The pros and cons of unpaid legal internships


Dear Newly Suited I am a newly-admitted lawyer and wanting to make my mark on the legal world. I didn’t manage to get a clerkship at one of the big law firms and now I’m hunting for a job without much success. It doesn’t help that we are stuck in a global pandemic! The only position I can get is unpaid – should I take it?




Dear Unpaid&Unemployed

The unpaid internship has always been a controversial choice within legal circles. On the one hand, it can give you legal experience when you might not have any and this can be incredibly helpful when you are looking for paid work. On the other hand, you need to be very careful about working for free as you will still have rent, bills, commuting costs and other living expenses to pay, but now without any of the financial safety nets that come along with paid work.

Unpaid internships also run the risk of being exploitative and can take advantage of some of the most vulnerable members of the profession. However, we understand how difficult it is to get a legal job normally and that is exacerbated by the Covid crisis. If, after weighing up these factors, you choose to take the job, be sure to proceed carefully.

It is very important to assess whether the unpaid internship is the right fit for you. You firstly need to be sure you can financially support yourself as you will still have other expenses to pay. You should also look at the firm which is hiring you and determine what its motivations are.

Does it have a history of hiring and then firing unpaid interns? Or is there a real opportunity to move up the ranks and progress within the organisation? It can be a good idea to catch up for a coffee with past or present employees to see if you can pick their brains about what opportunities the job entails.

Another thing to assess is what type of work you will be expected to carry out during the internship. For example, an unpaid role comprising actual legal work will be massively more beneficial in your hunt for paid employment than photocopying and making coffees in a law office.

Try to negotiate a deal where you will be paid after a certain length of time. Having all of this in writing is a must. One thing we would suggest is not to reveal that your internship is unpaid to future employers, because rightly or wrongly, you may be negatively judged at a future job interview if your only legal history is unpaid.

Another thing you might do is to add other skills to your resume to help you stand out. You could work at a non-law job to financially support yourself, while building up some legal skills, such as by volunteering at the Community Law Centre or Citizens Advice Bureau. You get the added bonus of giving back to the community and making a difference for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access legal services.

There is nothing wrong with having your career going in a slightly different direction at the start, and then angling back to a law job a few years down the track after working in business or another field. If you can find an area which is legal adjacent or an industry which is relevant to your preferred legal industry – even better!

Finally, we have a plea to employers. If you are offering a role, pay your junior staff for the work they do. They have worked incredibly hard through university and profs, most with big student loans and other debts.

Law is already an elitist profession and unpaid internships offer a chance for the privileged junior lawyers to get ahead, while many newly-suited lawyers cannot financially accept a position that is unpaid.

Best of luck with your job hunt!

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