Best practice guidance: work experience placements

This guidance represents our view of good practice for employers who provide work experience to those seeking experience of a legal career.

  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. The purpose of work experience
  4. Good practice
  5. The type of work that should be undertaken
  6. Feedback and references
  7. Other considerations

1. Introduction

In following this guidance, providers of legal services, as employers, will be promoting fair access to the legal profession.

Employers should also be aware that work experience may now count towards an individual’s qualifying work experience (QWE) for the purposes of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), particularly where placements are of a longer period of time and more complex in nature.

2. Background

The legal profession has become increasingly competitive, with the number of law graduates having increased by 45% in the past decade.

Many individuals looking to qualify as a solicitor will seek to undertake some form of work experience within the profession before applying for training contracts, or longer placements for qualifying work experience for the SQE.

The profession has increasingly placed a premium on previous experience when deciding whom to recruit and many larger organisations use vacation or shorter work experience placements as part of their recruitment process.

Legal work experience provides aspiring solicitors with the opportunity to:

  • gain exposure to legal work and therefore the ability to make an informed career choice
  • demonstrate their commitment to joining the profession to prospective employers

Where competition for work experience is intense, there's the potential for individuals to be faced with a choice between taking placements under conditions that are not in their best interests or not taking placements at all.

This environment raises significant issues for equality, diversity and social mobility, both for students and for the future of the profession.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has highlighted that firms can run work experience schemes of good value remotely.

Whilst these ‘virtual vacation schemes’ or ‘remote work experience’ opportunities may not be appropriate in all circumstances, it's something that firms are encouraged to consider as a way to widen access to the profession.

For example, accessing these opportunities in-person can present issues for those for whom travel and accommodation costs are prohibitive or those with disabilities.

In these cases, a virtual scheme offers a good opportunity to experience the work of the profession.

3. The purpose of work experience

(a) For the student

High-quality work experience should provide:

  • insight and information about careers in the legal profession
  • the chance to learn about and develop the key skills that are needed in the legal profession
  • sufficient exposure to legal work to enable the individual to make an informed career choice

(b) For the firm or organisation offering work experience

Offering work experience can offer several benefits for your business, including:

  • assisting in the recruitment of potential future employees
  • complying with corporate social responsibility and/or equal opportunities objectives of your organisation
  • raising your organisation’s profile, building better community relationships, and obtaining and providing greater networking and marketing opportunities

4. Good practice

In order to be fair and accessible, work experience opportunities should:

  • be clearly defined, particularly where they may equate to qualifying work experience for the purposes of the SQE
  • be openly advertised and fairly recruited
  • be remunerated to national minimum wage or above, where possible
  • cover reasonable expenses incurred by participants

(a) Defining work experience

An employer should make clear when advertising and offering a work experience placement what the expectations are, including, but not limited to:

  • how long the placement will last
  • the normal hours of work you expect the individual may attend
  • whether the placement will be paid or unpaid
  • expenses that will be reimbursed
  • what type of work the individual may be expected to observe or undertake

While there is no legal requirement for a written work experience agreement, it can be helpful in order to clarify:

  • the role of the individual on work experience during the placement
  • the start and finish dates of the work experience placement
  • hours of attendance
  • the location of the work experience placement
  • any specific learning objectives
  • any induction or training procedures
  • the methods for reimbursing expenses
  • health and safety matters, and as appropriate, any welfare or safeguarding issues
  • confidentiality and data protection

The information commissioner has warned employers about the importance of making sure that temporary staff who regularly handle personal information receive adequate data protection training. 

Read the employment practices code from the Information Commissioner's Office

This is likely to be of particular relevance to temporary employees in an office where solicitors work because of solicitors’ duties of confidentiality and the sensitive nature of the personal data they handle.

Whether or not there is an agreement, the work experience provider owes a duty of care to the law student under health and safety law.

If the individual is below the age of 18, it may be necessary to consider certain measures for their protection under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (for example, see regulation 3(4) about the requirement for risk assessments).

Terms offered to individuals on work experience should not be unfair or discriminatory in any way.

(b) Advertising work experience

Work experience should be openly recruited to ensure fair access to potential participants.

Depending on the size and reach of your organisation, you may wish to advertise work experience placements:

  • on your website
  • through engagement with local schools and colleges
  • at universities
  • through the local or legal press
  • through a recruitment agency or specialist charity such as AccessProfessions

(c) Remunerating work experience placements

Work experience should be paid to at least the national minimum wage.

However, we accept that there will be occasions where work experience placements are unpaid.

Examples of when work experience might be unpaid include:

  • where the work experience student is still in school or sixth form college
  • 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

Where work experience placements are unpaid, they should last no longer than four weeks.

If your organisation needs an individual to perform tasks for a particular period, you should consider the needs of your business.

Engaging an individual as a paid employee may serve your purposes better. You may be able to recruit and retain someone who can assist you efficiently because they are familiar with your business needs and systems, and ensure that you comply with relevant legislation and conduct issues.

(d) Paying expenses

Regardless of whether work experience is paid or unpaid, reasonable expenses should always be reimbursed. This is in line with good practice and may support any social mobility policy your organisation may have.

The type of expenses you wish to reimburse may include basic costs incurred, such as travel or lunch.

When paying expenses, you should clearly identify the basis of all payments and reimburse sums against receipts wherever possible.

You should keep receipts and records of any money paid to an individual on work experience.

5. The type of work that should be undertaken

A structured work plan with clear goals and objectives will enable both the individual and your organisation to understand what tasks are to be assigned, and how work is to be managed during the placement. This should enable individuals to make the best use of their skills and to gain valuable, structured experience.

Where there's capacity, it's preferable to nominate one individual to mentor the individual on work experience and provide feedback on their performance.

In the case of those under 18, you should consider whether this may give rise to any safeguarding requirements.

The tasks that are appropriate for an individual to undertake will depend on the level of legal education and training already received.

For example, tasks relevant to an individual who has not yet started their legal education may be less appropriate for an individual who is part-way through, or has completed a law degree – and vice versa. Therefore you should consider the tasks allocated to each individual carefully.

The purpose and potential benefit of work experience will change depending on:

  • the stage an individual has reached on their legal pathway (whether to qualify as a solicitor or other legal career)  
  • the individual's knowledge, skills and experience

The following examples may be useful when considering appropriate tasks to allocate to an individual, but are not intended to be definitive or restrictive.

Tasks for an individual studying for A Levels

  • Shadowing fee-earners and attending appropriate meetings for the sole purpose of exposing them to a 'day as a solicitor'

Tasks for an individual studying at degree level, or who has completed their degree

  • Work as above
  • Working on example files, based on matters that have already been completed
  • Meaningful administrative tasks such as helping to put together bundles or files
  • Basic research on areas of law
  • Qualitative legal work and research which is not billed to clients – this may include researching an area of law and drafting a memo to the trainee solicitor or solicitor working on the case
  • Where appropriate, reading the background to a case at the same time as a solicitor, and discussing the merits of the claim

Determining appropriate tasks

It's generally not appropriate for an individual undertaking work experience at your organisation to:

  • perform billable client work, or
  • be expected to work outside of the hours agreed as part of the work experience agreement

However, there may be examples, for instance where a student is engaged in a year-long placement as part of a course of study, where involvement in billable client work would be good experience for them and some flexibility around hours may be understandable.

Common sense should be exercised when determining the appropriateness of arrangements for individuals in these and similar circumstances.

6. Feedback and references

Prior to commencing the placement, it's important to clearly communicate what feedback and references will be provided, whether for QWE or for the purposes of references.

At the end of the work experience placement, you should have a final meeting with the individual and give them a written factual reference detailing the:

  • work they've undertaken
  • skills and experience they've gained

This is particularly important where an individual may wish to use a longer placement towards their QWE for the SQE. Any work undertaken should be noted against the relevant competencies and confirmed as appropriate.

This meeting will also give you an opportunity to ask for feedback from the individual on the quality of their work experience.

Gathering information and feedback may prove useful when you're considering offering work experience in the future, as well as when considering future recruitment.

7. Other considerations

Organisations offering work experience placements should carefully consider any employment law implications that may arise.

Be aware that data protection, and anti-discrimination and health and safety laws will also apply.

In some cases, child protection legislation may also be relevant.

Remember that:

  • an individual may be protected by discrimination legislation even if they're not engaged by your organisation as a worker or an employee
  • it's appropriate to ask work experience participants to sign confidentiality agreements
  • where students aged under 18 are on office premises, you should consider whether there should be at least one person in the room who has had a disclosure and barring service (DBS) check, depending on the circumstances and nature and regularity of the work involved
  • no client information or records should be disclosed without the consent of the client(s) to whom they belong; students on work experience should not be present at meetings with a client or where their matters are being discussed without the consent of the client
  • it’s important to be transparent with clients regarding the fact that you may periodically have work experience students on the premises, and to indicate what age group these students fall into – clients must know whether and to what extent students may have access to their confidential information and records, and the controls that are in place; clients must be given an opportunity to refuse to allow such access, as well as assurances as to how this access will be restricted if necessary
  • firms should consider which files are appropriate to disclose to those under 18 years old, both in terms of the inability of under 18s to consent to a confidentiality agreement, and whether the material is appropriate – for example, cases relating to child abuse or sensitive material relating to:
    • relatives
    • neighbours
    • school friends, or
    • anyone likely to be known to them

Further information

The government has produced a common best practice code on high-quality internships.

Our Junior Lawyers Division is a community for:

  • Legal Practice Course (LPC) and SQE students
  • paralegals
  • trainee solicitors, and
  • solicitors up to five years qualified

Read our virtual work experience case studies