Law Students At Odds With Bar Association Over Internships

Aspiring attorneys say that they often find themselves challenged to afford basic necessities when working at an internship for law school credit—work the American Bar Association says must be unpaid. Critics cite potential ethics concerns.

Law students have a message for the their field’s leading professional body: When it comes to internships, don’t make us decide between cash or credit.

For years, the American Bar Association (ABA) has had a formal policy requiring for-credit legal internships to be unpaid. Increasingly, though, students say that’s leading to major financial difficulties for them. More details on the policy and the issues raised:

What’s the problem? Law degrees, as you might guess, are very expensive. Yet, the ABA’s rules put many students in the position on having to decide between accepting a necessary but potentially financially painful unpaid internship or externship and a job that may not have direct career value but pays the bills. At the ABA’s House of Delegates meeting in Boston last month, the association’s Law Student Division made a passionate case against the rule, arguing that many students are enduring significant financial hardship in exchange for gaining necessary unpaid experience. Some, such as Valparaiso University’s Monalisa Dugué, found the balance impossible to manage. “I couldn’t even afford to put food in the refrigerator,” she said of her experience, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. “I have two school-age kids that I also had to provide for. For me it was a bigger burden.” Ultimately, Dugué had to quit her internship due to the financial strain.

An issue of ethics: A rule change to allow paid internships was considered this year. The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions debated the rule, but it ultimately decided against changing it in June. Group officials said some ethical hurdles were too difficult to clear. “This was always a close question, and a lot of people were on the fence,” Barry Currier, the ABA managing director for admissions and legal education, told the National Law Journal. “The council received a lot of comments and decided to not make the change. The fundamental reason is this perceived tension between the obligations of someone who is a paid employee and a student.”

Why the opposition? While students largely supported the rule change, noting the financial burdens internships and externships create, groups such as the Society of American Law Teachers and the Clinical Legal Education Association both opposed the change, expressing concerns that paid internships and externships would limit opportunities for law students by making law firms more gun-shy about who they bring on board, while undermining the academic goals of the programs.

Will things change? Possibly. During the House of Delegates meeting, the association voted to send the issue back to the council, which will make a final decision. Once the decision is made, the ruling will be set in stone for the next decade. Even so, the House of Delegates did make some smaller rule changes to make things a little less fiscally painful for law students. For example, they can now work more than 20 hours per week at a paid position. With the ultimate goal still up in the air, students are still pushing for paid internships. At Boston’s Suffolk University Law School, some have pledged to “highlight the ridiculousness” of the policy by sharing horror stories with the ABA.

The conflict comes after a period when internships have been under the microscope in other industries, including film and publishing.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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