No one works for free, or do they?

4 mins

Can law firms offer unpaid legal internships on the premise that you’re getting “valuable legal experience” in exchange? Here are some tips for law students and graduates to avoid this trap.

There has been quite a fair bit of coverage in the press in the last few years about unpaid (and even paid) internships. They include:

  • short-term stints at companies in exchange for paper-based references and “work experience” that might earn you a visa; and
  • a South Australian law firm asking a law graduate to cough up $22,000 for the privilege of participating in their graduate program. You can read more about it here.

The Situation

A few years ago, a law graduate came up to me about their working arrangements in a law-firm-that-shall-not-be-named. The law firm had asked them to sign a supposedly “legally binding” employment contract. The contract was surprisingly detailed, and even included terms like:

  • the hours the person had to put in per week; and
  • the obligation to give sufficient notice (minimum 2 weeks) before terminating the employment contract.

There was even a formal signature block at the end of the document to make it seem more, well… legitimate.

Folks, I read through this “employment contract” and was flabbergasted. This law firm stated that the law graduate was to put in a certain number of hours a week in exchange for “experience”, not money. Yes, you read correctly—they weren’t offering even a cent in payment. On the other hand, the law firm was happily charging their clients at least $200/hour for the time that this graduate spent on their matter.

Perhaps the more bizarre aspect to all of this was that the law firm was diligent enough to document their own wrongdoing. Let’s file this away in the Really Bizzare Stuff folder.

Anecdotally, unpaid legal internships are fairly commonplace. On a trip to Brisbane involving a visit to the Queensland University of Technology, I overheard a law student tell her friends that she was interning at a law firm without pay—but was “toughing it out” so she could get the legal experience.

What’s the legal position?

It is ILLEGAL for employers not to pay their employees for performing work (surprise!). Getting employees to pay for the “privilege” to working is even more egregious conduct.

Employment contracts are special. First, they involve humans. They are not just any other contract. Employers must comply with the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), which tells us in section 323 that an employer must pay an employee for the performance of work.

The only exception to this is if you are undertaking a “vocational placement”, which means a placement that is all of the following:

  1. undertaken with an employer for which a person is not entitled to be paid any remuneration; AND
  2. undertaken as a requirement of an education or training course; AND
  3. authorised under a law or an administrative arrangement of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory.

(See s 12 definitions and s 15 of the Fair Work Act.)

This is a pretty narrow category to fall into. It means that employers can only avoid paying you if you are working with them to clock up hours as part of an education or training course. For example, if you could only get a certificate to practice in your trade after completing X number of practical work hours. Furthermore, vocational placement must be authorised by the government.

It was clear that law-firm-who-shall-not-be-named was not authorised to give “experience” in exchange for real work. (From what I heard, the work was not particularly interesting and so it was certainly dead real.)

What Should I Do?

In the competitive graduate legal market, it may seem like the only way to get experience is to work for free. I call it the Catch-22 or Chicken/Egg situation—how is one supposed to even start anywhere if an employer first requires you to have experience?

It ultimately comes down to someone believing in your potential, and giving you a go.

I recommend thinking more broadly about how you can improve your CV, such as:

  • Volunteering for a legal clinic where you not only learn some valuable legal and advocacy skills but also help facilitate access to justice for those in need. You can find a list of legal clinics by State here.
  • Volunteering more broadly at your local op-shop, jazz festival, community garden, in a mentoring program for school / 1st-year university students.
  • Working in other industries, including in retail, where you learn transferrable skills about customer service, human relations, organisation, time-management, balancing priorities (with university work), attention to detail, and so on.
  • Engaging in extracurricular activities at University, as well as helping out on committees, while not forgetting to have fun.

You will be surprised to know that employers are not always obsessed about hiring graduates with legal experience. There are numerous ways to showcase your ability and potential without the need to work for free.

My point being:

ActivityEmployer’s impression / Your selling point
Any other activity other than going to university, except breaking the law.You have a life outside of your regular studies.
Any form of community work.You are interested in social justice and have empathy / EQ.
Any form of work (other than in a law firm).You have a whole ton of transferable skills, including understanding how other parts of society work.

Realise also that law firms who take advantage of law students or graduates should be put out of business. If they were truly great places to work at – then they would not have to rely on free labour. So, the point is, really question how valuable an experience you are getting from such a place in the first instance.

If you are currently in this situation and feel like you’ve been taken advantage of (and want to avoid this happening to other unsuspecting future employees), I suggest you report your matter to the Fair Work Ombudsman using their online Anonymous reporting form.

If you don’t feel comfortable with reporting your workplace, I suggest you still WALK AWAY. There is no way that a company can ever come after you for walking off the job or “breaching” any terms of employment. Instead, they should be very concerned about being reported for illegal conduct.

Have you or your friends done unpaid legal internships? Do you think that it’s commonplace? Leave an anonymous comment below. We’re keen to hear about your experience.

* Note: The above is only for information purposes only and not to be treated as legal advice.