasoned lawyers may ask why it matters that the next generation of lawyers is saddled with debt and leaning on families to prop them up during extended unpaid or low-paid placements.
It matters because it will turn the clock back on diversity, excluding those who are not able to depend on parents, writing off scores of potential candidates who may be better qualified or more suitable for the role than their luckier counterparts. That cannot make business sense in the long-term. Without diversity, innovation in firms is stifled, affecting how well they can serve clients. Earlier this year, the Society set out a business case on why law firms should be bothered about diversity and inclusion.
To help firms get the most out of work placements, there is guidance available. The Law Society signed up to the government’s ‘Common Best Practice Code for High-Quality Internships’ several years ago. It reiterates the point that paying a salary for internships helps to facilitate wider access to the profession and attracts the best candidates.
For shorter work experience placements, the guide that the Society produced for firms on the Diversity Access Scheme is just as relevant to any firm organising placements, covering important issues such as what quality experience should include: varied work, networking opportunities and an insight into a practice and the roles within it.
As firms start to recruit for work placements, it is a good time to look at what they hope to get out of it. Invest in the short-term and it will pay dividends in the long-term. It cannot be right to expect the next generation to work for free after building up years of debt to fund their studies.
Sophia Dirir, chair of the Law Society Junior Lawyers Division and senior lawyer at Action for Children