The Unpaid Internship Conundrum

This issue really has nothing to do with FEHA, but one of the hot issues in employment law today is the issue of unpaid internships, so I might as well mention it. After all, the Los Angeles Times is writing about it, so it must be important!

Are unpaid internships merely a way for big companies to exploit the young and vulnerable? Or are unpaid internships genuine learning experiences that a smart intern can parlay into a fine career?

I think unpaid internships are way for smart interns to get a job. I was an unpaid intern for a freshman congressman in 1985. That internship led me to two paid jobs in politics. I worked hard and was always available. Later, after law school and when I started practicing law on my own, I took some cases early on just for the experience. One, for example, was against a very well-known Texas attorney. I learned so much from that case that it was worth it. I learned a lot from my opposing counsel. That’s similar to an unpaid internship. Not only was I not paid, in some cases I paid! But the experiences have paid me and my clients back many times over.

I remember one unpaid intern paralegal that worked with us when I was a deputy attorney general in Nevada. She came to work every day and worked hard. She told me people used to ask her, “Why do you work for free? I wouldn’t!” Well, the next time a spot for a paralegal came open, who do you think was hired? The unpaid intern who had proven her worth over several months. Meanwhile, those who said they wouldn’t work for free weren’t working at all and probably had a much tougher time finding a job.

Unpaid internships are opportunities to meet others and to network. They are opportunities to learn. They are stepping-stones. They are opportunities to excel and to show your stuff.

Today when I hear about the bad job market for new lawyers, I bet that a lot of those new lawyers aren’t working to get experience. Maybe an unpaid internship will lead to a job. How about taking some pro bono cases just to get into court and get some experience? Sitting around and whining about the bad job market does not help much, and the next time I hear a new lawyer say something like, “Well, I’ve already sent out 55 resumes without a response!” I might retort with, “Why stop at 55? Why not 56? Go down to court and get some appointments! Put on a suit and go down to court and look like you know what you are doing and I guarantee you will get a client or two!”

They may not be big-paying clients, but the new lawyer needs experience first.

People who sue companies after an unpaid internship will probably just make it tougher on themselves to get a job in the future. Who wants to hire someone who agreed to work as an unpaid intern and then sued the company that gave them an opportunity?

Lawsuits like that have “WHINER” written all over them.

I am sure that some businesses do exploit unpaid interns solely for the business’ own purposes. But even if that’s the case, is it worth suing that business? The best thing is to just move on and use it as a learning experience.

I admit to sometimes being a heretic. And this is one of those times. I would never sue a company for unpaid internships. And I wouldn’t advise unpaid interns to even consider it.

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