SRC voted to eliminate Interpretation 305-3 which distinguishes paid employment from academic field placements

American Bar Association Accreditation Standard 305  addresses “study outside the classroom” and, in particular, field placement courses.  Interpretation 305-3 states:

A law school may not grant credit to a student for participation in a field placement program for which the student receives compensation. This Interpretation does not preclude reimbursement of reasonable out-of-pocket expenses related to the field placement.

The written submission by the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA) filed January 31, 2014 (found here or on ABA site) argues

To revoke this regulation would give employers in paid field placements significantly more power both to control student work and to minimize the employer’s supervisory role, and would significantly reduce externship faculty control over the educational benefit of the placement.

This is a real concern. When I directed Albany’s field placement program, I often had to discuss with supervisors the difference between their treatment of academic interns and paid clerks. For example, throwing an inexperienced student into night court without direct attorney supervision may free up the evening of the harried assistant public defender or assistant prosecutor but it fails to teach the intern the constitutional way to practice law. And, if you pay the interns you may well be entitled to assign them to pick up your dry cleaning or walk your dog because your time is more valuable, however those activities are hardly educational. These were actual issues I addressed and was able to resolve in favor of the students educational experience because the employer had no money in the pot and needed to follow the requirements of the law school. That leverage will be undercut if interpretation 305(3) is removed.

I also agree with CLEA’s position that

……nothing suggests that field placement courses are displacing a large volume of paid part-time work for law students. To the contrary, pervasive anecdotal evidence suggests that employers are unable to pay and would prefer that students work without pay. Field placement directors (and placement offices) routinely field requests from employers who seek to offer unpaid work through a field placement experience. Nothing suggests an increased demand by employers to pay students who are also getting credit.

If anything, during difficult economic times, law students need the negotiating power of an experienced attorney and faculty member even more, since they are more vulnerable to exploitation by employers. I urge the Council to keep Interpretation 305 (3) in place to protect the educational quality of field placements. As discussed in another earlier post, during Thursday’s public hearing before Council members, Interpretation 305 (3) was discussed, including the applicability of the Fair Labor Standards Act, possible exploitation of students, and the problem of differing expectations regarding treatment of paid and unpaid interns. These issues are complicated and deserve further attention. With the SRC members deciding to complete the comprehensive review at the February meeting and leave issues which need more data and input for another day, it was surprising, in my opinion, to observe them move so quickly on the proposal to remove 305-3 without a more informed vetting of the issues.

Disclosure: I was recently elected co-vice president of CLEA. However, I was not responsible for the CLEA position letter on this interpretation. When writing on this blog, I do not represent CLEA.

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