Pounds for pupillages

Auctioning internships is becoming more common, giving students from well-off backgrounds a significant leg-up into highly competitive professions, including the law

It is a sorry sign of the times that today’s auction prizes don’t just include pedicure vouchers and monkey nuts but also unpaid work placements that can fetch bids of thousands of pounds.


This new brand of elitism was highlighted last week when Nick Clegg’s former school, Westminster, auctioned off 21 work placements in a bid to raise money for the development of a new building. One of the so-called prizes was a mini-pupillage with a criminal defence barrister in London, going for £700 at the time of writing.

Toff luck

While the auction clearly hands a career boost to those who can afford it, few TheLawyer.com readers reacted to last week’s story with surprise, and few comments expressed any anger. Hundreds of internship auctions are taking place, readers claimed.

“There have been law internships auctioned for charity events as recently as the Big Red Ball for the charity Right to Play,” commented one reader.

Others expressed disbelief that anyone might complain about the auction prize in the first place.

But there is a clear danger in using money as a barter for work experience, particularly in a profession that is still widely seen as being run by Britain’s privately educated elite. According to a report published by the Sutton Trust in 2012, roughly 63 per cent of legal professionals in the UK come from a private school background.

If these same schools are then hosting fundraising events where parents can bid their offspring into competitive work placements, those from less wealthy backgrounds could be fighting a losing battle.

But the solution is not necessarily simply to stop placements being auctioned.

“Such auctions are common and create opportunity as well as raising money for charity,” pointed out one reader. “Some parents would work extra-hard to find the money to give their children such an opportunity.”

Clarity required

So what is the answer? Monckton Chambers’ Melanie Hall QC says it is up to the businesses hosting the internships to distinguish between opportunities that have been bought and those that have been earned.

“I’ve attended a number of charity events where internships are offered as an auction item and I think this trend has consequences,” she says. “The worry is that the auctioning of work placements could devalue all internships – even those secured on merit. Wise companies should look to see if internships have been bought or earned.”

The prizes in last week’s auction, run by the £30,000-per-year Westminster School, break no new ground.

“The auctioning of work experience and internships is sadly becoming more common,” says Social Mobility Foundation chief executive David Johnston. “While the cause the money goes to may be worthwhile, the fact remains that the person with the winning bid has bought their child an advantage in the labour market.

“It’s 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.”

Indeed, the lucky winner of the mini-pupillage – or ‘work experience’ as Westminster renamed the prize after pressure from the BSB – will have the opportunity to gain an insight into the working life of a criminal defence barrister, attend court and observe a criminal trial.

“They will also have the opportunity to meet the barrister beforehand and read the case papers so that they can be fully au fait with the issues before the trial starts,” a description of the prize on the auction website adds.

“A lot of people say it’s only a week of experience so it doesn’t really matter, but in that week you can get insider knowledge and key contacts that will help hugely in understanding how you should approach a job application,” Johnston explained. “Just a short amount of time spent with an organisation can get you all sorts of key tips and connections.”

Johnston draws attention to the findings in Alan Milburn’s 2012 report on access to the professions to make his point.

“As [the report highlights], 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,” he said. “More than half the 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.”

Placements in the sun

So, as graduates face a brutal jobs market it is little wonder that those who can afford it are choosing to invest in the odd week of work experience.

“Each work placement donor was asked if they would be willing to provide two places – one to be auctioned and one for the school to pass along to a pupil at one of our partner state schools [and] some have chosen to do so,” reads a Westminster School statement on the subject. “While these places have been created solely for the auction we are hopeful the businesses will be inspired to maintain these new positions and openly recruit for candidates going forward.”

Here’s hoping that new positions continue to open doors for candidates, without money distracting from merit.