Why paid traineeships aren’t enough…

Update (11 May 2012): A revised and updated version of this post has now been published here as a guest post on Scotland’s leading legal blog, the award-winning ScotsLawBlog.   

Law Society abolishes unpaid traineeships

The Law Society of Scotland recently announced that they would no longer register training contracts unless the national minimum wage was paid.  For clarity, this refers to the national minimum wage (currently £6.08 / hr, or about £12,500 for a 40hr/week job) rather than the Law Society recommended wage for trainees (£15,595 for first year trainees).

This followed reports of a growing number of  people asking whether they could undertake their traineeships without pay.  This no doubt reflects the increasing difficulty being faced by graduates from the DPLP seeking traineeships but constantly being met with the response that firms were unable to afford trainees in the current economic climate.

The announcement was covered in this weekend’s Scotland on Sunday (p7; no online version of the article currently available).  In the article, Liz Campbell of the Law Society of Scotland said:

What we are concerned about is a situation in the future where someone who has family backing has that option [of working unpaid] and others don’t.  We want access for all.

Robin Parker, from NUS Scotland, is also quoted:

The fundamental problem with unpaid internships and traineeships is that they entrench privilege.

The Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association also welcomed the new policy.

Why this isn’t enough…

The Law Society’s new policy is a positive step towards ensuring access to the profession is based on an individual’s ability, not on his or her family’s financial resources.  But there is an even more significant barrier to the profession for those from less well-off backgrounds.

Figures from the University of Edinburgh Law School reveal that around 10-15% of law undergraduates are identified as coming from a background under-represented at University.  These students are encouraged and supported throughout the process of moving from school to University.  They will also generally be supported by the Scottish Government through the absence of course fees and the availability of means-tested student loans.

But what happens when these students (and others from less well-off backgrounds) reach graduation?  They must to find £8,000 to £10,000 to supplement the small postgraduate fees loan in order to fund their Diploma in Professional Legal Practice before they can even start to think about completing a traineeship.  Clearly, this is a potentially insuperable barrier for those without the ability to risk a commercial loan or rely on family funding.

Many of those who cannot afford to undertake the DPLP will simply not apply, and never compete for a traineeship. This represents an unmeasured loss of talent from the legal profession.  A loss that will be felt for many years as, in 30 years time, these are people who will not be diversifying the profession at the level of senior partners, QCs, Sheriffs or Judges.

The Law Society’s new policy on traineeships is important in ensuring a level playing field for those competing for the limited traineeships available. But without support in the form of living cost loans, many potential lawyers will find they cannot even make it onto the pitch.

Why living cost loans will help

In the long term, other solutions should be developed.  But in the meantime, extending the existing means-tested student loan system scheme to DPLP students would re-open the route to the profession for those from less well-off backgrounds, whilst ensuring support only goes to those who most need it. This change could be implemented very quickly and certainly in time to prevent another year passing with bright and capable students having to decide not to pursue their ambitions of a legal career because they and their parents cannot afford it.


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