ABA Journal



Law students may work as unpaid interns on pro bono matters for law firms, Labor Department says

Sep 17, 2013, 04:44 pm CDT


I think it is splendid that the ABA was looking out for interns' rights to work for free. This, by itself, justifies the annual dues payment.

By B. McLeod on 2013 09 17, 5:00 pm CDT

Just what we need - more free labor to help establish equilibrium in the legal market. And I love the qualification that the hiring of unpaid law students must not disqualify a regular employee - of course, we know that never happens anyway because employers would much prefer to have to pay individuals for their labor in place of receiving it for free.

And the best part about the requirements is that the intern will not be entitled to paid labor at the conclusion of the internship - God forbid those greedy, little entitled newbies actually have jobs after paying $100,000 for a legal education and working for free endlessly. No, paid labor would solve too many problems and be a burden to employers who are entitled to free labor.

And of course, now unpaid interns (we don't have enough of those already) won't have to work at those pesky non-profits or legal aid service centers to get their skills - heaven knows the private sector doesn't have enough labor to select from right now and desperately needed this leg up, much more than the non-profits or government agencies did, since we all know how well-funded they are.

Lastly, I thank the ABA for looking out for the interests of all its members. I will certainly remember how proud I am to be a member of an organization concerned about the needs of all its members when I get that next solicitation in the mail asking for my annual fees.

By Proud to be an ABA Member on 2013 09 17, 7:00 pm CDT

Hilarious. The letter is addressed to "Immediate Past President Bellows".

Great. Think of all of the freebies firms can now offer to their clients.

By Hedgehog on 2013 09 17, 7:21 pm CDT


By B. McLeod on 2013 09 17, 9:37 pm CDT

I am curious as to what the "different analysis" would entail. Unpaid work on exclusively pro-bono matters by anyone is simply public service, not employment, regardless of whether the firm permits use of firm offices and provides access to administrative services and collaboration with firm personnel. The worker has a constitutional right to collaborate with the firm to perform pro-bono services under such conditions as are mutually agreeable. Under such circumstances the label "intern" provides no meaningful basis for distinction.

By In-House on 2013 09 18, 7:41 pm CDT

This is so wrong headed and unjust it's not even funny. This clearly benefits one group...Biglaw. At a MINIMUM, law students should be getting minimum wage for this work. Realistically, they should be getting paid equal to a 1L summer associate.

The Labor Department is wrong and I encourage the Law Students' Division to challenge this internally and externally. Bring suit against the DoL on this issue, in the court that ruled for interns interests in SoCal.

By LLM Student and ABA Volunteer on 2013 09 20, 10:53 am CDT

@6, actually I think this clearly benefits the recipients of the pro bono services as well. Particularly if they are getting those services from a firm that would not otherwise have the time, money or inclination to perform those services.

By MNC on 2013 09 20, 2:22 pm CDT

I think that the ABA is on to something here. Due to the shortage of legal professionals in our country, we could get students to attend law school if tuition was paid by firms and then upon graduation the students would work for free as indentured servants for 20 years. Of course they would be allowed a few trips to the vending machine and to sleep under their desks.

By SDG on 2013 09 20, 3:20 pm CDT

I support allowing unpaid law students to work on pro bono matters. I did so when I was a law student during the summer after 1-L, and the experience was useful.

What I feel is less fair is where the student has to pay their law school tuition for pro bono hours put in for a law firm (e.g. instead of a law school clinic) in cases where the law school is not adding much value. It's another matter where the law school does add value, such as weekly intern group discussion meetings with a faculty member.

By William Able on 2013 09 20, 5:07 pm CDT

This is but a small step in the right direction but misplaced. The second year students should be placed in court offices to provide guidance to any citizen in how to litigate a civil action. Yes, the right to counsel is the issue, as a matter of right as it should come to be for anyone desiring to enter the court for any reason. The rules were promulgated by the Court for the orderly disposition of any civil action. Obviously there must be order and procedures to follow otherwise there would be bedlam. The rules of court are my rules, say the citizen, they are not proprietary for any select group, they are not copyrighted, they are intended to be used by any citizen. But, and this is the critical point, the rules are fashioned in terminology that has become privy some people and therefore are not understandable for an ordinary citizen and guidance is needed and that's where a law student can be helpful. It's the least Academy can do to make itself useful to society by promoting some such accommodation in the profession.

By martin kessler on 2013 09 20, 5:43 pm CDT

I hate to say this but the prior 10 comments have myopia. I am the managing shareholder of a three lawyer firm. We get asked to work on large and deserving pro bono matters all of the time and can't because the necessary time commitment interferes with our client paying work. Thus when we do pro bono work it tends to be in the form of providing legal advice to a charitiable non profit. However, with this new ruling from the Department of Labor, we can take on larger litigation pro bono projects because we can supervise the unpaid interns on doing such things as legal research and writing for briefs and letters and discovery matters. That enables firms like ours to provide more meaningful representation for deserving pro bono projects and the unpaid interens get hands on practical legal experience. How is that a bad thing?

By Konrad Trope on 2013 09 20, 6:36 pm CDT

Thank goodness for the government and the ABA!! Adults spending tens of thousands of dollars to be trained to represent and protect the rights of clients cannot negotiate for themselves the terms under which they will provide services. Even if they decide they WANT an unpaid internship, THE GOVERNMENT knows better, because, omigosh, BIGLAW will make a profit on the poor little dears, like Konrad's three-man firm above.

And of course, all law schools and all firms are the same!! I am sure all those Harvard, Yale, and Stanford 1Ls are offering their services for free to the BIGLAW firms. Oh, they're being wined and dined? Then I'm sure those other lesser schools like Berkley, UCLA, Penn, need protection to make sure they're paid at least $7.25 an hour.

Or maybe someone at a top law school had a blip on his / her record, and wants to show it was in fact a blip. Or maybe, like me, there are those from lesser law schools who want to be introduced to big firm practice, or to expose their talents with no risk or cost to those firms.

I agree with Konrad that it is really myopic that we are talking about people who are being trained to in one or two years, have the fortunes of their clients' legal matters in their hands, but we say they are not smart enough, able enough, or competent enough to determine if they want to offer their services for free.

Quit paying tax dollars to fix problems that don't exist!

By Jim T on 2013 09 20, 10:33 pm CDT

To clarify my endorsement of the DOL position, I was referring to true pro-bono work, not cases assigned to attorneys who are compelled by the State Supreme Court to take them. Such matters are simply a tax, such as might have been exacted by Hammurabi, and unpaid student work on them benefits the firm to the same extent as unpaid work on fee generating matters. Unpaid work on matters the firm would not otherwise be able or willing to take is probably what the DOL had in mind when it issued its guidance.

By In house on 2013 09 20, 11:01 pm CDT

Free internships totally favor the rich.

By Tom Youngjohn on 2013 09 20, 11:04 pm CDT

Dear Mr. Youngjohn:

such flip remarks show a lack of diligence in analyzing the issue. Favor the rich? My three person firm is not a big law firm and we are not rich. We frequently provide non litigation legal advice to animal rescue organizations that don't have the funds to hire an attorney. We fully vet these organizations before providing our services pro bono. How is that favoring the rich?

And let's not forget that the every federal district court judge and federal appellate court judge openly accept unpaid law school interns either during the semester or during the summer. During the school year, the unpaid interns get academic credit. During the summer, these unpaid interns get no credit except maybe a mileage reimbursement. I was a judicial intern/extern at the California Court of Appeal after my first year of law school, unpaid, but willing to do it, because I could not find a paid legal job. I worked at night at a non law job in order to pay the rent. The experience was priceless.

And in an age when law schools are being pressured to provide practical training or clinical experience, what is the harm if a law student works at my firm and gets supervision while we work on a pro bono litigation matter for a non-profit animal rescue organization? Moreover, in an age when prior work experience and REFERENCES make a difference, how is this US DOL protocol a bad thing?

We are all working harder to make ends meet......the only rich that I can possibly see in your flippant response is the rich law student, who is not on financial aid and who can afford to do an unpaid legal internship. How many of those students exist today? Not many. And for the rest of the law students, my firm can now offer an opportunity to work on some potentially high profile litigation and get hands on expereince. If they need paid work, guess what, we are likely to offer that intern some paid work on an hourly basis if we see that their performance on the pro bono work is first rate. Again, what is wrong with that?

By Konrad Trope on 2013 09 20, 11:34 pm CDT

If this is you, , then I don’t see “giving free advice to animal rescue groups” as part of your repertoire in Avvo or in Linked in, but, unless you are litigating the issues in federal court, either for free or because you are being paid, I really don’t see how you can be quite so proud of that part of your daily calendar, except to try to beef up your argument with moral protein.

“such flip remarks show a lack of diligence in analyzing the issue” This comment speaks for itself.

“We fully vet these organizations before providing our services pro bono. How is that
favoring the rich?” And how is that relevant to my comment?

“I was a judicial intern/extern at the California Court of Appeal after my first year of law school, unpaid, but willing to do it, because I could not find a paid legal job. I worked at night at a non law job in order to pay the rent. The experience was priceless.” The last sentence here is your strongest argument and very elegantly put, in an intellectually sparkly way. I love the ambiguity as to which experience, the unpaid clerking, or the working your way through law school, you are referring to. But that’s why it is stylistically priceless. Well put!

But then you fall back: “what is the harm if a law student works at my firm and gets supervision while we work on a pro bono litigation matter for a non-profit animal rescue organization?” First of all you haven’t yet provided free representation in animal rights litigation. You provide free non-litigation legal advice. I’m just pointing out what you yourself said.

“my firm can now offer an opportunity to work on some potentially high profile litigation and get hands on experience.” Okay, here’s the rub. While neither Avvo nor Linked in mention anything about your animal rights litigation portfolio, who am I to argue that you can’t offer animal rights litigation experience to law students who can’t afford to work for free on them while they work their way through law school at a non-legal job at night? Or why not offer it to rich law students who can afford to get the “free” experience on their resume?

But, were I your free law student, I would copy everything I worked on if it didn’t seem like I was working on a pro bono case, but only because that would mean that you were engaging in a fraud on the ABA bean counters of this world. Actually, you personally might be able to easily resist the temptation of having your pro bono interns work on your NON-pro bono cases, but other lawyers, perhaps not ranked by Avvo as better than Gerry Spence, and other law firms might not be able to resist this temptation.

Again, were I your free law student, I would copy everything I worked on if it didn’t look I was actually working on a pro bono case as wouldn’t want to be lying on my future resume.

But then the State Bar Association would probably punish me, rather than you, for copying everything, as that is what State Bar Associations, unguided by a moral compass, tend to do, random attacks on lawyers.

Anyway, good luck with your federal court animal rights litigation. I will be checking online to see how that goes for you. I wish you the best of luck. That particular issue, rights for non-human persons, is how the Gospels got this Buddhist atheist to try a hand at prayer. No joke. And that prayer resulted in my “born again” moment. So that old dead Jewish animal rights activist is why I’m now a born again Christian (academic, Epicurean, Eclectic, Islamaverse, Buddhist, atheistic, Adventist, and proud member of the Christian Vegetarian Association).

God bless you and your pro bono (or paid) animal rights litigation. This is important and impress work, paid or not.

By Tom Youngjohn on 2013 09 21, 1:16 am CDT

impressive work

By Tom Youngjohn on 2013 09 21, 1:17 am CDT

I do not follow this exchange. If "your free law student" does not want to work for free, then . . . they don't work for free. Interning is not a right (I think), and no one is compelling an intern to apply for an internship.(I think). I am a solo, and I assure you I am not rich, but if I'm taking billable hours away from my practice to advise, mentor, or train an intern (at an opportunity cost of over $6.00 a minute), why should the government say that the intern cannot agree to that even if that is the intern's choice?

By Jim T on 2013 09 21, 2:02 am CDT

Well, I am a sucker for libertarian arguments. Okay, Jim T. You win. Will now request to change my original comment to "Free internships favor the rich."

By Tom Youngjohn on 2013 09 21, 2:54 am CDT

I think the offices that sponsor the interns should occasionally buy them sandwiches, or at least some snacks, to let them know they are appreciated.

By B. McLeod on 2013 09 21, 2:59 am CDT

@15, Konrad Trope, who asks " How is that a bad thing?"

I'll be happy to tell you, Mr. Trope. The average law graduate now graduates with $125,000 worth of debt, just from law school alone. Add another $25,000 of undergraduate debt and lost wages from giving up significant employment for 3 years while attending law school, plus another $200,000 that will be paid in the interest on the student loans, and the total cost of law school comes to almost $500,000. There are, on average, 20,000 more graduates each year than jobs in the legal field. On top of that, those in the legal field are now asked to work for free to learn the skills that they paid $125,000 in law school to learn.

What does that look like? The average law school graduate is heavily indebted upon graduation, has minimum prospects for a job, and a advisory opinion that now makes it harder for such individuals to get paid for their work. And you ask what is wrong with that? Obviously, from your point of view, nothing, because your firm will benefit from the free labor. But from the point of view of the indebted individual, everything is wrong with that, Mr. Trope, everything.

By Proud to be an ABA Member on 2013 09 21, 6:14 am CDT

And that is what justifies the expenditures for the sandwiches, or, at least, the snacks.

I strongly urge all of my colleagues who employ interns to spring for the sandwiches and/or snacks. Seriously. We're talking basic, human decency here.

By B. McLeod on 2013 09 21, 6:28 am CDT

Total inductive logic. If I'm getting this, you are saying what is wrong with someone who has already committed to spending $125,000 in debt on top of undergraduate debt, plus interest [that's whether the graduate ever gets a job or not].

So, AFTER that commitment is made, you state that since we have too many lawyers, you prefer to not let them work as they agree to work because . . . because they already owe money. So, they don't work at all and wait for . . . what? If their skills were competitive on paper, they would be hired over their competition. But they're not, so they should . . . what? Perhaps work to showing other skills? Nah . . . without that $7.25 an hour ($300 a week, before taxes), they won't be able to pay their education loans! Sounds a little principled over practical to me.

I just wish you were around to guarantee me a job when I was out there sweating graduation. Silly me, I went on to get an M.B.A. and LL.M., worked a job while doing it (against the rules, but I had to eat), clerked, deferred my marriage, and spent a decade paying off my loans while raising a family. Hey, I know. That was MY choice to try to get ahead. And if I thought I was wasting my time while interning without learning anything, and I'm not being paid, I'd leave in 10 seconds. Why stay?
But at least there is a chance for advancement and training. And if they excel, employers are going to pay to keep them. That is why I respect allowing interns to make their own choices.

By Jim T on 2013 09 21, 6:45 am CDT

Jim, I truly recommend the "Subway" sandwich once known as the "coldcut trio," with spicy mustard, pepperjack cheese, lettuce, red onions, black olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and jalepeno peppers. You ought to ask for that, and whoever you are working for currently (if they have any decency) ought to get you one. On the honey-oat bread, too, if you want.

By B. McLeod on 2013 09 21, 7:07 am CDT

Watch it there, McLeod. You are about to incur the wrath of Lee for having dared to stray off the ABA designated topic.

By Proud to be an ABA Member on 2013 09 21, 8:04 am CDT

There goes the ABA again...representing the interests of Biglaw and not the interests of young interns ......why I always hang up on the ABA when they call. Shameful.

By JPM on 2013 09 21, 11:50 pm CDT

Mr. McLeod: reminds me of the old adage "If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If they're both against you, attack the other attorney."

I guess dismissive personal attacks are all you're capable of rather than showing professional respect. Got better things to do (like billables so I can pay those interns!!!).

By Jim T on 2013 09 22, 12:19 am CDT

To some, Pogo the Clown was known for his volunteering at charitable events,
however I will never forget him as Pro Bono the Clown,

Pro Bono the Clown was the poster child for all the rich lawyers who would force feed their stacked deck of morality down the throats of the less fortunate, poorer, Solo the Clowns, the clowns, like myself, unable to afford clown make-up, let alone the time to volunteer for charitable causes like Pro Bono there.

By Tom Youngjohn on 2013 09 22, 2:21 am CDT

I remember Pro Bono the Clown. He was only slightly more skilled with his makeup than Cher Bono, but he sang a lot better.

Jim, I don't think it is an "attack" to point out that you deserve a sandwich.

By B. McLeod on 2013 09 22, 3:00 am CDT

The last bit of this talk analyzes the motivation of Pro Bono the Clown. I'm not kidding.

By Tom Youngjohn on 2013 09 22, 3:51 am CDT

haha more slave labor for you guys

I trust you enjoy working in your plantation of silk pants :)

By tim17 on 2013 09 23, 6:08 pm CDT

"The law student is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship." So the internship is NOT for the ultimate benefit of the law student then.

By SME on 2013 10 01, 3:11 pm CDT

SME: What is your logic? I take on an intern in my solo practice (wearing my silk pants to impress the slave labor, as Tim 17 says), and that means the intern is automatically ENTITLED to a job? Before I know if the intern can write, handle practical problems, is presentable to clients, is a capable researcher? And if a particular intern is lacking, that means any internship is not for the ultimate benefit of the law student then?

And so what? Internships are not to benefit the firms in any way? Sorry, you can spend time white washing your ivory tower, but I'm not taking thousands of dollars of billable time to give away to training a law student. If you think about it, your view is that we should do pro bono for law students so they in turn can do pro bono, and are upset that we are not paying them on top of it. Check your IRS regs. If I'm paying the intern, she/he is an employee. Now, my office (because, with my assistant, I now have three employees) is subject to workmen's compensation taxes and higher unemployment tax. I also have to immediately report the additional employee to my E&O carrier, which increases my premium, and the intern is an agent (or potentially held to be one) for liability purposes.

Sorry, I think it more logical to spend those hours doing my own pro bono work better and more efficiently myself. And if not, then I can take the money from the billables earned when not training a law student, and donate those funds to the charity of my choice. More ultimate value.

By Jim T on 2013 10 01, 4:17 pm CDT

Add a Comment

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.