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Unpaid work experience: A bar to diversity?

© Richard Duszczak

About The Author

Jade Rigby (Writer)

Jade is a third year Law student at Newcastle University. She is currently completely an Erasmus year abroad at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, and will return to Newcastle in 2015. Jade is predominantly interested in commercial law, but also writes on criminal and private law topics.

Imagine a lawyer. What type of person do you visualise? Traditionally, a majority of people would answer this question with the following characteristics: white, British, male, middle or upper class, or privately educated. What does this say about the accessibility of the legal professions?

Diversity is one of the most prominent issues in the legal profession today. A recent report by Young Legal Aid Lawyers has suggested that the increasing importance of work experience could spell disaster for the diversity of the legal profession. Inflated student debts and increasingly low starting salaries mean that many aspiring lawyers from lower socio-economic backgrounds could be deterred from legal careers. Work experience is a competitive prize for all aspiring lawyers, but if individuals are unable to afford the costs accumulated whilst on placement, then less financially able applicants will be seriously disadvantaged when trying to secure a training contract or pupillage.

Work experience at a law firm or chambers is invaluable to anyone thinking of becoming a legal professional. Most university degrees fail to give many students a realistic view of the legal sector, whereas completing a vacation scheme or mini-pupillage enables successful candidates to gain practical experience. Crucially, work experience is one of the best ways to figure out whether or not you are right for the career you are attempting to break into. Moreover, employers utilise work experience placements to scrutinise potential trainees or pupils. As recognised by employment giant TARGETjobs, work experience can greatly increase the chance of securing a training contract or pupillage, especially if the candidate impresses the firm or chambers during their placement. Every successful applicant on a work experience placement has the opportunity to network amongst the firm or chambers they are placed, which can make their future application stand out from the crowd.

The problem with work experience placements is that, even if successful applicants are paid for their time, there are still significant costs, which ultimately determines whether someone applies for such an opportunity. Firstly, as most work experience placements are highly competitive, applicants often have to undergo an interview or a series of interviews. Travelling to an assessment centre can be very expensive. International students or aspiring lawyers from the extremities of the country may have to fly, or even spend a night or two at a hotel. As many large firms are located in the heart of London, the price for travel and accommodation is not likely to be cheap. Many firms reimburse applicants for reasonable travel costs, but this is not often extended to cover the costs of the actual work experience placements. Successful applicants then have to budget for their travel, food, accommodation and other expenses whilst completing their internships. Most magic and silver circleLondon firms offer candidates between £200-£300 as payment for their work, but it is questionable whether this would cover a weeks worth of expenses in the capital.  Regional firms are much less likely to offer financial rewards for undertaking work experience, and as such, applicants from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds stand to miss many crucial employment opportunities. Students who aspire to the Bar typically face an even worse financial position; reasonable travel expenses may be covered by a set of chambers, but mini-pupillages do not usually offer any other form of payment. 

During university holidays, students usually return home. Aspiring lawyers from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are likely to have to attain employment between university semesters in order to support themselves or to relieve financial pressures at home. Students at home may have to pay rent in order to help their parents and guardians sustain household costs during the holidays. In this situation, unpaid work experience may be unmanageable. Work experience schemes are usually between one and three weeks long, but it is unlikely that an employer will allow a temporary employee to be absent for this duration. University summers are typically a few months long, so it may seem that a few weeks does not make much of a difference to many students. To others, however, it is out of the question to sacrifice a summer-long, paid job for a few weeks of unpaid work.

The costs of work experience can create a divide between applicants from differing socio-economic backgrounds. Diversity concerns are being driven by the increasing trend for legal firms and in-house teams recruiting principally from their vacation scheme pools. The Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) legal department, for example, only draws trainees from their Summer Vacation Schemes. Aspiring lawyers who cannot afford work experience expenses will therefore be largely cut off from these legal departments. This problem is not reserved to the solicitorsprofession. More often than not, aspiring barristers secure pupillages because of a contact they have made either networking or whilst on a previous mini-pupillage. This is a very real and serious threat to the diversity of the sector, because it entrenches the middle-class lawyer stereotype. Ultimately, if these the legal sphere fails to address concerns about diversity, then "the practice of law is going to be very different... And it will help if you have wealthy parents."

Diversity is crucial to the effectiveness of the legal sector. By encouraging a diverse workforce, a firm or chambers can benefit from a broad spectrum of experiences, which can result in alternative business ideas and innovative client approaches. It is also important for the public to perceive a firm or chambers to manifest diversity because this will give the business a positive reputation. Simply put, diversity encourages further business and strengthens the perception of a business’s brand. A firm’s reputation is tied to public confidence, which inevitably encourages new business.

Smaller firms, although potentially unable to take on new recruits every year, still stand to gain by encouraging aspiring lawyers to seek work experience with their firm. At the very least, this is a method of brand management in the local community. At best, a small firm may find a future trainee. Even if this does not happen, taking on a student who is completing work experience gives junior staff in the firm the opportunity to exercise and develop their leadership skills. As newly qualified staff progress through the infrastructure of a smaller firm, they will gain greater responsibility. Unpaid work experience therefore is a valuable training tool not just for aspiring lawyers, but also for newly qualified professionals.

How should the legal sector respond to the diversity issue? There are a number of possible solutions. In very general terms, something has to be done about the lack of work experience opportunities available to aspiring lawyers. Work experience schemes are often limited to week long periods, and are only offered to a select number of successful candidates. If firms and chambers offered more placements, then more aspiring lawyers would be able to gain invaluable hands-on experience. Arguably, larger firms should take a much more active role where work experience is concerned. Some of the biggest law firms in the country employ hundreds of lawyers, so it is disappointing that many only offer a limited number of work experience placements. Taking on a student for some work experience need not be a burden in larger firms because there are many staff members who can oversee the student for the duration of the placement. 

In order to address the problems of unpaid work experience, the legal sector could take a number of approaches.

Firstly, firms should ensure that candidates on work placement schemes are paid at least minimum wage for their time. This is not an outlandish suggestion; many successful applicants are eager to impress the firm and will undertake a variety of work, which relieves some pressure on the firm’s own trainees. This could, however, discourage smaller firms from offering work placement opportunities.

Secondly, firms could offer to reimburse expenses. Although many applicants are afforded this privilege at interview stage, very few firms actually take into account the expenses of the work experience placement. This does not have to be a great burden on the firm; targeting work experience schemes at local students, for example, could minimise costs whilst encouraging diversity. Allen and Overy, for example, are committed to offering work experience to students who live locally to their offices. Although Allen and Overy is a large firm, their scheme demonstrates how a firm can fulfill a corporate responsibility to the community.

Thirdly, so as to mimimise the costs of work experience placements to law firms or chambers, these businesses could offer insight days. This would offer aspiring lawyers one day at the office. Although the duration of the scheme limits the utility of the placement, any insight into the life of a lawyer will be beneficial. The cost to the company and to the successful applicant will also be minimal because of the short duration. Linklaters pioneered a similar scheme in 2011; the Pathfinder scheme is a two-day experience that introduces aspiring lawyers to the culture and work of the firm. Significantly, it is aimed at first year students or those completing a four-year degree, which will enable aspiring lawyers to get a ‘foot in the door’ early on in their academic careers.

Significantly, the Inner Temple has also taken a tentative step towards addressing the issue of diversity at the Bar. The Inner temple Pegasus Access Scheme is specifically aimed at particular social groups to enable aspiring barristers, who would not otherwise have the connections or confidence to apply for a mini-pupillage, to undertake work experience. The scheme demonstrates an important commitment to diversity because it recognises that there are aspiring barristers who are deterred from the profession due to financial obstacles.

Ultimately, the legal profession is in danger of slipping back into its secluded ways. Unpaid work experience has become a bar to diversity, and the legal professions must attempt to rectify this. The legal sector can greatly benefit from diversity; fresh ideas and alternative outlooks can enhance a law firm’s or chambers’ competitive edge. Work experience is the key to breaking into a career, but a greater number of opportunities must be offered to a more diverse range of people in order to ensure equality and fairness, and to displace the oft-cited lawyer stereotype.

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Tagged: Legal Careers

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