Continuing the Debate Over Paid/Unpaid Internships and Fairness in Employment

A while back, after a lawsuit brought to light the fact that The Charlie Rose Show relies upon unpaid interns to do most of the heavy lifting for the program, I sparred a bit with readers over the fairness of the situation. I took the position that free choice/supply and demand/the ways of the world all dictated that unpaid internships served a valuable place in the corporate landscape.

I took this position with some confidence as I have had successful experiences with unpaid positions in the past, though I will admit that the other side has its solid points as well. They are mainly that it is unfair to take advantage of the desperate, and that interns should, at the very least, earn enough to get them through lunch-time and a post-wrap beer. That side also (potentially, depending on how a finder of fact would view the internship) had the weight of labor law behind it.

I recently ran across a story which may spark an equally interesting debate. From the Boston Business Journal by way of CBS Boston:

'The BBJ received an emailed tip this week from someone who says they’re an employed, Boston College Law School (BC Law) graduate. The tipster sent screen grabs of a job listing on BC Law’s career site. The post advertises a full-time associate position at a small Boston law firm, Gilbert & O’Bryan LLP, paying just $10,000 per year. (That’s $10K, it’s not a typo.)

Larry O’Bryan, one of the firm’s partners, said he’s received about 32 applications for the $10K per year job, since posting it one week ago. He said that while the pay is low, the lawyer who is eventually hired will gain valuable experience.'

While I could easily make a fascinating supply/demand post out of the above block quote, I think it is even more interesting to think about it in terms of the Charlie Rose debate readers and I had earlier. In that vein, please take to the comments section to let me know what you think. Is this position fair? After all, while the pay is low, the employee will receive benefits, and will gain some experience. It could almost be viewed as a paid post-grad internship (making it, in some ways, better than the Charlie Rose situation, though somehow a bit more sad).

However, $10,000 per year is clearly below minimum wage at 40 hours per week (let's leave that alone in the comments...this most likely falls under the practice of law exemption). Additionally, those graduating from BC (whose job board this was posted on) often owe more than that on student loans every quarter...


  1. Seems much fairer to me than unpaid internships, (even though the pay seems impossible to live on without a second job or a free place to live). Aside from the fact that the position pays a little, it draws from a very different pool of applicants. Unlike unpaid student internships, this position presumably requires a law degree, and possibly bar passage.

    That is to say, the person who takes this position is likely a licensed attorney who was completely without work before being offered the position. And one who can leave this position at any time upon being offered a better position.

  2. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    I have to admit, based on our conversation over at the Charlie Rose post, that I am a bit surprised by your analysis. After all, I am certain that of the 32+ people who applied for this spot, at least a few think of this as a year-long paid internship, maybe we should too?

    Is the difference the fact that they get paid? If so, I would say that the lack of a living wage renders that almost moot. If, as you suggest, it is freedom of choice to leave, well, interns have that too.

    That said, I agree with your analysis 100%. I believe both this position and unpaid internships have a purpose, and wish whoever is going for the spot the best of luck (as I am sure the admissions department at BC is...)


  3. Well, for me, the main differences are in the nature of the relevant market and the position of the applicants.

    With unpaid internships, markets often establish a custom and many students will be effectively ineligible for paid positions. In this case, the would-be interns had and continue to have access to a market that offers paid positions, but as individuals, they have been unable to secure one. So this case strikes me as a mutually beneficial arrangement within a market, as opposed to a manipulation of the market that renders one side powerless.

    Also, the fact that they get paid does swing my view a little. Although $10,000 falls far short of most reasonable living wage standards, it is still much more than nothing. This intern/associate will necessarily find rent-free living accommodations, or find a second job.

    In either case, the $10,000 stipend/salary will be non-negligible. This person will either have (1) a substantial increase in their lunch/leisure budget (and possibly be freed from having to lean on another for sandwich money) or (2) an additional $10,000 in annual income (during a time in which they are possibly struggling to make ends meet and definitely not in a position to laugh at $10k).

    I agree that this position and unpaid internships have a purpose; I just think that unpaid internships are often exploitative. And yes, I wish the best of luck to everyone going for this one.

  4. Thanks for sharing your excellent thoughts on this situation. Maybe I could sum it up by saying that you think the unpaid internships are a structural problem (due to the 'custom' and I guess normalization of unpaid internships) whereas this $10k job is a one-off opportunity with a very real possibility to allow someone to break free of a night job or begging.

    Very sensible analysis, and you may be on to something. I think for now, we will have to agree to disagree on the unpaid internships (though, as noted, I agree 100% on the paid position in question). You are managing to take me just a hair further in your direction than I was before we started however, so who knows where I will be next time this issue comes up!