24 Hours

Rob Bodine: Bring 3Ls On As Unpaid Interns Doing Real Work

Posted Oct 14, 2009 8:00 PM CDT
By Robert E. Bodine

Robert Bodine

In the real world, you go to school to learn the basics. By the time you’re working towards your graduate degree, you know exactly where you want to be, and your schoolwork is training you specifically for that career very. Yet, every one of us who has ever held a job will tell you that schoolwork alone doesn’t fully prepare you to be a model employee. Only quality experience can do that.Every one of, that is, except partners at large and boutique law firms.

In the modern era of the profession, these partners have been completely unsympathetic to first-year associates – most of whom have never held a professional job – for their lack of understanding of the job. Moreover, the partners’ unwillingness to properly teach associates results in a failure to develop that skill themselves. The result is a frustrating and counter-productive experience that causes many to throw away as many as six figures in tuition costs for a degree they no longer want to use.

The partners claim that this shows laziness on the part of the associate, but this is what a psychologist would call psychological projection: “a psychological defense mechanism whereby one ‘projects’ one’s own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, feelings, and so on onto someone else.”

Properly teaching new associates is unattractive, non-billable educational work but is necessary to the industry. These partners may point to the practical effects of having to part with some of their hours for training, which amounts to the partnership losing money (assuming otherwise billable hours are expended), but considering their billing rates they are hardly a sympathetic group. It should be obvious that it’s much more difficult for the small bookstore owner to part with his hours than the partners, yet that owner does it because he knows the customer will suffer if he doesn’t, and that will hurt the shop.

Of course, partners can get away with it – the law is a self-regulating industry – but that doesn’t make it right.

So, what’s the solution? According to some law firms, first year associates should work for nothing, or even worse, pay to work at the firm during their first year. This would be funny if it weren’t so offensive. However, it’s not offensive because it’s radical. A radical change isn’t just a good idea, but is needed, and these partners are on the right track.

First, if you can’t handle training new attorneys, don’t hire them. Some law firms have done exactly that, and whether it’s motivated by projection or a realization of their own shortcomings is irrelevant (although I am concerned for clients that will have substandard representation when attorneys start their own firms straight out of law school).

Second, and much healthier for the industry, law schools need to change the way they do business, expanding on the “litigation clinic” courses they sometimes provide.

During the third year of law school, law students should be working in law firms as unpaid interns and receiving credit (for real work, as opposed to being wined, dined, and lied to like a summer associate). That should be their sole coursework, perhaps with some of their tuition going to the firm to offset its losses.

This plan won’t work unless law firms actually start teaching, and that requires they acknowledge that they currently don’t. Do they have it in them?

Robert E. Bodine is a Fairfax, Va.-based property attorney serving as of counsel to Hull McGuire. He began his legal career with Vedder, Price, Kaufman & Kammholz in Chicago, where he focused on patent and trademark prosecution. Before becoming an attorney, Rob worked for eight years as a computer consultant both in the government and private sectors, specializing in database application development and requirements analysis. He is a frequent contributor to the blog What About Clients?

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