“Rebellious Lawyering” conference: Discussing origins and meaning of the intern rights movement

From the Rebellious Lawyering conference program book

From the Rebellious Lawyering conference program book

On Friday I was part of a terrific panel discussing unpaid internships at the annual Rebellious Lawyering conference, held this year at Yale Law School. Among other things, we discussed how the emerging intern rights movement got started and how the seeds of litigation challenging unpaid internships were planted. It was an honor to be in the presence of three individuals who are pioneers in the intern rights movement, Eric Glatt, Ross Perlin, and Rachel Bien. More about their signature roles below…

Path to pathbreaking lawsuit

My connection to this august group came about from an article I wrote over a decade ago.

In a 2002 law review article, “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns” (Connecticut Law Review), I set out a legal framework arguing that many unpaid internships violated minimum wage laws. Frankly, it didn’t cause much of a stir. Rather, over the years it attracted a handful of citations in other law review articles, and this was pretty much about it.

That changed when writer Ross Perlin cited and touted the article in his seminal book, Intern Nation (2011; 2012 updated p.b. edition), the first comprehensive examination of the social, economic, and legal implications of the burgeoning intern economy.

9781844678839 Intern Nation PB

Ross was the first writer to connect all the dots on the intern economy. I regard his book as the bible of a new movement. It’s quite possible that none of this would’ve happened had he not written it.

Among the early readers of Intern Nation was Eric Glatt, an MBA holder and former unpaid accounting department intern for the Fox Searchlight Pictures production of the movie “Black Swan.” Eric spied the references to my law review article, and after reading it he came away with ideas for a lawsuit seeking back wages from Fox. He sought a law firm to explore this possibility, and he found one of the very best in Outten & Golden, a leading plaintiffs’ employment firm in New York City. They decided to file suit, and Rachel Bien, a partner at the firm, would serve as lead counsel.

The lawsuit prompted some media coverage when it was filed, and then the story exploded when, last June, a New York federal district court judge ruled that Glatt and co-plaintiff Alex Footman were entitled to back pay under state and federal minimum wage laws and certified the case as a class action for other Fox interns.

Rachel and Eric are now planning for the case to be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

In the meantime…

As the lawsuit against Fox was percolating, Glatt and others were busy organizing in New York.

Out of the Occupy Wall Street movement came a working group that evolved into Intern Labor Rights. ILR has become the “go-to” informational and organizational presence on challenging unpaid internships. More than any other group, ILR is responsible for branding this as a movement now properly “owned” by a younger generation of activists who are putting their own stamp on it via creative social media outreach, organizing, and advocacy.

From Intern Labor Rights

From Intern Labor Rights

Many more lawsuits challenging unpaid internships have been filed. Some have settled; others are pending. The intern rights movement has hit the court dockets.

There’s so much more I can say, but I’ll save space and simply reference these three excellent resources:

  • Go here for a comprehensive report by Intern Labor Rights documenting the extraordinary developments of 2013.
  • Go here for ProPublica’s wide-ranging investigative project on the intern economy.
  • Go here for an in-depth Boston Globe Sunday magazine cover story on unpaid internships by Melissa Schorr.

Beyond unpaid internships

The discussion about unpaid internships at the Yale conference quickly evolved into a broader examination of social, economic, and political ramifications concerning students, recent graduates, and work, especially as it pertains to law students and new lawyers who want to do public interest work.

There’s a particular dilemma here for those who want to extend legal services to the poor, while not wanting to deprive law students and lawyers from compensation for their work, especially during rough economic times for the legal profession. Because most of the unpaid intern litigation has focused on for-profit corporations, the applications of wage & hour laws to the non-profit sector are unsettled. In a nutshell, federal minimum wage laws do not exempt non-profit employers, but they also allow for taking on volunteers. Hence, there’s a massive gray area for legal pro bono work.

In addition, the dialogue explored the implications of the intern economy for work in general. What happens when young people get caught in a cycle of constant unpaid “opportunities,” with no paying work on the horizon? Indeed, the narrower focus on internships per se is giving way to a broader inquiry about employment, jobs, and the labor market in the midst of the meltdown economy, as it should.

***

Nostalgic, already

Please forgive a brief nod to my Cancerian nostalgic side, but at the conference I couldn’t help but reflect upon a December 2011 meeting with Eric, Ross, and journalist Tiffany Ap at my favorite Manhattan diner. Ross’s book had been published earlier that year, and Eric had filed his lawsuit in September. As you can read from the tone of my write-up on our get together, we had very little idea of what was to come.

Since then, it has been my pleasure to serve in a background, resource role to this growing movement. As I suggested above, it is now the province of a younger generation. I’m happy to say that there’s more to come.

You may go here for my 2002 law review article (Connecticut Law Review) on internships and go here for my forthcoming 2014 law review article (Northeastern University Law Journal) discussing legal and policy developments of the past three years.

2 responses

  1. It’s not right. Interns should be paid at least the minimum wage. The only exception to this would be a type of work/study internship where the intern would be getting a very structured type of training program equal to classroom experience.

    Too many times I’ve seen interns being used either for mundane office tasks not related to their major or worse, being used to work on actual client work and not being paid. This was rampant when I lived in Los Angeles. I’ve even heard horror stories of firms stealing intern designs and taking the credit for it.

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