• Marie and Obiter Ovum

On Trial: Unpaid Work Experience and Internships


Last week Survive Law reported that the Fair Work Ombudsman had partnered with academics from the University of Adelaide to examine unpaid work practices in Australia. Enter two law students who have tried unpaid work (and had very different experiences) to serve as the prosecution and the defence…

Our prosecutor, Marie, explores why unpaid work experience can suck, while Obiter Ovum, for the defence, argues that it’s actually kind of cool.

Prosecution

The clear motive for taking an unpaid internship is the desire to expand your experiences and skills, and get a general feel for the field you’re considering a career in. Some companies make a lot of promises about the amount of ‘invaluable’ experience their unpaid interns will gain but where do these companies draw the line between ‘invaluable’ experiences and simply work that should be paid?

I’ve undertaken quite a few internships during my time at uni and the majority of them have been enlightening and worthwhile in terms of the experience and contacts I gained. But some internship experiences do not live up to this promise.

Some organisations are well aware of how eager students are to gain experience and expand their CVs. While most businesses will act responsibly, others essentially see unpaid interns as free labour. The primary problem with the lack of transparency and accountability that can exist in this system is that it can result in companies exploiting their interns, saving what they would normally pay someone for doing the same amount and level of work and evading the laws in relation to award wages, etc.

A few years ago I did an unpaid internship as a legal copywriter with a marketing firm. I’d never studied marketing but was interested in the role because I was told that the position would involve meeting and working with law firms. In the course of my three and a half month internship, I was only ever invited to one meeting with a law firm, in which I was told to be ‘seen and not heard’. I was made responsible for fetching glasses of water for my boss and the partners of the firm, while a fellow intern was able to sit through the whole meeting. I felt humiliated, embarrassed and disappointed – I had been very excited to finally meet and work with a law firm.

Other tasks I engaged in during my time with this marketing company ranged from preparing whitepapers for a vendor finance company to writing a few marketing blogs – all tasks that were clearly outside of the field that I applied to work in. By the end of my time at this firm I felt that I had wasted three and a half months of my valuable summer holidays and that I had nothing to show for it.

When it comes to applying, accepting and continuing an unpaid internship, the onus is really on students. As they are unpaid, you shouldn’t feel obliged to continue working for a company if you feel that you’re being exploited or that you are not gaining the experience that you signed up for.

Defence

I first came to this blog looking for advice on exactly this topic. Now after doing unpaid work experience, which was a factor in landing my dream paid law student job, here are my thoughts on what you stand to gain from the experience:

Practical Skills

You have spent upwards of a year at law school losing out on sleep, making friends with imaginary friends who look a lot like High Court Justices, and being generally bat-crap crazy. Any opportunity to put that hard won knowledge should be incentive enough to photocopy briefs and fold letters.

Networking

Unlike the contrived and sterile networking events you often attend as a student, work experience provides the opportunity to get to know professionals in a meaningful way. Maybe the little firm you are working at does not have the space to hire you, but the firms they work with might. A good reference could go a long way to getting your foot in the door at a paying job.

It may turn into paid work

You just never know what is around the corner. Work experience is the chance to show an employer that you have skills (or at the very least a willingness to learn those skills) that are worth investing in.

It takes quite a bit of time to turn a law student into a hot shot lawyer, but even as a lowly student the time they spend on you as an intern could turn into a longer term investment in your future.

This? For the rest of my life?

Work experience might lead you to discover that you hate the practice of law – unfathomable, I know. It’s surely better to find out now than at the end of your degree.

Pickings are slim

Take a look around. Now have another look. How many of your fellow students (who are effectively in competition with you for the same graduate roles) would just about cut their own throats to work in a firm and start developing contacts and gaining experience at this stage of their degrees?

Fellow future jurists, unpaid work experience is an investment in your future.

The Verdict

Who has it right? The prosecution or the defence?

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