Editor’s weekly: Slave labour or valuable work experience?

Now here’s an interesting question for you to ponder over. When does unpaid work experience turn into slave labour?

I’m not sure I know the answer but as we reported earlier this week the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) is calling an end to “unfair” unpaid work experience after seeing a jump in calls from distressed would-be lawyers worried that they are being exploited by law firms (read more).

Thankfully, most larger law firms, especially ones focussing on commercial work, pay work experience students around £250 per week. But unfortunately not all firms are as generous and some are arguably taking advantage of students who are desperate to gain work experience in a difficult jobs market.

Indeed, I have also been contacted by students claiming that either they or their friends are working for free, handling the work that would typically be carried out by paralegals, with the promises of a training contract at an unspecified time in the future.

It’s difficult to say how widespread this problem is but unless there’s a dramatic upturn in the jobs market I can’t help but worry that students will continue to be exploited.

That said, I don’t think that a blanket ban on unpaid placements is the answer. As one poster on Lawyer2B.com notes this could potentially put firms off from taking on work experience students. “I think that one should not seek to be overprotective of students as this could discourage law firms from offering these very beneficial placements altogether. However I think that the fine line between valuable legal placements and exploitation should be highlighted and regulations should be enforced limiting the length of unpaid work placements,” writes Nigel Lia.

What do you think? Do work experience students add enough value to a law firm’s business to warrant being paid?

husnara.begum@lawyer2b.com

PS – talking of work experience – thanks to everyone who applied to do a placement with Lawyer 2B (I promise we won’t be exploiting anyone). As you may know I’ve not been well but am on the mend now and will be contacting successful candidates next week.