Law Firm “Internships” and the Fair Labor Standards Act

The past few weeks, I’ve had questions from One-Ls about summer internships and job opportunities. Many are working for judges, legal services agencies, or at other public interest organizations. For One-Ls especially, an unpaid internship with the government or with a non-profit can provide significant benefits. Such an internship gives the students a sense of what lawyers do, an exposure to an area of practice, and perhaps the opportunity to work on a sustained project that will give them a good writing sample. At the same time, courts and non-profits are understaffed, don’t have a lot of money to throw around, and can benefit from the additional summer help.

I understand all of this, but lately an increasing number of students have been telling me about “internships” – unpaid – with for-profit law firms servicing paying clients. From what I have heard, the student intern will perform tasks normally handled by an associate, paralegal, or secretary, all in exchange for the grand total of nothing. (Well, except to occasionally get a free lunch or commuting expenses). From what I have heard, the level of supervision varies at these internships; students sometimes say the feedback and experience is good, other times they are mostly ignored and set to the routine task of document review.

Recently the Department of Labor promulgated the following list of factors to determine whether unpaid externships comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), otherwise known as our minimum wage law:

1. The training is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction;

2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees or students;

3. The trainees or students do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;

4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;

5. The trainees or students are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and

6. The employer and the trainees or students understand that the trainees or students are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

Although I’m sure that the last two factors are met with a for-profit law firm unpaid “internship,” the other four could cut against a law firm that doesn’t give students a good training experience.

In my mind, the entire practice of using students to perform for-profit legal work and not paying them leaves me highly suspicious. Pay the intern below what you would an associate, paralegal, or secretary, heck, pay them minimum wage. But pay the intern something.

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4 Responses

  1. What if the firm decides that the student’s contributions are not worth even the minimum wag? How does that student get the experience she obviously wants?

    She’s an adult; she’s in law school – she probably doesn’t need the “help” of the nanny-state.

    Or, as an alternattive, the student could just go out and get a job where the market values her efforts enough to pay her…..because, despite what you read, the economy is doing OK and there are those kinds of jobs out there.

  2. David says:

    Why not work for law school credit? The One-L would work during the summer and then receive, say, 3 or 4 credit hours. There would be no grade (i.e., pass/fail), but the hours would count towards the total needed to graduate (as I recall, most law schools require a certain number hours to graduate but not all of the hours need to be graded; of course, it has been a few years since I was in law school).

  3. fuck you says:

    The work is voluntary.

  4. Paul says:

    dude? What if the trainee is employed in another position at the Agency?