In late May, president of the American Bar Association (ABA) Laurel Bellows sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor expressing the ABA’s concerns about the uncertainty regarding the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) treatment of pro bono activities and the opportunities these activities present to students. Essentially, the ABA is concerned that ambiguities in the FLSA will inhibit legal employers from hiring unpaid interns and result in fewer opportunities for students to gain experience and build their resumes.
The internships that the ABA expects would be exempt from the FLSA are limited to positions for law students, graduated students who have yet to take the bar, and graduated students who have taken the bar and are awaiting the bar results. In addition to placement with nonprofit organizations and government agencies, the ABA expects that law schools would also like to place their students with for-profit law firms (including corporate legal offices) to work on pro bono matters to advance and expand the education of the students.
The type of work would be limited to pro bono projects, or projects for which the employer would not be expecting compensation; the ABA intimates that each law school would act as intermediary between interns and their employers. Precluding internships solely to paid positions would, according to the ABA, make these positions undesirable to employers; students would lose the opportunity to work with experienced lawyers before passing the bar. On the other hand, the ABA’s stance may be a bit short-sighted. Legal employers could always have a need for interns, and requiring employers to pay their interns fairly may not be prohibitive.
As a prospective law graduate myself, I can understand both sides of the argument. One of my greatest concerns is my burgeoning need for a paid position due to my ever-increasing debt; but, I realize that employers are simply more likely to hire unpaid interns because the market is hard enough as it is (and their costs would be minimal). To be competitive, it is no longer enough for a student to perform well in classes; a competitive student will have actual experience with the practice of law.
It will be interesting to see how the uncertainty regarding the FLSA pans out–which is more important: the need for students to possess practical experience or protecting legal interns from abusive employment practices?
You can find the full letter here: