Unpaid Internships: Law Students Most Likely To Work For Free

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By Alex Aldridge on

New data shows that law students are the most willing of all students to work for free to gain an internship. Over half (51%) surveyed by research company Trendence said they’d intern gratis, compared to 41% of engineering students and 37% of IT students.

Their willingness to work for free corresponded with the fact that law students are also the most worried about their future careers, with 66% of those surveyed expressing strong concern versus 59% of engineering students and 49% of IT students.

The survey, which saw 1,500 students from 16 UK universities questioned, comes at a time when greater focus is being placed on the legal profession’s attitude to unpaid internships.

Law students are being increasingly vocal on the matter via mediums like message boards (check out this recent thread on traineesolicitor.co.uk), Twitter and blogs (the excellent Interns Anonymous blog has a specific law section)…

But as I found out while researching this piece for The Guardian on unpaid internships in the legal profession, working for free is a legally grey area.

The law obliges employers to pay the minimum wage to interns, unless they are “volunteers” with “no expectation of … any reward for the work they do”. But the trouble is that law firms, which of course tend to be well-versed in the finer points of employment law, are pretty good at phrasing contracts so they can get away without paying their interns.

Plus the unscrupulous ones are well aware that desperate wannabe lawyers are highly unlikely to make a complaint against them. As Joanna Martin, an employment lawyer, told me: “In effect, firms are playing on the vulnerability of those starting out at the bottom of the profession.” She adds that it would “probably be career suicide” for a wannabe lawyer intern to sue an employer for not paying them.

Interestingly, the Trendence ‘Graduate Barometer’ survey also shows that law students hold the strongest view that ‘students should pay for their own education’ (47% versus 33% for engineering students) and are the most likely to take gap years (22% versus 5% for IT students) – suggesting that their willingness to intern for free is down to the fact that they can afford to.