In the News / Legal Topics

When, If Ever, Is Exploitation Acceptable?

imagesWork experience is invaluable but diversity and inclusivity are at risk when we ask junior lawyers to be ‘unpaid interns’

Working for free is something the Junior Lawyers Division has been encouraging since the days when it was the Trainee Solicitors Group (yes, that long) and pro bono work amongst junior lawyers continues to increase year on year.

Pro bono is for the greater good of society – for the few who would otherwise not enjoy the access to justice available to the majority – and mostly lawyers provide such advice for selfless reasons, giving back to the community.

What is not acceptable is the move by firms across the country asking wannabe or junior lawyers to work for free, exploiting the predicament facing the tens of thousands of graduates from degree courses and the LPC, trainees and newly qualified solicitors who are desperate to continue their chosen career.

A few months ago the JLD became aware of a trend amongst some firms to offer unpaid paralegal opportunities to qualified and unqualified solicitors from the JLD helpline, job advertisements placed by high street and international law firms and naming and shaming on RollOnFriday.

Further investigation by the JLD has found that “opportunities” such as these are becoming increasingly common. Worryingly so. But are these firms providing a service to desperate graduates or should they be criticised – even penalised – for abusing a position the profession has put them in?

Work experience is a wonderful thing. Without it I doubt I, or many other lawyers, would be in the position they are in today. I was fortunate to have found a local firm willing to entertain me for a fortnight during a school placement which progressed to regular [paid] work in the school holidays and ultimately to a training contract.

To that firm I owe a great debt. During those first few months and years I was provided with experience. This included days out to court and observing client interviews. I asked too many questions and generally made a nuisance of myself.

This might have been for a day here or a week there, but I certainly did not consider myself to be an employee. I was grateful to the firm. It was doing me a favour and that’s the way I approached it.

A few years on and now we hear stories from junior lawyers who are working for weeks or months on end with little or no pay and only occasionally an oblique promise that one day there may be a training contract, a paralegal position or some “time to count” available.

Other members have recounted suggestions of a “trial period” to prove they are a suitable candidate or good fit with a firm.

I find it difficult to blame the firms who are offering such valuable experience and even harder to criticise the desperate graduates who have found themselves victims of the current recession and the professional black hole into which many legal jobs have disappeared.

I do not propose to inform law firms of their obligations as employers – the existence of a minimum wage or the example they are setting to their colleagues, peers and future employees – but I do want them to think about them.

I would, however, ask any firm considering exploiting the opportunity available to it, to employ junior lawyers on little or no pay, to consider the wider implications for a profession which abuses the difficult and desperate position its junior members find themselves in.

Certain professions already have a reputation for being difficult to break into. Up until recently, the legal profession hasn’t been considered one of them as initiatives have been promoted encouraging applications from all sections of society and rewarding those who deserve it, regardless of background, status, race, disability and so on.

Even the Bar has followed the lead of the Law Society with visible results. Other professions however, such as journalism, PR, marketing, fashion, have a reputation and history of abusing “interns” (a sexy and acceptable word for slave).

“We are providing valuable work experience” is the usual justification, which is fine if work experience is being provided. More often than not this experience extends to fetching and carrying (milk, dry cleaning, boxes), photocopying, long hours and, if the intern is lucky, a lunch allowance!

Internships may last three days or three years, almost always underpinned by a loose promise of future paid employment and a permanent position. And it works.

Not only does it work, there is now a disturbing trend in offering such positions to the highest bidder, often with a perceived justification that the proceeds go to charity.

Even law firms are now jumping on this promotional bandwagon. Do we want to take our profession back in time, to its history of elitism which we have so earnestly tried to distance ourselves from over the past 20 or more years? Where the few available jobs go to the highest bidder and access to the profession is again dependent on background and status?

Even if we agree that unpaid work of any variety is acceptable, we also have to accept that the only graduates who are able to avail themselves of such employment are those who have sufficient means to fund their day-to-day living. Again, we run a serious and significant risk that the profession will be overwhelmed by the well-funded elitist class and the profession’s move towards diversity and inclusivity will be abandoned.

So, with the launch of the Law Society’s Diversity Toolkit and a revised call to account being targeted at firms across the country, regardless of size, type or location, penalties should also be placed on those who threaten the progress which has already been made.

This article was first published in the Guardian on 28 May 2010

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