Those of us who are recent law graduates are intimately familiar with the present legal job scene. If you weren't on law review, you're pretty much screwed. You can try to start your own firm, sans capital and experience, or you can monitor job ads day to day. And the worst thing about those job ads is that every single damn posting seems to be either for an unpaid internship or for a lawyer with 37 years of experience.
There is no hope. It's not just lawyers either. Businesses across America are providing "opportunities" to "learn the business" and gain "valuable experience". Unfortunately "due to the economy" they are "unable to pay".
These same buzz words fill thousands of adds seeking unpaid labor to do the same menial tasks that a paid secretary or entry-level employee should be doing. From a business perspective, capitalizing on the desperation is smart. From a legal perspective, it’s not.
Then again, apparently no one’s watching. Respected legal blogger David Lat, of Above the Law fame, opined that with the federal enforcers looking the other way, and employers providing “valuable experience,” it’s a win-win situation.
Bullfeces, Mr. Lat. For those of you unfamiliar with the boring intricacies of Federal Labor Law, we’ll simplify the rules on unpaid gigs. Unless you are a non-profit or the feds (who will police the police, after all), you must pay your interns unless:
- the training is comparable to that of an educational environment;
- the training must primarily benefit the intern;
- the intern can’t replace the regular staff;
- the employer can’t benefit from the intern’s grunt work (unless the employer’s benefit is outweighed by the training time to the intern);
- there’s no promise of employment post-training;
- there’s a mutual understanding that no wages will be paid.
Why the heavy-handed restrictions? Slavery was outlawed a long time ago. We as a society don’t like unpaid labor and corporations taking advantage of the poor debt-laden recent graduate desperate for a foot in the door. Many of these unpaid internships are simply ways of filling out an employer’s staff without paying proper wages.
Plus, the unpaid internship system unfairly benefits those who can afford to work for free (rich folk) while leaving those who can’t afford to work for free either further in debt or in a situation where they can’t get an entry-level position because the rich folk want to work for free.
It’s not a win-win system. The unpaid interns get screwed. Then, when they are good and bitter and have moved on, they sue. Then the employer gets screwed. It’s a lose-lose system.
- Consult a Chicago Employment Attorney If You’ve Enslaved Recent Grads or Plan To (FindLaw)
- Do Unpaid Internships Exploit College Students? (New York Times’ Room for Debate)
- Unpaid Internship Rules (FindLaw’s Learn About the Law)
- You’ve Got Enough to Worry About: FindLaw’s Guide to the Interview (FindLaw’s Chicago Employment Law Blog)