Comment

I completed an unpaid internship — they’re not the problem

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Unremunerated roles ‘symptomatic of the general crisis at the criminal bar’, says one wannabe barrister

In 2015, after submitting one essay, my CV and completing an interview, I was offered my dream internship. A criminal barristers’ set in the heart of London, the opportunity to attend Crown Court trials, family mediations, immigration tribunals, and to meet a number of future contacts. There was just one downside: it was unpaid.

My unemployed father, and mother earning less than £15,000 a year, meant that going to university was struggle enough. I was having to rent out my bedroom and live on the sofa to pay to get through uni. When the opportunity for this internship arose, I was excited but extremely concerned. How was I going to afford it?

There are several factors which allowed me to be lucky enough to afford to do the internship. Firstly, my good friend allowed me to live at his house in London for the duration of the four months I was working. Without this, I would not have been able to afford the commute from my house in Buckinghamshire into court every day. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a friend capable of providing free accommodation and cooking facilities.

Secondly, my mother rented out my room and allowed me to use the money for living. Although this meant that I had to sleep on the sofa when I came home on the weekends, it enabled me to have some money to live on in London.

Thirdly, I was only in the second year of my undergraduate law degree. The knowledge that my student loan would come after the summer at the start of the next term and allow me to repay some of my overdraft and credit cards which had accumulated over the summer was a comfort. Unfortunately, however, most aspiring barristers do not have such luxury.

I was rarely asked to do menial tasks on the job; instead, I was involved in four months worth of case preparation, family mediations, Crown Court trials, and civil proceedings. I learned so much more than I would have as a mini-pupil, and was given real responsibilities and tasks which have allowed me to have a much deeper understanding of the bar. I was also most grateful for the expenses and lunch that were paid for me during the months I was working. The experience, in which I was able to witness such a variety of trials, as well as being involved first-hand in case preparation and clerking, has undoubtedly added value to my CV.

But this has come at a cost. I was due to work a part-time job in these months, which would have given me £2,000. Instead, I had to shell out around £1,000 of my own money to afford to live. Without my friend to live with, my mother to rent out my room, and my student loan, I would never have been able to afford this internship.

However, I don’t blame the chambers I worked at for not paying me. For me, the problem is not unpaid internships, but they are symptomatic of the general crisis at the criminal bar.

Criminal sets barely earn enough to pay their pupils, let alone their interns or mini-pupils. For commercial law firms turning over huge profits, offering hundreds of pounds to a summer vacation schemer is no problem. For barristers, particularly criminal barristers, they barely earn enough for their own wages, let alone those of interns.

At various times during my internship, I was told that I should not consider being a criminal barrister unless my parents could support me for several years until I was earning enough to sustain my own lifestyle. After my internship, I realised that I would never have the money to afford to be a criminal barrister. With pupils earning as little as £15,000 compared to entry-level graduate solicitors earning up to £50,000 (as well as sponsorship for the Legal Practice Course), the choice between barrister and solicitor was seemingly taken away for me. If pupils barely earned more than minimum wage, and the interns were not paid, how would I be able to sustain a life in London without the privilege of financial assistance from my parents?

I feel increasingly disheartened with the legal sector. Why should someone’s financial background stop them from pursuing the career they have dreamed of since they were a child? The well-known crisis at the criminal bar is infamous for its cuts to legal aid, court funding and pay to barristers, but it rarely reflects on the consequence for newcomers and social mobility. The internship gave me an insight into my dream career. I loved every second and thrived doing the job. But I will never be able to fulfil my dream of becoming a criminal barrister. It is not the fault of unpaid internships, but it is the bar in general which inhibits certain people pursuing a legal career.

What does this say about social mobility in the legal sector? Crime doesn’t pay.

Claire Court (pseudonym) is an aspiring barrister.

The 2019 Legal Cheek Chambers Most List

45 Comments

Anonymous

Shocking.

We need change.

We need socialism! Jeremy Corbyn will tax law firms to pay for legal aid!!!

Brothers! Sisters! Vote Labour!

(7)(31)

Anonymous

Yes, this.

(1)(2)

Anonymous

This argument is fallacious. Two issues are identified as bad for social mobility:

1. Unpaid internships,
2. Poor pay at the criminal bar

For reasons which are never explained the, arguably quite wealthy, author puts the two issues in to competition. But there is no need to do so. Both issues are real problems which negatively impact social mobility.

There is no need to, and no benefit in, putting the two issues in opposition and picking the one you care about most – both are bad.

(17)(13)

Anonymous

I don’t think anyone reasonable could describe the author as quite wealthy. But agree with the other point. These are two social mobility issues that stem from the same cause (legal aid cuts).

(21)(0)

Anonymous

No, they stem from two more fundamental points. The reduction in criminal hearings by 50% over the last 15 years and the increased supply of criminal barristers by about 50%. Half the work and 1.5 times the suppliers makes for a pretty obvious pricing problem.

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Indeed and, as most of the legal profession is not in receipt of legal aid, it is a bit myopic to focus on that alone.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Worse than that, it is seen as disloyal to point out the hard truth to them.

Anonymous

i don’t think the author was putting these two in competition but rather saying that unpaid internships are a cause of poor pay at the criminal bar, not that chambers are in the wrong for not paying interns when they simply cant afford to

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Can you elaborate on why you say the author is “quite wealthy”?

(9)(0)

Anonymous

It’s very obvious – not once did she resort to homelessness or going on the game.

(7)(7)

Anonymous

Why does the author assume you have to be in London? T’would be cheaper elsewhere.
And crime is not all or nothing either. Why not try a general common law practice (preferably outside the capital), and if you want to just do crime a few years down the road, then you’re fine.
By all means decide the Bar isn’t for you, and you can make more money and have a better life doing something else, but I think this piece is by someone that didn’t really want to be a barrister.

(5)(0)

Anon

If the author’s aspiration is to be a criminal barrister in London, why should a lack of social mobility stop her from doing that? Why should she have to resort to a different type or law or in a different part of the country because she can’t afford it?

(3)(2)

Magic Coke Trainee

Exactly. It’s like telling an aspiring solicitor to undertake their TC at Pinsent Masons in Manchester to do seats in Insurance, Commercial Property etc instead of M&A, Structured Finance etc in the City.

(10)(0)

Anonymous

Why spend 4 months working for free to realise the criminal Bar doesn’t pay much?
Why do she think she was being asked to work for free in the first place?

(7)(0)

Anonymous

I have to say that I disagree with the comments on here.

I know that the headline is “an unpaid internship — they’re not the problem” but what I take from the article is the quite fair representation, from the author, that the profession is critically underfunded and in need of support.

Yes unpaid internships are wrong, but they’re only unpaid because of chronic underfunding higher up. You need to fix the top in order to fix the bottom. Focusing on unpaid internships won’t solve the issue, but focusing on an underfunded criminal bar will.

I think it’s a good article which quite rightly shines the light on the plight of a large number of people trying to get into law.

(11)(1)

Anonymous

As a top rate taxpayer, I thinking the funding for criminals is still too high. They don’t need the outdated English Rolls Royce system. A rather well used Ford Zetec is enough.

(5)(3)

ReluctantlyAgree

I agree. I don’t want the majority of criminals being represented by well-remunerated professionals at the top of their game, I want them represented by “pile ’em high, flog ’em cheap” paralegals.

I was a magistrate for several years, and a huge number of offenders were simply black holes for public spending. I remember very clearly one 25 year old who had 50 previous appearances and 100 convictions. It was so memorable because (a) the symmetry of numbers (25-50-100); but mainly (b) she was clearly doomed to spend the rest of her life generating costs for taxpayers. I’d happily withdraw from the ECHR, deport/transport her to somewhere in Africa, and pay a minimal amount for the authorities there to let her rot out of the jurisdiction.

I certainly don’t want to waste proper money on repeat offenders. I am however willing to pay for legal aid for middle class defendants who have never been in trouble with the law before, i.e. ‘people like us’.

(4)(6)

A struggling bptc grad

Have you ever considered that these repeat offenders are a product of where our system has failed them.
Justice should not be limited to the middle class.

The perception of these hyped up, rich lawyers merely reinforces the point that only the wealthy are able to afford a career at the criminal bar. Or comes from a barrister who has undergone years and years of earning now where near enough to finally be earning a decent wage.

(0)(3)

Anonymous

Criminals are criminals because they are selfish and lazy. Apologists for them like you are a disgrace.

Anonymous

Really? As a Magistrate you should know that no tax payers money is spent on Legal Aid. The Statutory Charge imposed on all Defendants who plead guilty raises more money than is spent on Legal Aid. The Defence of the Innocent is paid for by the guilty, not the tax payer.

(2)(0)

Curious

Is this true? Can anyone provide links, please.

Anonymous

Innocent until proven guilty. These aren’t criminals. Their accused. Until it’s shown otherwise, they should be treated as innocent and given every chance to defend themselves. That means good representation.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Unfortunately that argument only works if instead of talking about ‘Social Mobility in the Law’, we artificially restrict ourselves to talking only about ‘Social Mobility at the Criminal Bar’

There’s no reason to do that.

Unpaid internships are a problem. That does not go away just because the Criminal Bar also has its own, largely self inflicted, but very real problems. Putting issues in unnecessary conflict is not helpful – best to leave that nonsense to journalists.

(3)(0)

Magic Coke Trainee

The public sector across the country drains this society. Schools, the NHS, universities etc were/are overfunded. If you worked in the public sector, you would see how much money gets wasted and why cuts have to happen. The cuts can often end up having a negative effect on the people who need the resources most, such as the poor who require legal aid. Take it as an unintended consequence. There was a lot of fraud occurring within the legal aid sector, so it was unsurprising that it was targeted first.

Public authorities across the country spunk more money than petty criminals.

(7)(0)

Anonymous

Could you explain how you can commit fraud with a system which pays a fixed fee?

(1)(0)

Magic Coke Trainee

Type Blavo & Co in your search engine

(1)(0)

Anonymous

A Civil Legal Aid fraud. Read what your search engine finds.

Magic Coke Trainee

Your attitude and breath stinks.

Anonymous

Any more Cleary Gottlieb survivors want to share their war stories? Let’s see when will Alex delete my comment.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

Is Weil any better?

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Yes. Weil is a proper elite shop with huge origination in London.

(1)(0)

Kirkland NQ

The advantage of a 7-bedroom townhouse in Chelsea is that one never has to rent out your bedroom and sleep on the sofa.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Thoroughly well written article.

The financial barriers to the legal profession are deeply regrettable

I would encourage you not to give up

(2)(5)

Anonymous

As a criminal Barrister of 10 years call, I would like some genuine advice on how to get out of this financial/career rut wherein I seem to have enough work to keep me in court most days but not enough to pay the bills.

How does one go about transferring to another area of law?

Surely a Chambers which does other areas of law wouldn’t look twice at an “eager to learn” criminal Barrister as she doesn’t have the experience?

Any advice accepted with gratitude.

(6)(1)

Anonymous

Go into regulatory and professional discipline, probably at a firm first. Similar skill sets and a lot more cash.

(3)(0)

Idea

I’ve no idea how achievable this is nowadays, but 7-8 years ago a friend in your position (albeit only 4-5 years’ call at that point) secured Inns sponsorship to work for Al Tamimi in Dubai. She did commercial litigation work for them there, initially on a six-month probation period, before extending and staying for about three years in the end. She then moved to another overseas tax-free location, also doing commercial litigation, and from what I see on Facebook she is living the dream of beaches, boats, and no tax.

As I say, I’m unsure how replicable this is nowadays, but the first step seems to be the hardest.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

“With pupils earning as little as £15,000 compared to entry-level graduate solicitors earning up to £50,000 (as well as sponsorship for the Legal Practice Course), the choice between barrister and solicitor was seemingly taken away for me.”

Yes, but on the other hand, there are baby solicitors who are paid less than the minimum wage, and there are baby barristers pulling in a healthy six figures in their first year on their feet.

(5)(0)

Kirkland NQ

I agree on this though, £15,000k per month is far too little to live off. I pay more than that in petrol for the Lambo.

(1)(1)

Anonymous

If you parents earn less than £15k a year how is she able to rent a room out in your house? either you rent privately or in social housing. If the later, isn’t there restrictions on your sub-letting in your subsidized housing?

(1)(0)

Anonymous

My family rent my sisters old room out to international students to earn money, maybe they do that

(1)(0)

Magic Coke Trainee

Excellent article. Firms and chambers waffle about ‘diversity and inclusion’, but refuse to pay for accommodation. Unsurprising that most interns end up being from London or the commuter belt. Go to most City law firms and expect to hear countless incompetent trainees echoing ‘’yahs’’ and ‘’gap yahhs’’ as a poor substitute for personality.

(8)(0)

Anonymous

These are the occasions one is best calling up the family trustee. They do like a little notice, but they will come up with the funds for a decent pad to stay in.

(1)(0)

Realist

>”I feel increasingly disheartened with the legal sector. Why should someone’s financial background stop them from pursuing the career they have dreamed of since they were a child?”

Why are people’s hopes and dreams in any way relevant? Go where the work is. When I decided to retrain as a lawyer I first researched where there were more opportunities: as a barrister or as a solicitor, and then I looked at the areas of law which offered greatest employability both within the UK, and overseas in other common law jurisdictions. Legal recruiters throw themselves at you to offer advice on how to move jobs, and regularly explain where the market is at.

The obvious answer was to be a solicitor in either the corporate or disputes field. I duly shaped my training contract applications, and seat preferences accordingly. I have two friends who serve as cautionary tales: (a) one qualified in the pharmaceutical regulatory field; and (b) the other qualified in planning law. Both are limited to a niche number of firms, and also to the UK. Mainstream corporate work, and dispute resolution offer wider opportunities.

At the junior levels, criminal law is a hobby for the rich, or a subsistence existence for the desperate. This has been the case for at least a decade. Complaining about it won’t help, as the underlying factors which create this situation: (a) the public, and taxpayers specifically, hate criminals; and (b) the UK is in a parlous economic state, and we are unable to tax, print or borrow any more money, are unlikely to change (rather, they are likely to worsen if Brexit or a Corbyn government happen).

‘Do what you love’ is terrible advice. Go where the work is.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

MeMe aRrOwS

(0)(0)

Matt The Despoiler

“With pupils earning as little as £15,000 compared to entry-level graduate solicitors earning up to £50,000 (as well as sponsorship for the Legal Practice Course).”

It isn’t really realistic to compare low-end pupil barristers, and top-end trainee solicitors as a means of illustrating disparity in pay. £50,000 grad jobs are almost exclusively working in high end firms, which are unlikely to even consider taking criminal defence work as opposed to £15,000 pupils who work on whatever is available.

You can’t talk about having the choice taken away from you by the rates of pay, you choose to practice law, the type of law and the manner in which you practice because you’re passionate about it. If the entire basis of your decision is remuneration, you’re going to make a shit lawyer.

(1)(0)

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