The American Bar Association is out there, fighting for the rights of law students to labor without pay. Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Maybe that sentence should go, “The American Bar Association is out there, fighting for the rights of legal employers to not pay their laborers.” Yes, that makes much more sense.
The Department of Labor sent a letter to the ABA, assuring the organization that hiring unpaid law students to do pro bono work is totally fine. This news makes the ABA happy for some reason. The ABA applauds the Labor Department declaration because of something about “service” and “experience” and other things that sound really nice when you can already pay your bills…
While unpaid internships are increasingly frowned upon, the Labor Department makes an exception for law students doing pro bono work under the following circumstances, according to the ABA Journal:
The internship could be unpaid, the letter says, if:
• The internship involves exclusively non-fee-generating pro bono matters.
• The internship is structured to provide the student with professional experience in furtherance of his or her education.
• The hiring of unpaid law student interns does not displace regular employees.
• The law student is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
• The law firm and the law student agree that the student is not entitled to wages.
A different analysis would apply to law grads, the letter says.
I guess this is good? Pro bono is a good way to get experience and lawyers who do pro bono work are doing an important public service. I’m just not sure it’s worth crowing about a decision that allows law students to work for free so long as they’re not necessarily going to get a job out of it. What about all the students who are trying to defray the high cost of law school by doing paid work? I guess I just don’t share the ABA President’s enthusiasm:
Current ABA President James Silkenat says the ABA appreciates the Labor Department’s stance.
“This clarification will assist law students seeking to gain legal experience and increase their volunteerism,” Silkenat said in a statement released on Monday. “It also will ensure law firms can continue to help the many people in need of legal assistance through pro bono efforts.”
Yeah, let’s all worry about law students’ “volunteerism” in a market with way too many lawyers for the paying jobs available.
Again, the real beneficiaries of this seem to be law firms who can pawn off pro bono work on unpaid interns while their attorneys focus on paying matters. But, I guess if you are a pro bono client, you probably don’t care who is not getting paid to help you out.