Category Archives: Amy

The glorified exploitation of unpaid internships

Broadcast intern in professional dress and running shoes runs to delivery SCOTUS decision to her boss

The 2013 Running of the Interns, via Buzzfeed.

A quick primer on unpaid internships:

  • Unpaid internships in Ontario are illegal, unless they’re sponsored through a post-secondary institution for credit.
  • Unpaid internships are not a guarantee of future employment, or greater earning potential.
  • Unpaid internships are a gendered issue, as women make up the vast majority of their ranks.
  • The highest profile example of unpaid internships right now is the Bell Canada  case (Note – link is to an autoplay video about the case).

This is an issue I have been concerned about for some time now. It became clear to me early on in political science (and the social sciences more broadly), it’s necessary to complete an internship to get ahead. I was comfortably and happily employed in my field in Ottawa, but all around me classmates were travelling to far-off locations to intern for some international organization. Not to be outdone, I left my job at the time to intern at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC. It was an amazing experience, about which I reminisce constantly.

I don’t know if working at the Embassy gave me an edge in my law, grad school, and employment since, but it’s definitely a point of conversation in all my interviews. It’s glamorous!

I could never have interned in DC without first having worked a well-paying full-time job, which allowed me to save. At $1,000 a month for a room in a stranger’s house, DC was not cheap. Tack on travel, food, clothes, and modest entertainment (thank god their museums are free!), and it adds up.

When organizations like the United Nations offer internships to those enrolled in or going into graduate studies, but bar interns from applying for UN employment until six months after their internship has ended, you have to wonder – who are these smart, savvy people with money saved up to move to New York, Geneva, or Nairobi?

For law students, internships are a way of boosting your resume as you prepare to secure a seemingly-illusive summering position, not to mention articles. Fortunately for law students, universities offer credits for such undertakings. (I just received approval for my own student-proposed law internship).

Internships are a great opportunity for hands-on experience. However, more and more they are becoming all there is to do while employment opportunities dwindle, especially for young people, in some of the aforementioned fields. With no guarantee of pay-off for this alleged “paying of dues”, I have to ask: why are we putting up with this?

The internship model hurts those who are already marginalized when it comes to entry into highly-coveted professions like law. For those who can’t get the few jobs on offer because of barriers caused by disability, family commitments, age, race, or language, internships are sold as an opportunity to gain experience. The unfortunate reality is that internships are not a competitive edge, and actually set those already behind the pack further behind, financially speaking.

Some argue that internships allow small organizations to hire where they otherwise couldn’t raise the funds. But working for nothing for a cause you support has another name: volunteering. If you’re obligated to work for someone without being remunerated, that’s exploitation. Meanwhile, those at the top are staying put, and the number of entry-level positions is stagnating.

It’s a tough position to be in: cash-strapped, in debt, in need of references, in need of law-related credentials. Who are we as students to stand up to employers and say enough is enough?

The truth is we must say something. Through organizations like the Canadian Intern Association, through our student unions, through our elected officials, the campaign to end unpaid internships needs to get under way.

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Students need more than Kraft Dinner protests

On Monday, May 27th 2013, students at the University of Ottawa rallied at a meeting of the University’s Board of Governors to protest proposed tuition fee increases. The Board was slated to vote on a motion to raise tuition fees three per cent each year for the next four years. The multi-year proposal is an unprecedented approach, in lieu of an annual debate on tuition hikes.

Approximately seventy-five students were in attendance at the meeting, boxes of Kraft Dinner in hand. The proposal was taken off the table in response to this strong student presence.

Kraft Dinner is not only a staple of the student diet, but also of the student tuition fee protest in Canada. I recall one protest in particular, during my first year at the University of Ottawa. It was an exciting year for the lower tuition movement. The February 7 Student Day of Action saw thousands of students on Parliament Hill, protesting against tuition fee hikes. I felt inspired.

Sadly, the reality of the past seven years is that not much has changed. In fact, when considering the cost of post-secondary education, the situation is worsening. There are fewer scholarships, fewer research grants, less government funding for universities, escalating tuition fees, and higher student unemployment. Meanwhile, universities are teeming with students, and administrators are earning more money than ever.

Since I started university in 2006, tuition fees for my political science program at the University of Ottawa have risen from $4,364 to $6,341 in 2012. During the same period, fees for law school have risen even more dramatically. My future earning potential and my ability to pay back my students loans hasn’t risen that much – though perhaps my cost-of-living has.

Having served on the University of Ottawa Board of Governors from 2009 to 2011, I know precisely what university administrators will tell you:

Universities are receiving less funding from federal and provincial governments, but they are mandated to accept more students every year. The costs of maintaining quality levels of education are escalating, particularly when it comes to infrastructure, and students are their steadiest and surest source of income.

Besides, a degree is guarantee of future earnings! Win-win.

Anyway, we didn’t raise fees to the full 5 per cent per year that the government allows – never mind that 4.5 per cent hikes seem pretty darn close.

Of course, there’s some truth to this. However, I want to know what universities are doing to save costs. What are they doing to cut their overhead?* What are they doing to raise funds aside from hiking tuition? Why are university presidents supporting government efforts to raise or remove the cap on tuition fees? And why aren’t they lobbying the provincial and federal governments alongside students for more funding?

If you ask, you won’t get any answers. At least when I was around, the Board’s response was always that “our hands are tied.”

Universities and students should not be at odds like this.

The trouble for students is that we do not have a coherent or effective student movement when it comes to tuition fees and funding for post-secondary education. We are a long way away from universal post-secondary education, and I am conflicted as to its feasibility in Canada. However, I do believe the cost of post-secondary education in Canada as it stands is far too great.

An effective student movement for lower fees needs to fight its case on multiple fronts, with a sophisticated policy approach.

Some issues I’m particularly concerned with:

  • Colleges and universities should work in partnership with their student advocates.
  • Universities should not be forced to increase enrollment. The argument that universities must respond to “demand” for degrees is ludicrous and just another aspect of the commodification of education. Rather, admissions standards for university should be elevated to recognize the the skills and background required to receive credentials in a particular field. (Though university class should remain accessible to the general public). Admission should be based on merit, not user-fee entitlements.
  • Secondary education is sorely lacking. Improving curricula and consistently providing quality education at the secondary school level is key to ensuring universities accept qualified and capable students who want and will benefit from a degree, while also emphasizing the importance of colleges and trade schools.
  • There is a mythology that a university degree is necessary for employment in the modern Canadian job market. Degree inflation is a real problem. Meanwhile, many university degree holders find themselves in college after-the-fact to obtain the hard skills necessary for their desired careers.

The organizations that speak for student are silent. They are hardly present in policy debates, elections, or public discourse. A day of action every year (or every other year) is not enough, and lobby days on Parliament Hill are only valuable if your organization is already well-regarded. Students themselves are disenchanted. Those currently enrolled are too distracted trying pay bills and study to act, or are short-sightedly disregarding those who come up after them.

I believe in the importance of a student union that speaks for all students in Canada and in each province, one that lobbies for greater funding and support for students. Unfortunately, the Canadian Federation of Students, the largest such union, has been running a losing campaign for over a decade, resting on the laurels gained from their successes in the 1990s.

It’s time to shake more than a box of KD at the problem. We need a creative, new approach to resolve the issues underlying the barriers to post-secondary education, the decline of Canadian universities, and the impact on students’ futures.

I do not know what the answers are to achieving this ambitious goal, but I know it’s a goal worth fighting for.

*Note: there’s been some discussion at uOttawa and other universities that the answer to the issue of overhead is online course and degrees: virtual university. I am opposed to moving towards this model. Nothing compares to being in a classroom, to physical presence. And to buy and sell degrees online with minimal effort on the part of universities and students, I believe, will only further degrade the quality of education and the further bolster its commodification.

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Access to justice and Ontario’s articling crisis

It’s a scary time to be a law student. We’re on the cusp of great changes in the profession. Or so they say. I would argue the changes can’t come fast enough!

It’s no secret that the legal profession is a conservative one, one which is highly regarded by the upper-class of society and deeply embedded in centuries-old Western traditions and philosophy. It’s a self-regulating profession with an interest in preserving this status quo. Law attracts a particular type of student: someone seeking a safe, stable path to employment and prestige, who can meet the financial commitment and who is lured in by the financial reward. (These days, though, the I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-my-life student is a close second).

Here’s the dilemma: most lawyers, and aspiring lawyers, hope to earn top dollar – even at the start of their careers. Yet, legal services are out of the price range of many that need them. A 2007 Toronto Star investigation found that a three-day civil trial in Ontario would cost $60,000 – more than the median family income in Canada. Meanwhile, access to legal aid is arbitrary, and funding for the program is insufficient. In leaving out low- and middle-income Canadians, we are facing an access to justice crisis.

At the same time, the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) has focused its energies this year on addressing the “articling crisis.” The LSUC reports that in 2012, 15 per cent of applicants – roughly 1, 750 law graduates – were unable to get an articling post (a term for the 10-month mandatory work component necessary to be permitted to practice law). There’s plenty of blame to go around, as the cause of the trend is uncertain. It has been attributed to higher enrollment, the pedagogy in law school, economic uncertainties, applicants themselves, and any other factor that might be able to take the blame. In light of this, the LSUC created a task force to study the subject, and this past fall agreed to initiate a three-year pilot project. The project commences in 2014, and throughout law schools in Ontario, students now dread their futures as guinea pigs.

The new plan would offer an alternative option to students who do not receive a traditional articling position. This option will include an in-class law practice program provided by third parties, culminating in a final assessment, and followed by a co-op work placement. This option is to be completed in a total of eight-months.

The main critiques of this solution – and to the existing articling system – are that the plan:

  • Does not address the fact that most of those who cannot get articles are visible minorities, linguistic minorities, aboriginal students, or mature students who have historically struggled with articles. Bencher Clayton Ruby referred to this as “a bottleneck now facing visible minorities” in their search for articles. (The Black Law Students Association of Canada wrote a submission to the LSUC’s Articling Task Force that is well worth reading.)
  • Lacks third-party providers for the course, meaning that the price of the program is still unknown. Regardless of the cost, forced unemployment for 8 months certainly puts students at a disadvantaged, especially as loan-repayments begin to approach.
  • Fails to recognize that part of the problem is that articling is unregulated and unmanaged. Though it is required for students hoping to become lawyers, the Law Society has been unsuccessful is encouraging more firms to hire and cannot force them to do so. Of course, it also can’t compel them to take on coop students! With so few firms hiring, this hardly seems to be a fitting solution. Swapping an articling shortage for a co-op shortage, perhaps?
  • Is two-tiered, with traditional articles regarded more favourably. Those completing the alternative program are likely to be stigmatized as being less qualified. To those who say that stigmatization is unlikely, perhaps consider how arbitrary Maclean’s rankings or simply sharing an alma mater with a potential employer can impact your chances when competing for certain jobs.

The issue with articles is not simply this new regime, but rather with the concept of articles as a whole. First, the articling requirement assumes that students do not gain practical experience during their time in school or during their summers. Especially among those of us with a social justice bent, practical experience in clinic work, pro bono work, internships, community volunteering, legal education and the like is a must for personal, as well as professional, fulfillment. Many students are ready to roll up their sleeves from day one, and they should be credited for these efforts.

Second, the articling system has disadvantaged some groups more acutely than others. This goes back to the culture and nature of the profession and its gatekeepers. The firms that hire articles are often looking for a particular type of individual: young, unattached, apolitical, in perfect physical and mental health, and incentivized by money – a blank slate! There are many people who do not meet that profile, and on that basis alone they will struggle to find articles, particularly in larger markets where there are more students vying for a static number of placements. Yes, the class make-up in many schools in changing, but the “average” student is still supreme when it comes to firms that hire articling students.*

The profession does benefit from those with an atypical profile, yet the approach to the two legal crises in Ontario – articling and access to justice – has failed to recognize that. Instead, those legal crises have been treated in isolation. This is a missed opportunity.

The law needs students who are interested in working with the under-served populations at the heart of the access to justice issue, and who have the background from personal or previous professional experience to do so successfully.

How do we train those students who do want to do legal aid work? Those who want to have a social justice-oriented practice? Those how come from marginalized communities and want to use their new skills to give back?

The new articling system may be a help, but it’s up to the LSUC make it work. Co-op posts must address training needs in these and other under-served areas, such as promoting opportunities in rural or aboriginal communities, or with small firms and sole practitioners. The LSUC, and all members and students of the profession, need to shift the professional culture to one that is more in touch with the communities it serves or should serve.

The legal profession as a whole needs to make a clear connection between access to justice and the recruitment and training of a broader range of law students and graduates who are willing and enabled to do that work. As long as our legal system only privileges the wealthy who can afford the status quo, we cannot truthfully refer to it as a system of justice.

To law graduates of 2014, 2015, and 2016: let’s be vigilant and vocal as this pilot project moves forward.

*Note: I do not think, for the most part, that these individuals are bad students, and often are not less qualified. I also do not think being accepted for an articling position is where you want to filter out those unfit to practice. That filter should be in law school, or upon entry into law school—of course failing law school is nearly impossible. I wonder why…

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Privilege, and the obligation to use it well

I would like to follow-up on my first contribution to this blog, and respond to the comment that followed. It raises a critique I am familiar with, and echoes a remark a friend recently made to me in the late hours of a small party (had he perhaps read my post?): “I am all for equality, but that’s it. Equality. It’s when things become unequal that I take issue.” He’s referring, of course, to a previous conversation about the enrollment of women in our law school, where women outnumber men by a factor of two to one.

I appreciate the compassion required to recognize inequality. But that’s the first and most basic step. After so much activism, scholarship, political advancement, and cultural change, I would like to think this is a majority view — that men and women (to limit the discussion to gender) are treated unequally in society, and have been throughout history, and that this is a bad thing.

From here we need to actively seek out solutions for addressing inequality. Often, that solution is in the form of equity measures – admitting more women than men to law school, offering scholarships to particular individuals, reaching out to certain communities.

Once you acknowledge the detrimental effects of inequality, I would say you’re obligated to help. Roll up your sleeves. Do not hide behind your privilege and cling to structures that embolden it.

Recognizing your privilege doesn’t mean simply acknowledging inequality and then going about your daily routine as per usual. Nor is it about victimizing those in positions of privilege. Privilege comes in a myriad of forms.

I have class privilege, the privilege of being able to disguise my race in some instances (though not always), the privilege of living in Canada, the privilege of being educated, the privilege of relative good health, the privilege of a nuclear family in a society where that is still held up as the standard. Taking stock of that, my role in my community, however I chose to define it, is to make space for others with less power, privilege, access, or opportunity, while also ensuring that I do not perpetuate the status quo that results in their exclusion.

Underlining this is the principle that it is better to include than to exclude. A history of exclusion efforts, from wars and genocides to segregation and ghettoization, make this point for me. So, too, does the global trajectory towards democratic, participatory government – a project that has succeeded best where participation is more inclusive than not.

Are there bad practices by progressives that are alienating? Do we sometimes make those in places of privilege feel victimized, and miss the opportunity to make allies? Yes. But surely, if you acknowledge inequality you must also acknowledge your role in it and your opportunity to challenge it.

For our part, those of us in whatever movements promoting equality and social justice can focus on better practices for relationship-building with potential allies. We can do that by sharing the tactics that have been successful in teaching or including others to become allies to our causes.

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Questions in the Interest of Progress

I have been a university student for seven years now. I pride myself on the fact that I did most of my learning outside the classroom. (If we’re honest with ourselves, I’m sure we would all say the same). A lot of that “informal” education came from the jobs I had in my field. But more than that, I learned through student activism and volunteer work — from my colleagues, really, and our collective efforts. It’s not any course in women’s studies — I didn’t take any! — that brought me to feminism. It was those other wonderful experiences and relationships.

I just finished my first year of law school. Happy to be here, and happy with the decision to go to the school that I did — one that prides itself on its commitment to principles of social justice, even though it sometimes falls short of them.

Confronting privilege is nothing new for me. I’m a racial minority woman going to school in Ottawa, for crying out loud! At the same time, I’m in a position of privilege by virtue of that. Yet, as this year has shown, the extent to which some people have not yet had their privilege challenged never ceases to amaze me.

Yes, it’s law school. It’s disproportionately upper middle-class, and brings in a certain “kind” of individual. Still, it’s unnerving the number of highly-educated, well-traveled, seemingly well-rounded people who fail to think twice before complaining that there are more women than men in law school; that affirmative action is reverse discrimination; that listening to a panel of female professors is alienating; that there is no such thing as a poverty cycle in Canada; that whenever the issue of sexual assault comes up in class they, as men, feel victimized; that they’re sick of looking at courses from an aboriginal law perspective; that they’re unconcerned by racism, unless it’s toward a close personal friend; and that the law cannot and should not be a remedy for racial discrimination, because status quo, yo.

Let me say, I’m an open-minded person. I don’t just mean a “progressive” person. I’m also eager to debate and engage people with differing views. However, the reality is that bringing about the kinder, feminist, collectively-oriented, direct democracy I envision will require changing political culture, changing people’s thinking issue by issue and as a whole.

To the point: How do we get more people (especially young people) on board with progressive social change? If all these well-educated, interesting people, who have had every opportunity to be exposed to progressive ideas in so-called liberal arts programs, can unwittingly believe such problematic things, is there hope in reaching out to them?

I like my classmates. Few are malicious. Many are simply oblivious, but to my mind that’s just as harmful, especially given the authority our society grants those with law degrees, formally or informally.

So how do we effectively reach out to people with these viewpoints? Is there a point at which someone is a lost cause? I hope not!

It can be exhausting, feeling like you’re always on the defensive with a simple ultimate objective of creating a more accepting community. It’s easy to say “well, that’s not my job”, or “why should I have to take on so much when my classmates are blissful ignorant and working towards better grades because of it?” (I know, I’ve said it!)

The simple answer is, because that’s what got you here. Someone at some point took the time to reach out to you. A blogger, an author, a classmate, an activist, a professor – as difficult as it may be, it’s on you (us!) to pay it forward and work on reaching out to our classmates.

Two more years of law friendships certainly will not mean everyone will share my political views (how boring would that be!), but it should mean that they will respect them, and be critical and sensitive in theirs. I’m willing to take on that challenge, because a few uncomfortable conversations are better than biting your tongue and feeling marginalized.

If anyone calls you out on it, just say you’re “networking”. These discussions will surely pay off in your future career – and in theirs.

My hope for this blog space is to write about the best methods for doing outreach on campus. I’m of the “more flies with honey” school, and looking to inspire more genuine dialogue along those lines.

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