find the latest legal job
Corporate Counsel and Company Secretary
Category: Generalists - In House | Location: Newcastle, Maitland & Hunter NSW
· Highly-respected, innovative and entrepreneurial Not-for-Profit · Competency based Board
View details
Chief Counsel and Company Secretary
Category: Generalists - In House | Location: Newcastle, Maitland & Hunter NSW
· Dynamic, high growth organisation · ASX listed market leader
View details
In-house Projects Lawyer | Renewables / Solar | 2-5 Years PQE
Category: Generalists - In House | Location: All Australia
· Help design the future · NASDAQ Listed
View details
Insurance Lawyer (3-5 PAE)
Category: Insurance and Superannuation Law | Location: Brisbane CBD & Inner Suburbs Brisbane QLD
· Dynamic organisation ·
View details
Legal Counsel
Category: Corporate and Commercial Law | Location: North Sydney NSW 2060
· 18 month fixed term contract · 3-5 years PQE with TMT exposure
View details
The legality of internships

The legality of internships

Stella Kim

While unpaid internships might offer numerous benefits to students, they're frequently operated in a legal grey area, writes Stella Kim.

The UNSW Law Careers Service has been running for a little over six months. In this time, we have had enquiries from both students and employers regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of unpaid internships. Needless to say, debate and controversy surround this issue, particularly since the 'fee for internship' scenario in SA last year (ICYMI, here).

There are a variety of unpaid work schemes – voluntary legal roles at not-for-profits, PLT placements, course-credited experiential learning and (the questionable) unpaid internships at law firms. It’s the last of these where we find ourselves in truly muddy waters.

This is not a new phenomenon; however, the rise in unpaid internships may well be the consequence of the ever-increasing supply of law graduates. More supply, less demand – you get the picture.

On the flipside, law students seem more than happy to undertake voluntary positions, if it means they can gain exposure to relevant work and boost their professional skills. The value of such experience cannot and perhaps, should not, be underestimated. For budding lawyers, practical training and an employer on your resume will help you stand out in this incredibly competitive market.  

So, what does this mean? Is it breeding exploitative practices? Will it lead to inequality? Only law students who can afford to undertake voluntary roles in addition to full-time study, paid jobs, extracurricular activities, etc, will be able to gain the experience that may lead to better opportunities down the track.

In search of some guidance, I contacted the Fair Work Ombudsman. I was informed that the following unpaid scenarios are legal:

  • vocational placements where students receive course credit from an educational institution; and
  • internships where there is no ‘employment relationship’.

Pursuant to the Fair Work Act, an ‘employment relationship’ is determined by the circumstances of each case, including consideration of the regularity of employment, the nature of the intern’s work – whether mere observation or profitable benefits are derived for the business – the length of the arrangement, etc. I was then told to contact a lawyer for further advice.

Essentially, there seem to be no clear guidelines or avenues for students to take their grievances. Let’s face it: does a law student have the time, let alone resources, to take their employer to a tribunal? And would they risk their professional reputation and chance of securing subsequent employment by doing so?

To help address this issue, there have been a number of suggestions bandied around. One has been that, as a condition of renewing their practising certificate, solicitors must devote a small amount of their time mentoring/having a law or PLT student shadow them. This would allow greater opportunities for students to engage with legal professionals and gain exposure to the industry.

Further, in regards to remedies, perhaps Australia should follow the US where, in an unpaid internship lawsuit, the onus rests with the employer to establish that there was no employment relationship. This would, at least, take some of the burden off interns.

All in all, I acknowledge that I have not shed new light on this issue. But I would like to join the chorus in singing for change – legislative clarification, including a simple and cheap process for complaints.

In law school, we learn ethics as part of the Priestley 11. We then take an oath/affirmation at our admission ceremony to 'faithfully serve the administration of the law'. I was under the impression that all meant something – so, where do we draw the line?

*This article does not represent the view of UNSW or the UNSW Law School and is solely the personal opinion of the author.

Stella Kim will commence her training contract with Slaughter and May. She is currently assisting Joanne Glanz in the Careers Service at the UNSW Law School until she leaves for London.

Like this story? Read more:

QLS condemns actions of disgraced lawyer as ‘stain on the profession’

NSW proposes big justice reforms to target risk of reoffending

The legal budget breakdown 2017

The legality of internships
lawyersweekly logo
Promoted content
Recommended by Spike Native Network
more from lawyers weekly
LCA president Fiona McLeod SC
Aug 17 2017
Where social fault lines meet the justice gap in Aus
After just returning from a tour of the Northern Territory, LCA president Fiona McLeod SC speaks wit...
Marriage equality flag
Aug 17 2017
ALHR backs High Court challenge to marriage equality postal vote
Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) has voiced its support for a constitutional challenge to ...
Give advice
Aug 17 2017
A-G issues advice on judiciary’s public presence
Commonwealth Attorney-General George Brandis QC has offered his advice on the public presence of jud...
APPOINTMENTS
Allens managing partner Richard Spurio, image courtesy Allens' website
Jun 21 2017
Promo season at Allens
A group of lawyers at Allens have received promotions across its PNG and Australian offices. ...
May 11 2017
Partner exits for in-house role
A Victorian lawyer has left the partnership of a national firm to start a new gig with state governm...
Esteban Gomez
May 11 2017
National firm recruits ‘major asset’
A national law firm has announced it has appointed a new corporate partner who brings over 15 years'...
opinion
Nicole Rich
May 16 2017
Access to justice for young transgender Australians
Reform is looming for the process that young transgender Australians and their families must current...
Geoff Roberson
May 11 2017
The lighter side of the law: when law and comedy collide
On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much that is amusing about the law, writes Geoff Rober...
Help
May 10 2017
Advocate’s immunity – without fear or without favour but not both
On 29 March 2017, the High Court handed down its decision in David Kendirjian v Eugene Lepore & ...