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Unpaid work experience hindering diversity, E&W young lawyers report

1 November 2013

The growing practice of using unpaid work experience as a means of entry to the legal profession – and for employers to regard it as a prerequisite to entry – is a barrier to social diversity in the profession, according to a report by a young lawyers' group in England & Wales.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, by the Young Legal Aid Lawyers group, based on a survey of members in 2012, looks at changes since the group – whose aims include promoting social mobility and diversity in the legal aid sector – first reported on the subject in 2010.

Three findings in particular emerged. First, high levels of debt combined with low salaries make legal aid work unsustainable for those from a lower socio-economic background, with many members commenting on how they were struggling with debt liabilities whilst surviving on a very low income from legal aid work.

Secondly, unpaid work experience represents a barrier to social mobility. A clear trend to emerge was the proliferation of unpaid work experience in the legal profession, and in the legal aid sector in particular, with 89% of respondents having done such work. Respondents commented that they struggled to afford unpaid work placements for reasons including having adult or child dependants; a lack of contacts close to where such work was offered; and the small number of part-time work opportunities to top up a legal aid income.

The report notes that in view of recent employment tribunal cases, it is likely that longer-term unpaid work placements in the legal sector may well be unlawful.

Thirdly, work experience is a pre-requisite to entry to the legal aid profession. Many employers now regard it as essential to have experience as a paralegal, volunteer, and so on, to secure a training contract or pupillage, and vocational courses in England & Wales (the LPC and BPTC) are not preparing candidates sufficiently for the realities of day-to-day practice.

YLAL committee member Carita Thomas said: "Most of the members who answered the survey behind our report went to state school, suffer from huge training debts and get paid relatively little. It is vital that they have the chance to access the profession – legal aid clients deserve the best and brightest lawyers too. How can we best serve our clients without being representative ourselves?"

Among other points, YLAL recommends that the Solicitors Regulation Authority should reinstate the minimum salary for trainee solicitors; that funds should be allocated to facilitate work experience placements in the legal aid sector; that robust guidance should be issued to the profession by the Law Society and the Bar Council on acceptable and lawful use of longer term unpaid work placements; and that the professional bodies should consider replacing the current route to qualification with a form of work-based learning.

It commented: "Our concern – and one of the principal reasons that we embarked on this research and this latest report – is that as further cuts to legal aid take their toll, these problems will worsen. In our view this would be damaging both to the profession and to society as a whole. While political commitment to social mobility and diversity may ebb and flow, the underlying importance of having a legal profession representative of our society, remains constant."

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