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.


Report of meeting with EUSA and NUS Scotland

At our meeting with Marco Biagi MSP, he suggested we try and link up with Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) and NUS Scotland.  We met on 1 May.  Present was Russell Gunson, the Policy and Public Affairs Officer at NUS Scotland, Matt McPherson, President of EUSA, myself plus additional staff members and the EUSA postgraduate students convener.

We had some productive discussions although our agendas are different. LSC is trying to keep the focus as narrow as possible, making a special case for the DPLP on a basic ‘fair access to the profession’ basis.

Understandably, NUS and EUSA are arguing on a much broader basis, linked into the benefit of postgraduate education for the wider economy or even just for its own sake. Obviously, there is much common ground, but LSC is keen to keep the emphasis on the Scottish Government being able to address the specific issue for law without any fear of ‘opening the floodgates’ or setting a precedent directly applicable to the wider postgraduate support question. Whilst it’s a worthwhile aim to have much greater access to postgraduate studies all round, it is a very much bigger discussion and based on different considerations – and, of course, much greater funding implications.

Despite the differences in our approach, Matt McPherson undertook to mention our campaign again in the margins of a meeting he has planned with the Cabinet Secretary the week after next, which I’m sure will help visibility of the issue. However, LSC would still be keen to keep narrowly focused on the living costs for DPLP aspect and not get caught up in a wider review of PG funding, which will inevitably be at least a few years – and no doubt much politics – before we see changes.