I've been offered an unpaid work placement at a law firm, with the prospect of a training contract. Although I really need the experience on my CV, I'm wary because the position is completely unpaid. Given the state of the current job market, should I just take it?
The Oracle replies
You are wise to be cautious. Although most law firms value the contribution of work experience candidates and treat them fairly, an unscrupulous few do try to take advantage - especially by dangling the prospect of a training contract. In the current economic climate it is even easier to exploit individuals who are desperate to get a foot on the ladder. Ask the right questions at the outset and use your common sense, and you should be able to gauge whether the time will be well spent.
First of all, it is worth pointing out that short-term work placements are usually unpaid (some firms will pay expenses), so you wouldn't expect a wage for work lasting less than a few weeks. Longer placements (over a month) shouldn't really be unpaid. Unless there is a good reason why you are expected to work for free (eg, if the employer is a charity in a niche area of law), you might find you are better off looking elsewhere.
There are a few questions you should ask before you accept the role. Find out how long you will be expected to work without being paid. This way you can budget your finances and it will stop you being strung along for an indefinite period. As the position is advertised as leading to a training contract, ask whether other people have already gone down this route and how long it took them. If no one else has gone on to train, you need to wonder whether training is a real possibility or is simply offered as a ploy to secure free labour. Also, try to establish what sort of work you could expect to do. Would it involve meaningful duties that would add to your skills or simply general office tasks?
If you get these questions answered and apply your common sense, you should be able to establish whether this will be the career-enhancing experience you seek or just a few months spent as the office dogsbody. And remember: if you do go ahead and take the position, don't be afraid to leave if you feel you are being exploited!