Symposium on Classism and the International Legal Profession: National Inequities and International Lawyering – Putting a Spotlight on Unpaid Internships

Symposium on Classism and the International Legal Profession: National Inequities and International Lawyering – Putting a Spotlight on Unpaid Internships

[Radhika Kapoor (Twitter: @Radhikaaah) is a Fellow at the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict.]

This piece has been written in the author’s personal capacity and does not reflect the views of the author’s institution. The author thanks Professor Naz Modirzadeh, Sapan Parekh, and Ashrutha Rai for helpful comments, and Shashankaa Tewari for research assistance.

The terrain of international lawyering comes with many class inequities, national inequities prime amongst them.  Broadly speaking, ‘classes’ comprise strata or divisions of people along perceived social, economic, or socioeconomic lines. In international lawyering, these differences manifest along so many axes that it would be impossible to enumerate them exhaustively. Here, I choose to spotlight one area where geographic and national divides intersect with international lawyering: unpaid internships that target fresh law graduates looking to start international legal careers. At some point in the last two decades, these internships became ubiquitous: they transitioned from occasional listings on the resumes of the particularly ambitious to mandatory pilgrimages for anyone wishing to posit themselves as remotely marketable in international law.

Much has been written about internships and unpaid labor in the international legal field. Horrific tales abound; a 22-year-old intern from New Zealand reported sleeping in a tent near Lake Geneva to afford his internship at the UN Conference on Trade and Development. I have myself witnessed unpaid interns walking miles to and from their places of work (grand international tribunals) during a European heat wave because their meagre monthly budgets just did not permit the luxury of a bus ticket. Interns often reside in cramped quarters and subsist on strange, dissonant diets comprising cheap takeout supplemented by a cornucopia of free-flowing wine, cheese, and fruit served at tribunal soirees intended for higher-ups, often gatecrashed by interns. 

In this piece, though, I do not seek to describe the minutiae of these disparities: classism and inequity in the profession, particularly in early-career phases, are so visible and omnipresent that they demand little demonstration. (International law might be one of the few legal careers where hearing the incredulous statement ‘Wait, you’re getting paid? For your work?’ from early-career lawyers is par for the course.) Instead, I wish to draw attention to one of its relatively less-explored aspects. When those of us unlucky (in scare quotes) enough to be born in Global South States dream of international legal careers which almost always begin with unpaid labor and internships, what are the extracurricular (extraprofessional) demands made on us? Academic Rahul Ranjan describes some of those demands as having their own, separate ‘emotional life,’ involving long hours, even days (and, during Covid-19, months) spent in ‘separate queues,’ where one feels ‘other[ed].’ Others have written about the toll this can take on mindspace, energy, and self-esteem. I argue that, emotional lives aside, these demands have effects far beyond the self.

Half a decade ago, when I was an early-career international lawyer—and one of many (mostly European) interns starry-eyed about a Hague career—I began plotting how best to secure an entry-level position in the field. Entry-level international law positions are notoriously difficult to obtain, even for the most qualified amongst us. The path normally entails at least a couple of unpaid internships before one’s work is perceived as compensable. At the time, I had been offered unpaid internships at the International Criminal Court, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon for the precise four-month window following the conclusion of my internship at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). I knew it was crucial to obtain the work experience that those opportunities presented, and had colleagues at the ICTY who had interned at upwards of three tribunals before securing full-time positions. Yet, I’d had a small scholarship funding my ICTY internship, and would at best be able to undertake only one more unpaid internship. I said no to everything but the ICC (at the time regarded as the most prestigious of the three), and prepared myself for yet another stint at unpaid labor that, in your naive and hopeful early twenties, you hope will soon convert into a remunerated entry-level opportunity. I watched my German, Spanish, and French friends at the ICTY glide smoothly into P1 roles after ‘temping’ at reputed Dutch NGOs. ‘Temping,’ of course, is not an option available to Global Southerners who are neither permitted to undertake any paid work nor to stay a day longer than necessary; indeed, the last day of my internship was also the day my visa expired and the day I was supposed to leave the country (I said goodbye to my incredible supervisor on my way to board the airplane, declining the other interns’ well-intentioned invites for farewell drinks). Many of those former interns continue to be in the Hague, now in mid- and high-level positions at that or other international tribunals. 

These—and other similar instances, that Global South interns regularly experience—might sound like inconsequential incidents. But I submit that they are not. And their significance ensues not only from their potential construal as discriminatory microaggressions, but more importantly from the real impact they have on people’s professional trajectories and achievements. These ostensibly small deprivations coalesce and accrue over time to expand a superficial gap between candidates into a real one. Whom would you rather hire for your boutique international law firm—a tried-and-true professional with early-career experience at two leading international criminal law NGOs and a brief tenure informally ‘assisting’ a defense attorney at the ICC, or a law graduate from Lahore who’s never set foot inside the hallowed courtrooms of The Hague?

Prestigious and coveted, albeit unpaid, internships like those mentioned above lend your professional life texture, your mind intellectual fertility, and your resume substance. Being shut out of those opportunities deprives you of those very real benefits. You seem less enthusiastic, less driven, because your pursuance of unpaid early-career work was less dogged (if at all present). You are less experienced, because international law firms or non-governmental organizations are averse to hiring those that lack immersion in the field. You appear less rounded out in terms of field and international work, because border-hopping can be both cumbersome and expensive. 

All of these effects are amplified for those in the Global South that experience, in addition to geographic differences, any combination of caste, education, linguistic, and socioeconomic factors that locate them in situations of relative disadvantage compared to other Global South colleagues. A double whammy of an inferior passport and a lack of personal wealth usually means one is out of the race before it even begins. Unpaid internships in Geneva, London, and Brussels are unfair and exploitative as a rule and are difficult for everybody. But they might be near-impossible for those whose currencies—thanks to a world monetary system dominated by colonial logic—are close to worthless in many prestigious internship locales. As one blog post on the issue argues, unpaid internships are one of the ‘instrument[s]’ used to expand the North-South gap in international legal practice. 

It is not a coincidence that Westerners are overrepresented at the UN, the arguable pinnacle of international law practice. Of these, the vast majority are Americans. The composition of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is especially striking, with one publication describing OCHA as having a ‘particularly Anglo-Saxon complexion,’ and reflecting a huge ‘gap [in representation] between poor and rich countries.’ And UN leadership, for its part, has historically been dominated by Nordic States, which represent a large chunk of the world’s wealth and a small chunk of the world’s people. 

These inequities do not occur in a vacuum. When one is choosing to pursue unpaid international law internships, it is imperative that the (literal) cost of that experience be offset by its value-addition to one’s professional life. As such, one is usually competing with thousands of candidates for the same handful of internships year after year at the same handful of cities, primarily in Western Europe. Prestigious international law internship opportunities did not just happen to occur primarily in the Global North. Geneva, Switzerland, and the Hague, the Netherlands did not just happen to house hundreds of internships, while the same opportunities do not abound in New Delhi, Karachi, or Tehran. Conversance in not just one but two European languages is often a minimum requirement for these internships. Geographically, the influence of Eurocentrism and the Western bias in international law is undeniable. One list of the most important cities for international law, where fresh law graduates are often told to flock to for unpaid early-career work, highlights the dominance of Europe and the United States. Evaluated on the metrics of best international law universities, international organizations and courts, influence of State governments, and best practitioners, the list indicates that eight of the top ten cities are in Europe, and the remaining two are in North America. In fact, only one entry in the top twenty-five—Nairobi—may unambiguously be characterized as a Global South city. Contrary to popular thought, Global Southerners do not actually revel in the notion of forsaking family, homes, and comfort to pursue unpaid intellectual labor. Traversing to these regions to pursue these unpaid experiences are journeys we embark upon after coming to realize, as we graduate from law schools back home, that the rules of the game are such that these internships have become par for the course; rejecting unpaid work at the beginning of one’s career is akin to professional hara-kiri in international law. 

There is so much that’s taken from us as we navigate a system designed from the very outset to reward some and disadvantage others. Critique for critique’s sake is important, and yet can ultimately be futile. While borders, coercive national security structures, and pervasive geographical inequities persist, here is a brief docket of things we might think about doing in order to push back against some of their more pernicious manifestations: first, problematizing the status quo. This would entail questioning why unpaid labor at the beginning of a professional journey—a period that typically comes with a high degree of financial precarity—is so normalized. A second and related undertaking may involve recognizing linkages between these modern-day inequities and imperialist designs. And finally, there must be a conscious commitment to building internationally representative centers of learning and practice. Borders are (white)-man-made, and international law practice’s concentration in the lands and hands of a few is both: a present-day fact with which we must contend, and a historically contingent creation that those of us committed to the ideals of equity, diversity, multilateralism, and merit must continually question and seek to undo. 

To be effective, this commitment would need to pervade all the key steps involved in developing, awarding, and administering early-career internships. What this looks like is likely to vary across contexts, but starting points may include ensuring that all labor—including labor performed by young, recent law graduates without any prior experience—is remunerated fairly, that language requirements for early-career internships reflect global diversity and pluralism, and that transitioning from interning to careering does not exclusively remain the province of the Global North.

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Lucas Clover Alcolea
Lucas Clover Alcolea

Interesting and relevant post but I have a few quibbles, one is that the kiwi camping later admitted it was a stunt and this is fairly well known so it’s a little misleading to use it as a genuine example, two it’s a little presumptuous to expect countries to change their entire immigration system purely to benefit those from countries outside the EU (I suspect the UK also has similar issues to those from the global south, for example I only got an internship at a Swiss firm due to being a Spanish dual national) who want to get jobs on the back of internships, three it’s not exactly much easier for poor (in relative terms) westerners to get these positions than those from the south. If their uni has funding for these kinds of things, unlikely outside north America, or they themselves (or their parents?) have funds, or they somehow get a scholarship it works, otherwise god knows how people do it. Part time job? Lastly it is somewhat ironic to complain about othering when you yourself other everyone who isn’t with the same background as you and for that matter yourself. As an additional point is is farcical… Read more »

Sam J H
Sam J H

First, the camping kiwi is used as an example. It is one instance illustrating a much broader phenomenon of inequality. The fact that that one instance is fabricated does not detract from the broader issue. Second, it is not presumptuous to expect countries in the Global North to change visa requirements for international students/interns when those countries hold themselves out as hosting institutions that represent every person on earth. If the Netherlands/West wants people everywhere to treat the ICJ/ICC etc as judicial organs of the entire planet, then they should do more to ensure that the Court isn’t staffed disproportionately by people from western countries. Third, I am from the Global North and grew up in a lower socio-economic area. I went on to acquire degrees from elite Universities and practice at a global law firm in one of the world’s major financial centers. International internships were instrumental in my ability to climb educational, social, and professional ladders, and not once did my passport hold me back. I do not know a single person from South Asia or Africa who interned at any of the firms with which I interned or later worked, just as I know very few people… Read more »