Predicaments faced by law interns during the Covid-19 pandemic

Online internships have blurred the line between work and life for students
Predicaments faced by law interns during the Covid-19 pandemic
Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

Abhyudey Kabra

Internships are a critical part of the academic curriculum for a law student’s survival in the legal sphere. The objective of a legal internship is to better understand what being a lawyer involves. But due to the outbreak of Covid-19, the foundation of this unique learning experience has been impacted significantly.

There exist several different experiential opportunities for the legal student including the following most popular internships:

• Judicial clerkships;

• Legal clinics;

• Summer clerkships;

• Legal externships;

• Pro bono projects.

These programs place students in law offices, courts, and public interest organisations intending to provide real-world legal experience under the guidance of faculty members, licensed attorneys, and sitting judges.

Judicial internships are rare and coveted opportunities among law students. They mean hands-on experience in some of the most demanding and exciting legal environments, working directly with the judges. A court internship is also a fantastic way to develop one’s research and writing skills and the only way to see “behind the scenes” of the judicial decision-making process which plays a vital part in determining what the law is.

All these types of internships required physical presence but due to the new norms of social distancing, interns were one of the first class of people to be barred from the Courts[1], followed by the parties to the case who were not explicitly asked by the court for their presence.

The pandemic has rendered the traditional way of managing things obsolete and has left students only with the option of virtual internships. Although this virtual internship is location-agnostic, which opens a world of opportunities it also has a lot of drawbacks which will be discussed further.

An intern typically conducts his/ her research using the internet, legal database, legal libraries and government offices, but now the only source available is the world wide web. Studying and interning from home has decreased the study hours and lowered the academic performance in the wake of this pandemic.

PROBLEMS FACED BY INTERNS

The drawbacks of online internships include the lack of in-person relationship building, immersion in the physical and cultural spaces of a firm or organisation, and fewer opportunities to engage in the ad hoc interaction which typically arise during an on-site experience.

1. Absence of office environment

The absence of an office environment in an online internship is a real problem. Although the interns get to work from the comfort of their home, they do not get to experience how a corporate setup works.

Due to this online setup, it becomes difficult for the employer to keep a regular check on the progress of interns. Work from home is largely independent work with only telephonic or online interaction with the senior, whereas an office environment opens up space for interaction with many more individuals.

2. Infrastructure & Connectivity

Work from home largely depends upon the availability of high-speed Internet connectivity and mobile devices for video conferencing, drafting and team working. Technology is one of the key criteria which make an online internship a success.

If one has a poor internet connection or is not well equipped with technology, online internships might not work well for them. For a developing country like ours, where the technical constraints like suitability of devices and bandwidth availability pose a serious challenge, providing access to digital education first and then enabling them to do virtual internships is a mammoth task.

The UNICEF in a report[2] had already expressed concerns over children from economically disadvantaged families struggling with access to remote learning. According to it, only 24% of households in India have access to the internet and there is also a large rural-urban divide.

3. Work-life balance

Before the pandemic, a common objection to remote working was the suspicion that people would disengage and productivity levels would drop. But recent studies suggest the opposite is true – i.e, working from home effectively means working more.

These online internships have blurred the line between work and life for the students.

The remote work setting has helped in utilising the free time for maximising productivity, but on the other hand, it has concocted a challenge for the interns to be available 24x7 (as expected by their employers).

Surveys from around the world have shown an unhealthy and unhappy trend: the time which the interns used to commute or take a break while in an offline internship, is now being utilised to get right back into their work. Various studies have shown that organisational factors and individual and family factors are also crucial for work from home arrangements as the interns are spending most of the time surrounded by their families.[3]

4. Conveyance

Even though entry into courts has been banned for interns, most of the private legal firms, organisations and commissions are still providing offline internships. Interns usually use public transport services to commute on a daily basis.

However, this urban transportation landscape has undergone significant changes due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The increased risks associated with crowded places combined with social distancing measures in public and shared transport have affected modal choices of commuters and made it difficult for students to even apply for offline internships if available even after taking appropriate precautions.

5. Mental health

Law firms and interns have a shark and remora kind of relationship[4], i.e. it benefits both the species. But this relationship in an online environment has been taking a toll on the mental health of the interns.

Mental health is a leading impediment to academic success. Mental illness can affect an intern’s motivation, concentration, and social interactions—crucial factors for them to succeed in higher education.[5]

The prevalence of this epidemic has accentuated and generated new stressors, including anxiety and concerns amongst interns and their loved ones and has brought about abrupt and drastic changes in lifestyle, affected physical mobility and brought about many social activity restrictions due to quarantine.

Having said that, at least this pandemic has brought conversations around mental well-being out into the open.

6. Availability of space

Before the pandemic, the idea of work from home was a fantasy to many , but such practice was considered not practicable for heavily populated countries like India.

This is principally because home working requires a quiet and dedicated space to perform work duties, which can be a real challenge for those living in smaller homes.


The National Sample Survey Office’s report[6] on housing conditions states that the majority of India's population lives in a home with space smaller than the minimum floor area per person recommended for prison cells.

In rural areas, 80% of the poorest households have only 94 ft.² available to a person. In urban areas, the poorest 60% of families live in the house phase in which they only get 93 ft.² per person.

The airborne transmission of the Covid-19 virus in crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces over a prolonged period of time with infected persons have made it difficult for interns living in such spaces to work for longer hours contrary to the notion of being over productive while being at home.

CONCLUSION

This pandemic has upended the internship experiences of not just students from law background but students from other fields as well. Zoom calls have taken up the majority of the week and have now become the new norm.

Better guidelines and policies from the Bar Council of India should be in place to properly regulate and make virtual internships feasible for students. The decision of suspending physical visits to courts was implemented swiftly, but without any guidance, on how the future lawyers will get to even learn the basic court etiquette.

Students lack the resources required for this change, like software, devices, access to official documents and proper working space, etc. Possibly the working balance will be visible post-pandemic when this remote working is not a forced mandate, rather a flexible option.

[1] The Delhi High Court, according to order NO.621 RG/DHC/2020 (dated 16.03.2020), barred the interns attached with the judges from accessing courts till further orders, in view of the coronavirus pandemic. The Security agencies were also directed not to honour any intern passes.

[2] The Remote Learning Reachability report, UNICEF 2020.

[3] Baker, E., G. C. Avery, and J. Crawford. 2007. “Satisfaction and Perceived Productivity When Professionals Work from Home.” Research & Practice in Human Resource Management 15 (1): 37–62; Grant, C. A., L. M. Wallace, P. C. Spurgeon, C. Tramontano, and M. Charalampous. 2019. “Construction and Initial Validation of the e-Work Life Scale to Measure Remote e-Working.” Employee Relations 41 (1): 16–33. doi:10.1108/ER-09-2017-0229.

[4] Remora is a small fish that attaches itself to the shark and eats scraps of prey dropped by it. They also feed off parasites on the shark’s skin and in its mouth. This makes the shark happy because the parasites would otherwise irritate the shark. Similarly, a law intern attaches itself to a law firm in order to gain first-hand experience from it, while the firms get a good helping hand. Receiving feedback and reviews from the intern is always a good idea as it helps the law firm get a second perspective and help them to know where they stand and what all they can do in order to improve themselves and be more productive.

[5] Unger K. Handbook on Supported Education: Providing Services for Students With Psychiatric Disabilities. Charleston, SC: BookSurge Publishing; 2007.

[6] 69th survey report (2017).

(The author is third-year student at Maharaja Agrasen Institute of Management Studies, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University)

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