The proliferation of unpaid work experience in the legal aid sector is creating a barrier to social mobility, according to a group representing young solicitors. 

A report by Young Legal Aid Lawyers also says that high levels of debt combined with low salaries are making legal aid careers unsustainable for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Of 165 respondents to a survey, 65% estimated they had or would have debts adding up to £15,000 to pay for their studies; 15% said the figure was over £35,000. Meanwhile half earned less than £20,000 a year and 5% earned less than £10,000. Only 11% were earning over £35,000. 

The report notes a trend of unpaid work experience, particularly in the legal aid sector, meaning only those who could afford to do it could go into that area of work. Of the respondents, 89% said they had done unpaid legal work experience.

Work experience was thought to be beneficial to students, in part because they felt that that vocational courses did not prepare them sufficiently for practice.

The report calls for the Solicitors Regulation Authority to reinstate the minimum salary for trainee solicitors and for profession course fees to be subject to regulation.

It recommends that funds be allocated to facilitate work experience placements in the legal aid sector.

The report also calls for robust guidance from the Law Society and Bar Council on acceptable and lawful use of longer-term unpaid work placements and says that recruitment guidance dealing with the problems of unpaid work experience should be actively promoted by the profession.

It also suggests that professional bodies consider replacing the current route to qualification with a form of work-based learning.

Speaking at the report’s publication, the country’s most senior female judge Lady Hale (pictured) warned that the ‘precipitous decline’ in legal aid, coupled with the high cost of legal education and low wages was forcing ‘diverse and socially mobile’ lawyers from the profession.  

She cited figures showing that the social diversity of legal profession has gone into reverse, with a growing percentage of entrants from Oxbridge and Russell Group universities.

‘What is going on now is the opposite of everything that many people of my generation hoped for and indeed thought was coming to pass,’ she said.

Hale expressed concern over the ‘greatly increased’ number of law schools, the number of law graduates, and the number of people qualifying as barristers, solicitors and legal executives at a time when the number of law jobs available is diminishing.

The full report is available here .