June 12, 2014

ABA Votes Its Wallet, Rejects Extern Pay

The American Bar Association has shot down an attempt by its Law Student Division to lift the ban on law students receiving both pay and credit for externships. There's not a lot to say, other than the ABA's stated concern for the tension between employees and externs is nonesense.

Law firms who use externs (referred to as interns in my firm and others, which may be technically incorrect, but so what), are supposed to assign work that supplements and furthers the student's education. Basically, you can't use interns as free labor to do the chores you ought to be paying somebody to do. Do you have envelopes that need stuffing, documents that need shredding, or some letters that you want hand delivered across town? Pay somebody you cheap bastard, that's not a proper internship. Are you looking for somebody to assist with some legal research or digest transcripts? That's different; particularly if you are also letting the student sit in on some meetings, depositions, or court conferences. In short, no exploiting the already heavily indebted law student who is just looking for a few credits and some fluff for her resume.

Everybody knows law school tuition is crazy expensive and that many law students are already grappling with serious undergrad debt. Why not allow a law firm or non-profit to also give the student a stipend or salary? Cloaking itself in the sort of saccharine ethical concern normally employed by the NCAA when it punishes impoverished student-athletes for letting a booster buy them dinner, the ABA cites the need to distinguish between the obligations of a paid employee and an intern.

It's hooey. Externs and interns are limited to certain sorts of work because they are engaged in an educational activity. The firms don't have to pay them, but certainly should be able to. The employees, on the other hand, can be assigned a far broader range of work precisely because it's not an educational endeavor. The firms' obligations to these two categories of workers are already clear. It isn't complicated and it's not a close call.

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