Unpaid Internships Keep Women Like Me Out of the Legal Field

[Featured image via Jonathon Yu/Flickr/Creative Commons]

By Erin Panichkul, J.D., If/When/How Student Organizing Coordinator

Erin Panichkul

Throughout my law school career, I landed internships at amazing organizations whose work I truly believed in. Dreamy orgs – If/When/How was one of them – and others, including the ACLU, Physicians for Reproductive Health, and the United Nations Headquarters. As thrilled as I was to accept these offers and so eager to build the work experience I knew I needed for my career, there was always the big question: is this internship paid?

Unfortunately, the answer was not always yes – and the prevalence of unpaid internships for law students exposes a huge obstacle for those of us who don’t enter law school with big financial cushions, or key family connections that land us prestigious positions.

Former If/When/How chapter leader Kate Miceli (University of Richmond School of Law, ’18) recently explored this issue for Ms. JD, surveying 100 law students about their internship experiences. She found that 94 percent of respondents had had an unpaid internship. I know exactly what that’s like.

Like most law students, I had real-life commitments: a lease, utility bills, and other recurring obligations in addition to paying for tuition, books, school supplies, and the basics, like food and transportation. I paid for all of this by taking out student loans.

I’m the first in my family to graduate from college and the only person I even knew growing up to attend law school. I took out loans and worked to supplement expenses throughout my career in higher education, from community college at Santa Monica College, undergrad at UCLA, and all the way up to law school. Attending law school was ambitious beyond what my family could ever have financially prepared for. Student loans were the only option. I couldn’t afford a fraction of law school tuition, even if I did work.

And so when it came time to apply for internships, I always wondered: how am I going to pay for this? I was forced to weigh the value of an internship that might boost my resume with the cost of working for free. So when I was offered an unpaid position at the United Nations, I had a hard decision to make.

I was determined to find funding but couldn’t come up with the money that I needed for housing, public transit, and food during the three-month internship – not to mention my lease in San Diego. There was no way I could afford to work for free, so I took out yet another loan.

Essentially, I paid to work for free.

Exposure does not pay bills. Experience doesn’t cover rent. It doesn’t pay for my transportation to get to my internship. It doesn’t feed me. But I believed the experience was so important that taking out a loan was worth it, and I had good reason to think so.

Unpaid internships just another barrier in a legal education system already full of structural inequalities designed to be obstacles to success for all but the most privileged students.

The reality is that for most law students, internships are essentially required to land a job. It’s an unwritten rule, but without the work experience, legal research skills, and writing samples obtained from practical internships, few law firms or organizations will give your resume a second glance. This means that some law students are disadvantaged from the very beginning — if the internship is unpaid, then they’re limited in where they’re able to apply in the first place, and during the internship, struggling to work two full-time jobs or take out more loans if they accept.

Not everyone has the economic security, financial support, or even access to loans to finance an unpaid internship, making unpaid internships just another barrier in a legal education system already full of structural inequalities designed to be obstacles to success for all but the most privileged students.

It all comes down to access. Yes, everyone can apply to internships, and offers should be based on merit and potential, but in thinking about the impact that the expectation of unpaid work has on the application pool in the legal field and beyond, we have to ask: who does this benefit, and who does this harm? Who is advantaged and who is disadvantaged? Well, folks like me. If I didn’t have access to student loans, I couldn’t apply to these positions, and I certainly couldn’t accept them. It was discouraging. It limited my options and it was a huge hurdle, not to mention a serious source of stress.

Looking back, I see that unpaid internships are a greedy way to extract free labor from students who have few other choices if they want to pursue a career in the law. It’s not an issue of entitlement to expect to get paid for working full-time just because you’re a student – it’s economics. We all deserve to get paid for the labor and the work we do, for our time and energy, for the work product we provide – even the “grunt” or administrative work. It’s unfair for employers to take advantage of and minimize the value of work provided by interns by not fairly compensating them simply because it’s assumed interns desperately need the experience.

I didn’t have the connections through family or friends who were at law firms that would hire me without experience. I didn’t know any lawyers at all! So I networked. I put myself out there. I volunteered. But I knew that internship experience was still the only way to become “qualified” for post-law school employment.

Paid internships provide a level playing field for all qualified candidates, not just those who can afford to work for free.

Getting paid for working should not be a luxury. When I was a law student, I was always so damn grateful for these opportunities that I never questioned the practice until now. I didn’t view it as inequity. I just saw it as a barrier that some of us faced. Now I am so proud to work at an organization that actually practices its values.

Well paid internships and fellowship programs ought to be the floor, not the ceiling, and those of us who are in a position to shift this paradigm must do so. For both If/When/How’s internship and fellowship programs, we take a holistic approach to evaluating applicants. That means looking at internships, sure, but also equally valuing students’ and new lawyers’ lived experiences, coursework, opportunities or lack thereof for gaining work experience, geography, family and community commitments, and much more. Anyone can do this, and should!

Recently an allied organization reached out to me, asking what our summer intern compensation rates are since they now have funding to offer paid internships. This is a great example of practicing racial and reproductive justice – understanding that lack of compensation advantages and disadvantages different folks. Paid internships provide a level playing field for all qualified candidates, not just those who can afford to work for free. And ultimately, offering paid internships makes for a more valuable, diverse, and enthusiastic applicant pool because folks won’t be discouraged from applying based on financial concerns. Organizations gain the ability to provide a unique opportunity to someone who may not otherwise have had access to the experience an internship provides.

If your organization cannot afford to offer compensation to full-time interns, I urge you not to host an internship program until funding is possible. But if you’re in the position to hire interns, please consider the implications of unpaid internships. This practice disadvantages the very people we need to change the face of lawyering and address the structural inequalities that perpetuate oppression – especially us first-generation students of color without the financial or economic security to support ourselves working full-time without pay.

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