Matters Column

Fewer unpaid internships may actually be a blessing

September 20, 2013
| By Sherry Lin |
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During the summer of 2012, I paid Indiana University — where I am a law student — $680 to work as an unpaid intern for a criminal law judge for one academic credit. I also worked part time in a paid internship position for an attorney at a technology company for $20 an hour to pay my living expenses.

Like me, many students are footing the expense of getting a foot in the door at companies, government branches, agencies and nonprofits. According to Cindy Brown, executive director at Hello West Michigan, there were approximately 6,000 interns working in West Michigan in 2008. That figure increased to 8,500 by January 2011.

Students today accept doing an internship as a rite of passage. In 1981, a study by the National Society of Experiential Education found that less than 3 percent of college graduates had participated in an internship. By 2008, a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found the figure had increased to 50 percent.

While it is impossible to track how many of these internships are unpaid, estimates vary from 25 percent to 50 percent. In some fields — such as entertainment and politics — nearly all internships are unpaid.

But all of that may change, given recent Court developments.

On June 11, 2013, Judge William H. Pauley III of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated federal minimum wage laws by using unpaid interns on the set of its Oscar-winning film, “Black Swan.”

Two days later, two former interns at The New Yorker and W Magazine filed suit against Condé Nast Publications seeking class action certification on behalf of all unpaid and underpaid Condé Nast workers.

The unpaid interns ran errands, made deliveries and responded to mail. Their work was primarily for the benefit of the employer and not for the interns' professional development.

These tasks clearly violated the Department of Labor's Six Point Test that determines whether an intern can legally go unpaid. The rule of thumb for employers is that an unpaid internship must have a serious training component that benefits the intern more than the employer.

Courts today are taking claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act very seriously. Rulings from such claims could ultimately result in far fewer internship opportunities. This change may really come as a blessing.

Students and young professionals should focus on the real reason behind internship programs: building human capital. While the administrative tasks are one component, the far bigger component is making the right professional connections to launch a career.

I didn't decide to undertake an unpaid internship for a judge because I wanted to learn how to properly write a legal memo. After all, I had already learned that in law school. I worked for a judge so that I could tap into a network of legal professionals who could potentially assist me in discovering what areas of legal practice suited my strengths and interests.

During my internship, the judge introduced me to district attorneys, city attorneys, big firm attorneys and other legal professionals. And all of them had plenty of advice to offer a law student.

This is the type of valuable career development experience that every intern needs — not the "administrative work experience" that benefits an employer at an intern's expense.

In today's economy, employers hire who they know and like. Meeting the right people and making the right connections will help launch a career much faster than working as an unpaid intern doing administrative tasks for "work experience."

The filing of the FLSA lawsuits may very well eliminate the type of unpaid internships that won't benefit students. It may also encourage employers to restructure their internship programs to better serve their intended purpose.

The ultimate effect may be that students will begin to spend more of their time building professional relationships and connections while also gaining invaluable experience, instead of padding their résumés with administrative work that often does not seriously advance one's career.

Sherry Lin, who attends law school at Indiana University, recently completed a summer internship with law firm Varnum LLP. She was paid for her efforts, received a subsequent offer of employment and will join Varnum full time in 2014.

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