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

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Law students may work as unpaid interns on pro bono matters at law firms, provided certain conditions are met, according to a letter sent to the ABA by the Labor Department.

The letter (PDF) by the Labor Department’s solicitor, M. Patricia Smith, is a response to then-ABA President Laurel Bellows, who sought assurances in May that the agency would interpret the Fair Labor Standards Act to allow such internships. Current ABA President James Silkenat says the ABA appreciates the Labor Department’s stance.

“This clarification will assist law students seeking to gain legal experience and increase their volunteerism,” Silkenat said in a statement released on Monday. “It also will ensure law firms can continue to help the many people in need of legal assistance through pro bono efforts.”

The letter says the FLSA generally requires the payment of minimum wage to anyone who works for a for-profit entity such as law firms. Unpaid internships are allowed, however, in certain circumstances. Among the requirements: The internship must offer training similar to that gained in an educational environment and the experience must be for the benefit of the intern.

According to the letter, addressed to Bellows, the department understands her concern to involve unpaid internships in which a law school places students with law firms and monitors their progress as they work exclusively on non-fee-generating pro bono matters. The internship could be unpaid, the letter says, if:

• The internship involves exclusively non-fee-generating pro bono matters.

• The internship is structured to provide the student with professional experience in furtherance of his or her education.

• The hiring of unpaid law student interns does not displace regular employees.

• The law student is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.

• The law firm and the law student agree that the student is not entitled to wages.

A different analysis would apply to law grads, the letter says.

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