Law Students

Proposal to lift ban on academic credit for paid externships draws heavy opposition

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A proposed change in the law school accreditation standards that would lift the ban on students receiving academic credit for paid externships has drawn a lot of comment—and much of the comment is in opposition to lifting the ban.

Under the current standards, law students are barred from receiving both credit and pay for an externship. But the governing council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has approved for notice and comment a proposal that would eliminate the ban.

That proposal is just one of four proposed changes in the standards (PDF) that the council has posted for notice and comment. But it is the one that has drawn the lion’s share (PDF) of comments. And most of those comments have been negative.

The proposed changes were also the subject of a public hearing Friday at which representatives from two legal education groups—the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) and the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA)—spoke out against lifting the ban.

Alexander W. Scherr, an associated professor and director of civil clinics at the University of Georgia School of Law, representing CLEA, said that whatever benefits might come from repealing the ban do not outweigh the harm it would do to students.

“The rule against credit for paid employment remains a necessary part of the standards’ insistence on the educational value of a field placement course,” he said.

Scherr said the council should not only keep the ban, but expand the range of permissible reimbursements law students in field placements can receive from third party sources.

Emily Benfer, a clinical professor of law and director of the Health Justice Project at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, speaking on behalf of SALT, said eliminating the ban on paid externships would be a step backward.

While the council can—and should—authorize stipends and scholarships for work at externship sites, she said, it should not permit direct payment by employers for work by students receiving course credit because it could undermine the academic purpose of the placement.

Benfer said SALT is also concerned that such an arrangement might compound existing inequities and negatively impact public service and access to justice.

A third speaker at Friday’s hearing took issue with a proposed change in the standards’ diversity and inclusion requirements.

Malcolm “Skip” Harsch, staff director of the Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, speaking on behalf of that commission and the ABA Commission on Disability Rights, said the council should incorporate disability, sexual orientation and gender identity into the text of the standard that requires law schools to demonstrate by concrete action a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

While the proposed new standard requires law schools to provide an environment in which diversity and inclusion are welcomed and embraced, it would require concrete action in support of that commitment solely with respect to gender, race and ethnicity.

The Standards Review Committee, which makes recommendations to the council about changes in the standards, will decide next month at a meeting in New Orleans whether to recommend any changes in the proposed revisions based on the comments it has received.

Any proposed changes will come back to the council for final consideration in March.

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