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In The Name Of ‘Experience’, 5 Reasons Why Unpaid Internships ‘Exploit’ Students

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Internships are important in professional courses like Law, for students to have practical experience and learnings. It not only enhances the outlook towards the real world but also gives an idea as to how workplaces are, how professionals work and what is expected out of them in work culture. 

Besides this, it’s one of the ways of gaining an understanding and clarity for their prospects or interests. 

Representational image.

In a country like India, where theoretical based learning is still popular in colleges, a good internship becomes crucial to gain clarity and hone our skills. Moreover, internship experience has also become a part of course completion and is counted in credits. Sometimes freshers are also approached because of their vibrant internship experiences.

Throughout the year students look for Legal internships under lawyers, judges, firms, NGOs, government departments and research organisations and getting it has become more competitive than before. But the main question here is, has the rising demand for internships given away for exploitation?

When considerable time is invested irrespective of the experience, unpaid internships become a disadvantage and seem unfair. It is undeniable that we need internships more than employers need interns. 

As my batchmate, Tanya Patwal, put it, “This creates a power imbalance, right from the beginning. The need is so acute that students are willing to work at whatever terms the lawyers want them to for strange hours, great research burden and of course, low or no payment.”

The debate over unpaid and paid internships is quite recent which requires adequate attention.

As a fourth-year Law student, I with experience can affirm that there is a need for rethinking when it comes to unpaid internships.

“Interns Are Still Students And Lack Experience”

Yes, it is an accepted fact that students in the first or second year in the case of 5-year law school can be considered inexperienced. But does lacking practical training justifies non-payment of the efforts? For them, internships are a gateway to improve their legal education. And what about those who are in their senior years of law school? Also, those who have graduated and are pursuing a 3-year law course? 

A stipend is just a remuneration or reimbursement of labour done during the period of internship. Receiving it can further enhance the experience and encourage an intern, especially in cases where students have no godfathers in the field. Besides, it’s a harsh truth that interns have to strive to learn the skills on their own, even if it’s researching a case law or drafting their first Notice in an internship.

Students in their 3rd to 5th year have acquired considerable practical work experiences both from schools as well as internships. For them, the mere excuse of an internship certificate and experience in place of free labour cannot be justified. Sometimes, even in unpaid internships, not much is taught, and a lack of interest is shown by the employer in mentoring the interns. 

Have Privilege, Get Internships

This debate opens up the harsh reality of privileged groups as well. Some students can avail themselves of internship opportunities through contacts and references whereas a large number struggles to find one. 

For a good fruitful experience at well-known firms or lawyers, one has to apply months in advance. Even a student with a good CV can be left behind against the one who has contacts.

Bhoomika Sharma, a fourth-year student, narrated her experience. “Normally, not every company or firm opens its window for everyone even with vacancy. They do require references to provide internships. Few lawyers provide internships based on CV or academic excellence,” she said.

Even a student with a good Resume can be left behind against the one who has contacts. Representational image.

“An Expensive Experience”

Law is a costly education in India. Pursuing law from renowned institutions like NLUs demand fees in lakhs. In that situation, the struggle for work experience becomes another game of privileges. As Azhar Hussain, a fifth-year student puts it, “at least a reimbursement must be made for travelling and students must not be made to ‘pay’ for having an internship.”

Several students come from different law schools across India to Delhi for better internship opportunities. Many have to arrange for accommodation, travelling and other expenses. In that case, a minimal amount of stipend can encourage students with financial constraints to think about it. 

Further, while interviewing students from my batch, many agreed that as some of us are well off, and paid or unpaid work would not really affect them. But many have financial problems and require assistance in that regard. So the availability and accessibility get compromised.

A compulsory stipend might discourage employers or young lawyers from providing internships. But what differentiates paid internships is the amount for the work done by internees. There are numerous firms and other institutions that can provide a stipend but do away with it. I also think that where we are applying also matters. Students are aware that non-profit organisations might not be able to pay students and are quite rich with experiences.

Workload And Exploitation With No Respite

The workload varies. It depends on the assignments given by the employer and also the field we have applied for.  Interns can make the most out of it. Generally, firms and lawyers give work ranging from preparing case briefs, writing articles, research assignments related to judgments, reports etc.

All of this demands time and sacrifice on the part of students as well. The heavy work can be stressful. Throwing more light on it, Aditi Palit says, “When you go there to learn, some lawyers treat us like we are here only to read files and research. We should be given clerical work. And they don’t give us work in an attempt to not give us money. They make us work like hell but they don’t pay. They give reasons saying that internships are for our benefit.”

Sometimes the work timings are equal to that of an associate. Puja Das, a fourth-year student, said, “A major portion of our day is invested for internship. Whether it’s research work or just carrying files from door to door, we learn one or the other things related to law. But most law students are not paid for their work and efforts.”

Aditya Nair, of the same batch, narrated his experience. “Ideally, they should at least compensate for travelling costs. But when a law student is at the stage where firms are making good dough out of their work without paying them a heck dime, not even transport costs, that’s exploitation and the sad part is no regulation or law covers interns properly. We learn something and see something completely different happening in the real world.”

Representational image.

How Do Paid Internships Help?

Besides finances, payment is an acknowledgement of the hard work put in by the interns. It is also the recognition of the assistance provided by them.

Tanya rightly says, “A paid internship also has the potential to motivate interns to put the effort into what they are doing. Sometimes certificates are just not enough to encourage students to learn and make the most out of the internship.”

Adding on to what Tanya said, Puja says, “As per my personal experience, a stipend supports our finances and travelling expenses and boosts one’s morale. One feels appreciated for the work done. Paid internships give you the motivation to work harder. Unpaid is mostly done just for the sake of certification and college requirements by most of the students.”

Also, senior year students with previous experiences have the potential to learn themselves. Almost no employer spoon-feeds the interns. They put equal effort as a fresher even if it’s drafting. At that stage, working without a stipend becomes free labour and exploitation.

Bhoomika Sharma favours a performance-based stipend. Narrating her experience, she says, “Even if the remuneration was not proportional to the work, we were expected to work as if we were an associate. So, when a senior year student is expected to do so, it becomes exploitative in the name of an internship.”

If the stipend is proportional, interns are encouraged to relish the practical experience at the workplace.

With a similar experience, Tanya said,  “Incidentally, not all lawyers go lax on interns. Some are made to take the research burden as hard as the associates. They are expected to be professionals, work hard and stick to deadlines. While exposure to such a work culture is beneficial, it does impact the time, energy and focus of a law student.”

Jaivish Harjai, a fourth-year student who has interned under several litigation firms, shared a slightly different perspective. “Unpaid internships are fine (only if they are internships in the real sense), as long as they add value to the student.” He reminisced his experience where although he was appreciated for spending an equal time as an associate, he expected some monetary reward but was not given one.

The Low Expectations in Future

Many choose Law to make a better living for themselves. They put immense hard work into courses, assignments, classes, and juggling to gain skills and training. Therefore, an internship is the best possible way to make an idea of their future. Unpaid internships might also lower their expectations.

As Tanya pointed out, “Those who couldn’t even secure stipends for themselves during internships do not find it disturbing that they are paid low when they start working. Not everyone can afford to have low-paying jobs after five years of expensive legal education and such a situation may deter talented and aspiring lawyers from the pursuit of law, which is harmful to society.” 

There is a requirement that certain rules or guidelines be prepared by authorities. Because what we are taught is starkly different from reality. This is a nascent stage where we can avoid exploitation and provide the dignity of labour. Rather than patronizing this experience, we should talk about rightful compensation. 

A word of gratitude: I would like to thank each and every friend, classmate and batchmate who contributed their opinions and thoughts for this piece. Thank you.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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