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Internships | Web Update

Lawsuit changes future of student internships

Published: January 29, 2014, 11:20 pm ET
Online Managing Editor

The future of unpaid internships is in question, after two unpaid interns won a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures that is likely to set a precedent for internship programs nationwide.

The two interns, who assisted with the production of the movie “Black Swan,” sued on the grounds that they did equal work as paid employees without gaining any educational benefits. The Manhattan Federal District Court judge who ruled on the case in June 2013 said unpaid internships should be allowed “only in very limited circumstances,” according to The New York Times.

Currently, unpaid internships are prevalent, as about 50 percent of internships are unpaid, according to the research firm Intern Bridge. However, Katybeth Lee, associate director for internship programs at University of Richmond’s Career Services, expects that percentage to decrease in the coming years as a result of the ruling.

“It’s hard when it’s an industry trend not to pay your interns,” Lee said, “because then all the people who are in these decision-making roles took unpaid internships. It’s hard to change the paradigm, but I do think this court case will be influential.”

In response to the case, companies hiring interns will have one of three options going forward, Lee said, and she has spoken with employers who have chosen all three. Companies wanting to avoid liability will either start paying their interns, or will stop hiring interns altogether.

Companies choosing the third option will continue to run their existing unpaid intern programs in hopes that no one will sue them, Lee said.

Because the decision was so recent, it is hard to know how it will influence internships in 2014, but Lee is excited to see how the Richmond students she assists are affected this summer, she said.

Because lack of funding has the power to discourage a student from accepting an internship offer, there has been a long-existing critique that the practice of unpaid internships privileges the wealthy and enables them to continue becoming wealthier, Lee said.

The university and Career Services are trying to level the playing field with UR Summer Fellowships, which provides funding for students in unpaid internships or research positions, Lee said.

“I think Richmond students are in a really fortunate position,” Lee said, “because there are really amazing experiences to be had in some of these unpaid internships, but it’s really unfair that in most cases there are very few students who have the opportunity to elect to participate.”

Junior Austen Kelso received Spider Internship Funds for last summer and was grateful for the monetary support that enabled him to intern with the Chesapeake Conservancy. Kelso would not have been able to accept the unpaid position without the funding from Richmond, he said.

Although he was happy to accept the position because of the experience he gained, Kelso believed that the work he did was worthy of being paid, he said.

“I could have been paid because I was doing actual work,” Kelso said. “My work provided results that were going to be useful in the real world. I wasn’t just making copies.”

Junior Julie Du Pont worked as a paid intern for the American Federation of Teachers during summer 2013, and she was happy to hear the Fox Searchlight Pictures court case could help give other interns a similar experience, she said.

“I feel that the majority of internships should be paid because all people who work deserve to be compensated for their time and work,” Du Pont said. “Internships also are supposed to be learning experiences, which is probably one of the reasons why the pay tends to be lower, but I still think they should be paid at least something.”

The reaction period to the Fox Searchlight Pictures case is just beginning, so many companies have not yet decided whether or how they plan on remodeling their internship programs. In an article about the court case and its significance, Jordan Weissmann of The Atlantic said he believed unpaid internships would become much more rare, although that might mean fewer internship programs altogether, not more paid ones.

Contact staff writer Erin Flynn at

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