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Make Sure Your Unpaid Interns, Paralegals are Legal

By Andrew Chow, Esq. | Last updated on

If your law firm uses unpaid interns or paralegals, you won't want to miss this legal cliffhanger. A class-action lawsuit is trying to reel in the practice of unpaid internships, with a Hollywood film as the backdrop.

The lawsuit sets the scene: Two interns on the movie Black Swan say they were made to perform menial tasks -- taking out the trash, getting coffee, shuffling papers -- while Fox Searchlight Productions reaped the rewards of their work.

The interns say Fox Searchlight violated state and federal labor laws with regards to their unpaid internships. Fox denies the charge, and says the interns got what they came for -- a chance to break-in to the industry.

This isn't the first time unpaid interns have challenged their roles at work.

The opening act in the battle over unpaid internships took place in front of the U.S. Supreme Court more than 50 years ago, NPR reports. The Court upheld unpaid internships, but only for training purposes.

Today, the Labor Department issues guidelines for unpaid interns, which state:

  • The internship must be similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.
  • The internship must be for the intern's benefit.
  • The intern cannot displace regular employees.
  • The employer cannot derive immediate advantage from the intern's activities.
  • All parties understand the internship may not result in a job.
  • All parties understand the internship will be unpaid.

The dramatic conclusion of the Black Swan interns' lawsuit is yet to be seen, with hundreds of former interns eligible to join the class-action suit.

But the lessons for your law firm are in focus. If you're not paying your interns, make sure you're following the law -- or else the sequel may be played out in court.

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