More controversy over $22K internship

by Chloe Taylor23 Sep 2015
A South Australian law firm has backed away from a controversial recruitment program it planned to introduce after hitting headlines.

Adelaide firm Adlawgroup came under fire earlier this year when it announced that newly hired junior lawyers would have to pay a fee of $22,000 to join the company.

In return for the mandatory fee, law graduates would be guaranteed full-time employment for two years. After this initial period, they would qualify for an unrestricted practising certificate.

In June, the Law Society of South Australia reportedly wrote to the company’s directors to express concern over the nature of the program. 

The ABC reported that the directors responded to the letter the following month, but the society’s president Rocco Perrotta was not satisfied that his apprehensions had been addressed.

Last week, the Law Society completed an inquiry into Adlawgroup’s program, with Perrotta voicing concern again to the firm’s directors.

Perrotta said that Adlawgroup had since responded to explain that it would not be charging program participants an upfront fee.

He added that the company would apparently be operating as an employment agency instead of a law firm, and placing lawyers in practices.

“The Law Society has little information about this proposed new structure,” Perotta told the ABC.

“[The new proposal] is quite different to what they previously informed us of, so we've still got some concerns about what they've put to us, but we don't want to suggest that there's anything necessarily wrong.

“We just have to go back to the drawing board and have a look at the model.”

He added that the Law Society was planning to work with the firm to look into its new model’s structure.

Adlawgroup told the ABC that its updated proposal suggested introducing the two-year program in partnership with another Adelaide law firm, and was waiting for the Law Society to look over the modified program before its launch.

“We believe that the Law Society has not fully understood our business model,” the firm said in a statement.

“The principals will continue to engage with the Law Society, but will not launch Adlawgroup until they can provide participants with complete confidence in the program.”

Professor Andrew Stewart of Adelaide University’s Law School, who co-authored a report for the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), titled Experience or Exploitation?, said earlier this year that internships like these could be illegal.

“I am afraid we have come across a lot of instances of job seekers being asked to pay money to work,” he told 702 ABC Sydney. “There are a number of agencies that will take thousands of dollars of fees to place somebody into an unpaid internship.”

He added that the problem is manifesting itself more among the international student community, where work experience can assist in residency applications.

Stewart also said that unpaid internships, which last months and involve the undertaking of duties which are beneficial to the organisation, are arguably a form of exploitation.

“There is a very good argument now that it is unlawful,” he warned.

Illegality would arise in cases where companies use interns to fill positions that would otherwise require a paid employee to carry out tasks.

“It has become common that many degrees, TAFE courses and training programs will have some kind of work experience element to them,” he explained.

“Under the Fair Work Act it is perfectly lawful to do that kind of placement unpaid.

“What we have seen is the growth of the unpaid work experience outside of the educational training courses. That is potentially not just inappropriate but unlawful.”

Key factors that make unpaid placements lawful include:
  • The intern being required to how other employees fulfil their duties
  • The intern carrying out tasks which are useful to the organisation within a training environment

Stewart also advocated against exploitative internships because many people simply cannot afford to work for long periods without pay.

“This isn't just a question of fairness and industrial standards, it is a question of social mobility,” he told ABC. “It is already difficult enough for people from a lower socio-economic background to break into some of the high-prestige professions – this is just lifting the bar even further.”

 
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