Why paying for pupillages is bad for the bar

The auctioning of work experience and internships is sadly becoming more and more common. Whilst the cause that the money goes to might be worthwhile, the fact remains that the person with the winning bid has bought their child an advantage in the labour market.

It is understandable that a parent would want to do this but no employer should be comfortable with providing opportunities for those with the most money to get a leg-up in their field.

On the face of it a weeks work experience or mini-pupillage should not be a cause for controversy as the person undertaking it is not being given a wage or a job offer.

However, the desire of parents to bid for such opportunities tells its own story. Prior work experience in your chosen profession, particularly in the legal profession, can often be essential to enter it.

Successful candidates to the bar are typically expected to have undertaken three to five mini-pupillages and it is extremely difficult to have your application to a city law firm considered if you do not have city work experience.

As Alan Milburn’s progress report on access to the professions highlighted in 2012, at least half the graduate entry positions at leading law firms are likely to be filled by graduates who have completed work experience with the firm. More than half of graduate recruiters said it was ‘not very likely’ or ‘not at all likely’ that someone without work experience in their field would be successful in their recruitment process. It can also aid university entrance; research by the Education and Employers Taskforce highlights that 37per cent of Russell Group Law courses mention work experience as essential or desirable.

Why is it so beneficial? Work experience on a CV is seen by recruiters as the method by which candidates can demonstrate they already have the competencies required for a job.

Beyond this, the time spent with the employer allows the candidate a real insight into the profession in question which they can include in applications and discuss in interviews. Participants can talk to existing employees about what their organisation looks for when recruiting and what they can be doing to develop their skills. They establish connections with people who can advise them on how to write their application and approach their interview. They gain people who can ‘put in a good word’ for them.

Like so many other professions the legal profession is one of those where many people claim you get ahead solely on merit, yet work experience and internships are hardly ever allocated on this basis.

Auctions remain relatively rare, but reserving work experience for relatives of existing employees and clients is certainly not. Both sides of the legal profession have made great strides to counter this problem; the Bar Council runs a number of initiatives including an annual placement week with the Social Mobility Foundation and more than 80 law firms have signed up to the Prime Commitment.

This summer, Linklaters will host young people from Plymouth to Glasgow in their London office on an internship programme with the Social Mobility Foundation.

In contrast to the highest bidder principle, every one of these participants will have earned their place. Each will be a high-achieving sixth-form student from a low-income background and the vast majority will be the first generation in their families to go to university.

With more than 10 applications for every place, there are plenty of very talented young people that will be disappointed by our selection decision, but at least they can have comfort they didn’t lose out because the pockets of their parents are not deep enough.

David Johnston is chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation and a member of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission