Rise of the intern

By Melissa Coade|03 August 2017

Once a rare and exotic creature, the legal intern is now a common fixture in many work environments.  

With law students and junior practitioners embracing the opportunities that internships offer, we investigate what the implications of this new work order are for the profession and the members entering it.

To understand the rise of the legal intern and what this means for new lawyers who are trying to get their foot through the door, Lawyers Weekly spoke with students and workplace experts for their take on the state of play.

The new work order


Interns have become an established part of the Australian labour market and the popularity of internships, especially in the professional services like law, increases year-on-year.

It is a trend that is being capitalised by BigLaw and sole practitioners, federal and state government departments, emerging tech law start-ups, community legal centres (CLCs) and law clinics based on university campuses.

There are the classic, highly competitive overseas internships with the United Nations, international courts and domestic judicial bodies as well.

Some placements are flexible and accommodate interns one day each week, others are undertaken in six-month blocks with interns expected to work full-time, including during out of the usual nine-to-five work hours.

A great number of legal internships are unpaid, but some are advertised with the incentive of a competitive scholarship. Other legal internships provide a modest stipend to cover basic expenses for travel or the cost of relocation.


Depending on the flexibility of a placement program, as well as the financial or in-kind support available to interns, there are some opportunities which are more equitable or realistic for those while they are studying or living out of home.

Dr Nicola McGarrity, who is a director of experiential learning for the school of law at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), says that interest in legal placement and internship opportunities stems from a desire of students to understand the full range of options available for them upon graduation.

On top of her duties as a senior lecturer in law, Dr McGarrity advises students on hundreds of possible internships that they can undertake in a semester concurrent with their classes. The placement counts as an elective subject towards the UNSW law degree.

“One of the advantages of doing an internship is that students are able to engage in future-planning and to think about a number of different options,” Dr McGarrity says.

“We offer a range of placements, from traditional commercial law firms to in house lawyering, to government work, working at the courts, with social justice organisations, doing policy-based research, and even working with one of our research centres at the university.”

UNSW’s law school is currently surveying its student cohort to understand what they consider to be the merits of being an intern. Dr McGarrity plans to use the findings to help inform the content about internships that are being offered to law students, as well better targeting the types of placements being promoted by the faculty.

“We want to help students come to grips with the fact that the legal market is changing and that law firms are no longer regarding exceptional academic marks in and of themselves as being sufficient,” she says.

“And we want students to understand that the sort of benefits you can get out of an internship are not the sort of things that you can necessarily get out of studying ordinary law courses.”

The modern-day smorgasbord of legal internship options can vary in structure and substance. Depending on the host organisation, interns may be given a wide berth for independent learning, while others will be closely supervised. Some may have regular and direct contact with clients, and in other cases interns will be used to provide administrative support where staff and resources are lacking.

Across the board, Dr McGarrity says that internships allow interns to develop and demonstrate skills that they simply would not have had the chance to do in a level-entry law job.

“Legal employers want to hire people who have demonstrated the skills that are really going to benefit them in doing lawyering work in the future.

“Things like legal project management, time management, working in teams, oral and written communication skills – all of which are quite different when you work in practice than what you learn when studying a law degree,” she says.

“Educating students about these things is an ongoing exercise for the law school, which is really developing in response to the ongoing changes in the legal market.”

Those placements facilitated by universities, like the elective at UNSW, tend to be more structured and specific in terms of internship objectives.

But other well-established programs, such as three- to six-month internships offered by the UN, also provide exposure to organisations that might otherwise be inaccessible or very difficult for students and new lawyers to gain early in their careers.

Anthony Lieu, the managing director of online jobs portal Beyond Law, regularly posts a comprehensive range of legal internship and placement options to his site. Mr Lieu says that among the approximately 150 new opportunities of this kind that he adds to the jobs hub each month are a number of prestigious international opportunities to intern with Amnesty International and the UN.

“Because of the competitive nature of the law graduate market, everybody’s looking out for what they can get to put them at the top of the CV pile,” he says.

It is not just the international institutions where competition for internships is fierce, Mr Lieu adds. Even advertised opportunities to intern with domestic sole practitioners and boutique firms have become hotly contested.

Through Beyond Law, Mr Lieu presents workshops to law students all over Australia and encourages them to consider taking steps to organise their own internship.

“Because the market is so competitive, advertisers often receive hundreds of applications. Looking at the hidden job market and sending a warm intro or a cold email to organisations can often open more doors that you would be able to access than if you were just going for advertised positions,” Mr Lieu says.

“Being a bit more proactive in this job market pays off because everybody is going after the same sort of opportunity. At workshops I always advise people to seek out opportunities that aren’t publicly advertised.”

For those organising their own internship, Mr Lieu stresses the importance of remembering that the primary benefit from the experience should flow to the intern.

By making sure that the objectives of a placement are clearly outlined from the beginning but also meet the best interests of the hired intern, Mr Lieu believes that there is better chance the experience will be mutually beneficial.

Internships booming in a buyer’s market

For some time now, anecdotal evidence has pointed to the strong suggestion that the popularity of unpaid work experience is on the rise. But it was not until last year that an examination of the phenomenon in Australia was approached with academic rigour.

According to Dr Deanna Grant-Smith from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), the internship experience has deep roots in American workplace culture. In Australia, the business and management expert believes that a trend in local jobs scarcity has been a major factor contributing to internships being a “fairly accepted” practice in Australia.

“What we have seen is that the absence of level-entry jobs is making doing this work more attractive,” Dr Grant-Smith says.

“People are making quite strategic decisions, even in paid work spaces, about how they can translate that into an experience that they can capitalise on.”

As part of her research, Dr Grant-Smith has interviewed a range of people across different professional sectors. To offer a sense of the general sentiment in competitive jobs market, she gave the example of interns who openly express to her their willingness to work for an organisation without pay, in order to make some use of their qualifications.

“I’ve interviewed people who say they will work for free, while also doing paid work in a convenience store, just so they can feel that their degree is being put to use, in the hopes that they can prove themselves and that that will translate into something else,” Dr Grant-Smith says.

While not all legal internships are unpaid, programs which offer a stipend or scholarship to those who are able to secure an interns position are much more competitive.

Dr Grant-Smith also notes that the same desire to go demonstrate a commitment to the vocation a person has trained for lead some to seek out and take on roles for which they are overqualified. In law, this might include instances where qualified junior solicitors are taking on legal secretary or paralegal positions.

“It’s really possible to be highly employable and still be unemployed in your profession if there just aren’t any jobs to go into,” Dr Grant-Smith says.

Last year, the Commonwealth Department of Employment commissioned a report which found that people aged between 18 and 29 have completed at least one unpaid work placement since 2014. The report’s findings show that of the 3,800 survey respondents who said they have engaged in unpaid work of this kind, 20 per cent said they have undertaken five or more placements since 2014.

One of Dr Grant-Smith’s QUT colleagues, Professor Paula McDonald, was a co-author of the prevalence study Unpaid Work Experience in Australia.

While the study is the first national investigation to consider the prevalence and quality of internships in general, Professor McDonald says the survey responses show that the number of unpaid work placements in Australian professions such as law, finance and the creative sectors are growing.

“What this survey indicates is that that the prominence of unpaid work placements is expanding out to previously unaffected disciplines and types of people.

“It certainly has expanded in scope, with respect to the range of people who feel compelled to participate and in terms of duration and intensity,” she says.

Mr Lieu agrees that the length of self-organised placements is one aspect where interns are especially vulnerable to exploitation.

He believes it is crucial that potential interns are aware of their own legal rights when negotiating the terms of their placement, and that they do not let an eagerness to work with an organisation lead to being taken advantage of.

“The intern and the organisation should agree on the length of the internship from the outset rather than have an indefinite placement.

“Interns should aware of the legal side of unpaid internships, instead of continuing to work for an organisation hoping that there is some job at the end of it,” he says.

In terms of the number of legal internships in Australia increasing, Mr Lieu says the data from his jobs portal shows that advertised internship opportunities has grown steadily over the past three to four years.

Some of that growth may be a reflection of the jobs portal maturing, but Mr Lieu observes that employers today are more actively seeking out law students to give them the opportunity to deal with clients. Interest in interns from the NewLaw sector is also expanding the options available to students and young lawyers.

Mr Lieu suggests that in a rapidly changing profession like law, where a significant amount of time and money is dedicated to discussions about what the future means for lawyers and legal services, new lawyers are also being strategic about where they place their eggs. And for many, that preferred basket of choice is in NewLaw.

Dr McGarrity notes that this is also an area that her university is paying close attention.

“One of the things we want to identify is some more opportunities for internships in those areas to help students that are interested in combining a background in technology or IT with an interest in lawyering, to really get their foot in the door before they even leave the university,” she says.

A practical approach

The competitive jobs market in law is one context that explains why internships are growing in popularity, but there are certainly other factors at play. Mr Lieu explains that a majority of the opportunities he posts to his site will count towards the practical legal training (PLT) component for the Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (GDLP).

The Beyond Law hub accepts free listings from not-for-profits and those advertising PLT placements, meaning that CLC placements also feature prominently.

A respectable number of law students who are graduating with internships on their resumes are doing so with a view to counting those days towards their PLT, which students must complete to be eligible for admission as a lawyer.

Recent law graduate Farishte Parekh is one such intern. She studied a double degree in Law/ Communications at the University of Wollongong and is working towards her GDLP with the College of Law.

Farishte was able to count a five-week legal internship with NTSCORP Ltd, a native title service provider operating mostly in NSW and the ACT, towards her PLT.

She was one of two other strategic development interns placed with the organisation through the competitive Aurora Project during her university winter break last year.

“It was a proper, structured, reputable internship program. With the strategic development team, I specifically looked at the future acts part of the Native Title Act to assess how a claim group’s rights might [be] affected by external forces like mining,” Farishte says.

“I wanted a placement where I could feel like, if I was working for free, then I was actually doing something of value.

“NTSCORP doesn’t have a dedicated member of staff for policy and that is something that I am interested in. I also learnt how to do submission writing, which was a really useful skill,” she says.

Farishte cites a long-held passion for social justice and interest on Indigenous issues as being her motivation for wanting to vie for an Aurora internship. The application called for a cover letter responding to key selection criteria and two written references. Shortlisted applicants were then invited to a panel interview.

At the time, the final year student was on break from university so did not have to juggle study commitments with her placement. However, Farishte did sacrifice an opportunity for paid work and also deferred an opportunity as a paid legal research assistant for a chance to participate in the Aurora program.

“I really wanted to do this. The point of the Aurora internships is to support under-resourced, underfunded organisations, and I honestly felt like it was a good time to be there,” she says.

“And while I could have [gotten] money working elsewhere, because I did turn down a job to do it, I felt that I joined the organisation at a busy time when I could be useful, and where there was high-volume work that needed to be done.”

The daily cost of travel from Farishte’s home to the NTSCORP office in Redfern amounted to about $5 and she was conscious, having heard about the experience of other interns before her, that an unpaid internship could be a financial strain for those living out of home.

“I live with my parents, so in terms of financial backing that was okay. I wasn’t paying rent. I did have to pay for my train ticket, but I brought my own lunch to work so that was how I minimised costs,” Farishte says.

When money matters and time is money: have legal placements become a new rite of passage in law?

As more people plug their professional lives into online realm, profiles on LinkedIn are also suggesting lawyers are leaving the workforce after as early as 18 months to chase unpaid opportunities that they were previously unable to pay for as new graduates or students.

The affordability of many internship opportunities has much less to do with willingness to undertake them and more to do with having the time and the money.

While this is overcome in situations, such as where work integrated learning is mandated in the law program of some institutions, or offered as an elective subject in others, certain equity barriers remain apparent.

In the experience of Juris Doctor student Tom Diaz from the University of Melbourne, unpaid work is just not a socio-economic reality for many people.

In the second last year of his law degree, Tom spends anywhere between two to three days in the country Victorian town of Avoca, working for a family-run vineyard. He explains how the nature of his working week means there simply is no time to entertain an unpaid internship, however compelling the experience may seem.

“I’ve got a very big involvement outside of the law school in the family business and as a consequence of that, most of my spare time is taken up working,” Tom says.

“There’s just not that spare time to spend one to two days a week contributing into an organisation.”

Minded to pursue a career in commercial law, Tom has sought out paid experiences to give his CV an edge. Like Farishte, he has secured work as research assistant for a legal academic. However he has also garnered exposure to corporate law environments with programs offered by King & Wood Mallesons and Piper Alderman.

While Tom says it is generally accepted that employers prefer to hire new graduates who can show they have experience dealing with clients, even prior to their mandatory PLT days, he also believes there are other ways that law students can put their best foot forward.

Tom suggests that a deep understanding of the organisation or company that you are applying to and knowing how to sell what you bring to the table can be just as persuasive, if not more so than a CV stuffed with internships.

“I think it’s the capacity of the student to convey whatever experience they have got which is ultimately more important for getting your foot in the door. Each student ultimately has a narrative to sell,” Tom says.

“If you talk to people within legal organisations, what they consistently say to us as students is they are looking for applications that are targeted to their particular organisation.”

That philosophy is shared by Mr Lieu, who also recommends that those students looking to initiate an internship experience of their own be focused and targeted in their approach.

“We always advise that you go the extra mile to show that you understand the pressures that the organisation is facing, and even produce possible solutions to solve what those issues are. It’s really important to research the organisation you’re applying for and then provide examples of how you’ll add value,” he says.

“And focus on opportunities that will further your personal and career development. For example, those interested in intellectual property (IP) look out for opportunities and internships that are about IP policy or at an IP boutique firm.”

Meet the interns

Farishte Parekh, College of Law PLT student
University of Wollongong graduate (2016)
Aurora intern for NTSCORP Ltd
Five-week unpaid placement in Sydney (2016)

“I thought that a native title internship or a placement in the Indigenous affairs space would be interesting. I was looking for more experience as well as starting to work towards the PLT days and had an existing passion for social justice.”

James Batrouney, JD student
Melbourne University final year law (2017)
Legal intern with the Outreach Civil team at the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission
Four-week unpaid placement in Darwin (2016)

“I organised this internship separately to the law school and asked the NT Legal Aid Commission if they were willing to take me on for four weeks. I made sure that it fits within the requirements of law school to ensure that I could use the placement to get credit towards an elective subject.

“One of the primary reasons I wanted to do it was to give back, and as a law student we have a privileged position where we sometimes have the time to give back in this way. It also took me outside of my comfort zone, and I think that is really important.”

David Hamer, solicitor at Clayton Utz
Macquarie University graduate (2014)
UN internship with the Office of the Prosecutor – Appeals Division at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)
Five-month unpaid placement in The Hague (2015-16)

“I finished a summer clerkship with Clayton Utz at the start of 2014 and then I did an honours thesis. It took a year-and-a-half after my clerkship before I graduated in September 2015, just before I left for overseas.

I had always been interested in international law and also wanted to work at a court. The ICTY had about 50 interns at any one time, and there was a big intern cohort while I was there, which was great because I got to meet all these students and lawyers from all parts of the world.”

Tom Diaz, Melbourne University Law Students’ Society education director
University of Melbourne penultimate year JD student
Participant in the King & Wood Mallesons Insight Program
Four workshop sessions lasting a few hours each over a period of four months, unpaid exposure to KWM office in Melbourne (2016-17)

“Introductory programs like the King & Wood Mallesons Insight Program have given me the opportunity to meet lawyers from a commercial law firm, shadow practitioners and get an insight into various practice groups. The experience has been a really good way for me to get a feel for whether commercial law is for me or not.”

Edmund Bao, solicitor at King & Wood Mallesons
Australian National University graduate (2015)
Australian Fellow with the Special Litigation Unit for the World Bank Group
Two-month placement on scholarship in Washington D.C. (2015)

“I was the second person chosen for this internship, which was a scholarship-type program established by ANU in collaboration with The World Bank. It was structured to give more of an understanding to students who had an interest in areas of international law, typically in the areas of fraud and corruption."

Rise of the intern
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