The work experience dilemma
We’ve all been there. You finish university, perhaps your LPC too, only to find that you cannot get any work experience (voluntary or paid) because you don’t have any experience. It’s a vicious circle which can be hard to break out from.
In 2016, the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) worked with the Law Society to produce best practice guidance for work experience in light of growing concerns of junior lawyers carrying out long periods of unpaid work experience.
The JLD consider that these type of placements were unacceptable and that junior lawyers should be paid a fair wage for their work, and any unpaid placements not lasting longer than four weeks.
The guidance was drawn up to promote fairer access to the legal profession and recommended that junior lawyers who undertook work experience should be paid, wherever possible, at least the national minimum wage.
At the time, the Law Society noted that the profession increasingly placed a premium on previous work experience when deciding who to recruit.
It was also recognised that where competition for work experience is intense, there is the potential for candidates to be faced with a choice between taking placements that are not in their best interests or not taking placements at all.
The work experience dilemma
Four years on, while scrolling through the LinkedIn abyss, I came across a post about the work experience dilemma.
The person posting is an aspiring solicitor who has completed their law degree, including a masters, looking for work experience after all that studying.
However this time, despite the 2016 guidance, the problem is even more worrying. The post is about a company that has a solution to help you break free from the problem.
The premise is simple; pay some money and the company will 'place you' in a work experience position and provide you with a reference at the end. How much? £1,195!
The particularly sneaky behaviour behind this particular company is that they do not mention any costs at all during the initial process. They claim to be a consulting outfit that will help you find an entry-level position.
Once you have applied to be a candidate, you receive an e-mail congratulating you on ‘being accepted’. However, the first step? Follow a link and make a payment. Once the payment is made, you will be contacted by the ‘experience team’.
What is it that you get exactly for £1,195? In this example, you will secure three months’ work experience working remotely, seven to 10 hours a week over the three-month period.
You cannot complete this training over a shorter period with more hours. However, you will obtain a reference for completing work experience as a ‘trainee paralegal’.
A growing problem
When I stumbled across this post I thought it may be an isolated incident or perhaps just one company. However, it is clear from the comments that many other aspiring solicitors have been approached by similar companies.
A different company offers a guaranteed ‘Legal Work Placement Programme’. For just £1,195 you will be provided with four to 12 weeks of online training with a multiple choice question examination at the end.
If you're successful in the examination, you'll be issued a certificate and reference for law work experience. If you have trouble covering the cost of course, you may join from £395 and agree a payment plan spreading the cost of the course over a number of months.
These are just two companies and I am confident there are more. The concern is that these companies are taking advantage of law students/graduates who are desperate for legal work experience.
Protecting junior lawyers
For some, paying just over £1,000 for work experience may seem like a small price to pay to secure their first paralegal role. But this is not how our profession should be operating and no one should have to pay to obtain volunteer roles.
This practice is exploiting the most junior in our profession and encourages more, completely unnecessary debt for many who simply cannot afford to pay.
These individuals who finish a law degree or LPC need a salaried role more than ever in order to pay for, what has likely been, a costly education; not to be adding to their debts further. Such practices do not have a positive impact on equality, diversity, and social mobility in our profession.
Through my role as an executive committee member of the JLD, I intend to continue to investigate how many companies there are offering this type of experience and also the firms where these companies are placing junior lawyers in unpaid, costly roles. I will also liaise with the SRA to see if anything can be done.
At the time of writing this article, I have not contacted either company in relation to their business models. For this reason, I have kept them anonymous in this article.
I imagine they will argue that what they are doing is not against the law, but it is certainly questionable and exploitative. The Junior Lawyers Division strongly advises that people should not be paying for work experience.
A version of this article was first published on 9 November 2020 by The Lawyer and is reproduced by kind permission.