Earlier this year, the New York State Bar Association Committee on Ethics ruled that law firms can bill their clients for hours worked by their unpaid interns. It is both upsetting and unsurprising that the State Bar Association — an institution with a huge voice in the science of jurisprudence and one that is designed to promote reform in law — would ever think to protect this unfair system of unpaid labor in law firms.
Internships are one of a few ways prospective employees can get their foot in the door of their chosen field of work. And for the average law intern, internships are the only plausible way that they can gain valuable experience and connections in the world of law. By ruling that firms can bill their clients for unpaid intern work, the State Bar Association makes it permissible to have law firms directly profit off of work that they themselves are not even paying for. This move will make unpaid internships far more financially attractive to law firms, which in turn will most likely lead to a decrease in paid entry-level positions.
While there is a chance that law firms may not change their policies or the amount of paid internships vs. unpaid ones, the fact remains that the State Bar Association should be looking to promote reform in law: abolishing the system of unpaid internships as the norm is a good start. Not paying interns who do valuable work for companies simply because they are being compensated in “academic credit” is already bad enough, considering that many students need supplemental income — especially when they live and study in a city that is as notoriously expensive as New York. To also allow firms to charge clients for the work that those interns do is inexcusable
An internship is, barring prior connections to the industry, a necessity for anyone hoping to land a job after graduation, both in a specific field and in general. Students with experience from a paid internship program are much more likely to be hired than their unpaid counterparts, yet only a little over half of internships are paid. Combined with the Bar Association’s recent ruling, these statistics are certainly worrisome for college students looking to enter the workforce in the future.
It’s important for firms with internship programs to treat their interns with the respect they would have for a full-fledged employee. An internship — if there is considerable work being done by a staffer — should be paid, regardless of the academic credit received or the educational status of the employee. But even in instances where law interns receive no pay, firms should at the least respect their interns enough to not profit off their clients for work they themselves were not willing to compensate. In their ruling, the New York State Bar Association shamefully dismissed both notions.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, September 12 print edition. Email Patrick Seaman at [email protected]