Labor & Employment

As private employers face surge in intern suits, DOJ puts more unpaid lawyers to work


Assistant U.S. attorneys working for the Department of Justice start at salaries of at least $44,581.

But in a practice that has been fueled by the federal budget cuts known as the sequester, the DOJ is also using a number of unpaid lawyers to do essentially the same work, Pro Publica reports.

A total of 96 special assistant U.S. attorneys are currently working for the department for free, and 13 uncompensated positions for experienced lawyers are currently listed on the DOJ’s website.

The article discusses controversy over whether the practice complies with the federal Antideficiency Act, which prohibits government from staffing its operations with unpaid volunteers, as well as a concern that the practice of putting unpaid interns to work at at the DOJ devalues a law degree. (Some observers have also noted that unpaid internships, which can lead to later paid work, shut out those who can’t afford to work for free from some career opportunities.)

The Pro Publica article doesn’t address a hot labor and employment topic—whether hiring unpaid interns to do the work of regular employees violates federal wage and hour laws and regulations. A Breitbart post, however, provides the answer: The federal government is exempted from having to comply with U.S. Department of Labor regulations that apply a stringent six-part test to determine whether an unpaid internship by a private company is illegal.

The special assistant U.S. attorney program “provides a valuable support to the Justice Department as we continue to address the staffing challenges imposed by sequestration and still fulfill our commitment to protect the American people,” the Justice Department said in an emailed statement provided to Pro Publica.

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Federal judge rules unpaid interns were misclassified employees, certifies class action”

ABAJournal.com: “Winning, so far, in trial court, Hearst wants 2nd Circuit to clarify intern issue after new ruling”

ABAJournal.com: “Do unpaid pro bono internships violate the law? ABA says they should be allowed”

Legal Skills Prof Blog (Dec. 2012): “Are Unpaid Law Firm Internships Illegal?”

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