Are unpaid internships an outdated way to gain experience?

Unpaid internships are still the talk of the town. The legal sector has pledged its commitment to improve conditions, dedicated to improving levels of diversity in business. One look at the sector as a whole however, and you can see there is a long way to go in order to improve levels of representation.

After the shocking gender pay gap reveal that caused a range of red-faced excuses, fewer than half of UK firms have managed to narrow the gap, and BAME representation was still at a low 21 per cent in 2017 within the law sector. So how do unpaid internships play a part in this?

The use of unpaid internships is often seen as an elitist form of work experience. After all, when partaking in an unpaid placement, you have to find some way to support yourself.

Depending on where you decide to take the placement, it’s likely you’ll need support from parents, acquaintances or a second job. For some people, work experience is just a pipe dream. Yet in the increasingly competitive law sector – where there are roughly 5,500 training contracts available in the UK, and far more LPC students than there are spaces – work experience is sometimes seen as a necessity to set you apart from the competition.

Banning unpaid internships

It’s not only the legal sector that is inundated with unpaid internships, in fact studies suggest that over 90 per cent of arts work experience is unpaid also. The legal sector is close behind and it has been reported that 80% of law internships are unpaid. There has been loud conversation around making unpaid internships illegal across the board – branding them unfair and unrepresentative.

A spokesperson for the Bar Standards Board said:

“The BSB is concerned by the practice of offering long unpaid internships, which may hinder equality of access to the bar since many students simply cannot afford to work for long periods without pay. We expect all chambers to have policies which promote equality and diversity and to operate fair recruitment and selection processes.”

However, no immediate action has been taken. Despite the majority of the UK public supporting a legal ban on unpaid internships and unpaid work experience, a change in the law just isn’t making any headway.

An ongoing issue

In fact, it seems the problem is increasing, and unpaid internships are getting longer and longer in duration. The London Chambers was called out recently for offering an unpaid internship lasting up to six months. When quizzed on the topic of payment and possible accommodation to support the candidate, the employer – 9 King’s Bench Walk (9KBW) – responded by saying they covered food and travel expenses, but that’s all.

When you think of the number of students in the UK that could afford to support themselves with no pay for six months, the huge disparity and unfairness of this becomes clear. The bottom line is that companies shouldn’t see experience as a currency in the legal sector.

The revolt

The London Chambers “unpaid experience” caused an outcry on social media. Following the news, one legal professional put his money where his mouth was, so to say.  Jaime Hamilton QC, a criminal specialist at Manchester’s 9 St John Street, took to Twitter to brand the unpaid internship as “plain wrong” and something that “should not happen.” In response he decided to offer a two-week paid summer internship that would come out of his own pocket.

Law firms need to take note and step up a little. They need to offer paid experiences as a method to improve diversity and inclusion in the sector that is lacking the abundant benefits a diverse workforce can offer. Only then will students prosper and develop by having equal opportunities.

If you are looking for a paid placement or entry-level experience, Zest Recruitment are on hand to ensure you get the fairest legal opportunity available.