In January, the New York Times published an article, entitled “Virtually There: Working Remotely,” which brings the reader’s attention to the growing phenomenon of virtual internships. As the short article points out, a virtual internship can be beneficial to a student for many reasons. I agree that virtual internships can be beneficial, especially for law students interested in practicing in the field of human rights. Since I began law school, I have had three virtual (or “remote,” as I prefer to call them) internships. I recommend that other students consider taking on a virtual internship. Virtual internships come with unique benefits and challenges. I have personally experienced some of these idiosyncrasies and want to share them in this entry.
My first virtual internship, with BlueLaw International LLP in 2010 was a summer internship. I was later referred to another internship with a non-profit based in Indonesia, and then a second non-profit based in England. The later opportunities were woven throughout the school year. One obvious benefit of virtual internships is that they allow one to work from home, a coffee shop, or the school library – anywhere with an internet connection. The fact that you can work from anywhere means that more opportunities are open to you, and especially during the school year, when you cannot be out of town. At the same time, if you do have to travel, your work can go relatively unaffected. During spring break in 2011, I was able to visit the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas by day while editing a report for BlueLaw on the education of students with disabilities in Pakistan by night. Interning during the school year may not be for everyone; it takes time and energy. I welcomed these opportunities because I was not satisfied with confining my job experience to the summer months.
Virtual internships also give you flexible work hours. You can increase your productivity by working in whichever way makes you most efficient, within the limits of your deadlines and the hours of availability set between you and the internship provider. Working thousands of miles away from your “supervisor,” and maybe during the school year, brings its own challenges. You have to be realistic and frank with your supervisor about the times you will be available to communicate; that is, email, video or voice chat. In my experience, the people with whom I worked were always flexible and understanding of time differences and availability. I peg this on the non-profits I worked with being used to the concept of remote work and telecommuting. When non-profits abroad receive grants or staff support from partner organizations in other countries, or are working with a consulting firm abroad, remote working is a fact of life. Consultants, funders, donors, and project overseers may be scattered across the relevant region, or the world, As a student, it is good to remember that it might be necessary make Skype calls at 6am or 9pm. (I’ve done it – Jakarta and New York have a 12-hour time difference.)
The financial aspect of virtual internships is a double-edged sword. While I would not recommend substituting a virtual internship for an on-site summer internship, virtual internships alleviate the need to find and pay for housing elsewhere. Furthermore, you have no commuting costs. I should note however, that other costs may arise. One of my assignments for the London-based non-profit organization required me to call media outlets whose offices were in Ireland and Spain. This meant I did have to buy Skype credit in order to call landline phones. While a virtual internship comes with relatively little cost to you, it might be difficult to find one that is “paid.” I have had both unpaid and paid virtual internships. in my experience, whether I was paid or not depended on the ability to get good references, and also the entity’s ability to pay. In international work, as in domestic, non-profit organizations are typically unwilling or unable to include an intern in its budget (“We are paying you in EXPERIENCE!”). An employer may also be unfamiliar with or skeptical of the ability of a remote intern to provide substantive work, and therefore unwilling to provide compensation. In my experience, the average person seems to be more amenable to the idea of working remotely, and so I believe there is plenty of room for virtual interns in the fields of international law and human rights.
Some arguments against the usefulness of a virtual internship include not being able to teach an intern crucial lessons, such as office etiquette. These are concerns that might be more apropos when speaking about undergraduates or first-time interns than law students. As I mentioned, I would not recommend substituting a virtual internship for an on-site position. In my opinion, a virtual internship should supplement the traditional on-the-job experience.
I would strongly recommend looking into virtual internships as a law student interested in human rights. The right position can provide some fulfilling substantive work in the field, costs very little to the student, and can expand your network. If you do go looking for a virtual internship, do not expect that an employer will advertise a position, especially to law students. You may have to ask for remote work. The other day, I asked a non-profit organization in Cambodia if they would take a law student on for a remote internship (their website mentioned they were looking for in-country law student interns, and volunteers of all types). They got back to me and suggested I have a Skype call with the lawyer in charge of supervising law student interns. During the call, the lawyer said simply, “I’ve never had any experience working remotely with interns.” At the end of the conversation, though, he seemed completely open to the idea. With unpaid positions, as this one was, it is much easier for an employer to offer you work. Paid or unpaid, a virtual internship is a useful tool for a law student interested in the human rights field.
[Kathryn Carroll is a 3L. She will graduate this semester and plans to join the New York bar. She is interning with One Billion Strong, a London-based advocacy organization dedicated to advancing disability rights around the world. She works specifically on its Accessible Air Transportation project. Last summer, she had the pleasure of working in the offices of Commissioner Chai Feldblum of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in D.C. She enjoys working on compliance projects involving the application of U.S. civil rights laws abroad. She has had the opportunity to study abroad in Norway, France, and Costa Rica.]