UNPAID internships and the law

Internship opportunities have been an integral part of higher education for many years.

legal internships nashville tennessee

Internship opportunities have been an integral part of higher education for many years. Law firms, the state legislatures, marketing firms, and campaigns are just a few of the places you might find an intern answering the phone, shadowing a meeting, or drafting documents for review by superiors. 

Where you can usually find an intern ?

We all know those typical movie scenes where the intern brings the boss her morning coffee, right? Maybe some of you have been that intern; but was it legal? The answer is: it depends. 

Internship opportunities have been an integral part of higher education for many years. Law firms, the state legislatures, marketing firms, and campaigns are just a few of the places you might find an intern answering the phone, shadowing a meeting, or drafting documents for review by superiors. When you meet an intern in the office environment, you might ask yourself if they are being compensated for their work. Often times they are not. Why is this? 

Noting differences. Let’s consider how interns differ from full-time paid employees. Full-time employees are trained, or have received a degree for, the job. On the other hand, interns are almost always in school and wish to further their knowledge and gain experience. In addition, interns are temporary positions. They might work for the summer months between semesters, or they may work just one or two half-days in the office before or after class. Therefore, it is hard to see a project start to finish on this schedule. 

Must interns be paid?

What is the law? The Department of Labor has established a test to determine if an intern must be paid under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). If the internship meets the following criteria, the intern is not legally entitled to compensation. Generally, this test applies to interns who receive training for their own educational benefit. The DOL.gov website contains the following: 

The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:  

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment; 
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;  
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff; 
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;  
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and  
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

If all of the factors listed above are met, an employment relationship does not exist under the FLSA, and the Act’s minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the intern. 

So why do students work for free? Chudi Echetebu, one of our fall legal interns says, “Interning means you are paid with experience.” Chudi drafts many legal documents for our Partners and Associates, like memorandums in support of law and initial complaints.

However, his documents are not just immediately sent to the courts or opposing counsel. After Chudi or any other intern submits a document for review with the case’s managing attorney, the attorney provides feedback and can make significant changes to the project, whether it be formatting, legal tactics, or additional case law. As Chudi’s internship went on, his experience has made him a better legal writer, and someday a better lawyer. While we are thankful for the hard work of our interns at Collins Legal, our primary goal is to help them grow in their future legal careers. 

Our internship program at Collins Legal is approaching its fifth consecutive term. Our interns have the opportunity to follow attorneys through every step of the legal process: from writing and filing a complaint to collecting on a judgment. Are you interested in furthering your legal education by interning at Collins Legal? 

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