October 25 2013

The Scourge of Litigious Interns

Charlotte Hays

Interning has always been a way to get a leg up in the job market. There’s always been a trade-off: you work for peanuts, and then you put the experience on your resume. You also might end up getting a real job at the institution for which you are interning upon graduation.

It should be further noted that interning is not compulsory: if you don’t want to buy into the deal, you can do something else. You can loaf or get a “real” job (admittedly becoming harder and harder in the Obama economy).

But two litigious interns have now ensured that one source of prestigious internships will dry up: Conde Nast, the publishing giant that has long been a good place for ambitious young people to fetch coffee and perhaps be noticed, will end its intern program next year.

Interns at W magazine and the New Yorker respectively, Lauren Ballinger and Matthew Leib have sued Conde Nast because they claim the corporation violated labor law by not paying them enough. Conde Nast didn’t pay interns well, but in addition to the prestige of working for a famous publishing corporation, with the hope of being “discovered,” Conde Nast interns received school credit. Conde Nast has announced that current interns will be able to finish their terms but that there will be no new interns after 2014.

The Wall Street Journal notes in a piece headlined "The Devil Sues Prada" (subscription required):

If Lauren Ballinger and Matthew Leib achieve nothing else, the 20-somethings can always point to this: They killed the intern program at Conde Nast. Congratulations, and please forward your resumes to the Obama Treasury and the de Blasio for Mayor transition team. …

The biggest losers will be future interns, especially those without parental connections, who will no longer get that chance to see what a career in publishing is like or show a potential mentor what they can do. The two suing interns knew what they were getting into when they signed up, and Mr. Leib even came back for a second summer. But no one else will get the same chance.

Then again, perhaps the youngsters were merely taking their cues from their Conde Nast editors, who keep telling their readers that America needs more forced wealth redistribution. You get what you teach.

According to Forbes magazine, the ramifications of the Conde Nast suit will be felt elsewhere:

[Daniel O’Meara, chairman of the employment law division of Philadelphia-based Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads] says he has gotten a series of calls from both for-profit and non-profit clients asking what they should do about their unpaid internship programs. “When I talk them through the risks, including the higher visibility of the unpaid internship issue, they are saying they aren’t going to use unpaid internships anymore,” he says. “No good deed goes unpunished.”

The main point about interning is that it is voluntary. If you didn’t think you would learn and benefit, you didn’t have to do it. That choice is well on its way to being eliminated, a particular shame in an era when unemployment is high and even college graduates need to burnish their resumes and show that they are capable and industrious. 

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