Summer Internships And The Spirit Of The Law

The first day of summer—the summer solstice—is the longest day of the year. For first-year law students, however, the longest day of the year tends to be every day until they find out about summer internships.

The 2011 Summer Solstice is technically June 21, but most university students are already free and ready to celebrate no more books and teachers’ dirty looks. So as a student or an employer, what should you expect from the summer?

Internships provide law students the opportunity to practice an area of law for which school may or may not prepare them. Usually internships are limited to research, some writing, and legal support tasks, but with the current economic climate, some law offices are opting to use their interns more resourcefully (and profitably).

There’s nothing wrong with hiring cheap help during a recession. But, in the legal industry, there are numerous ethical requirements in place so as to avoid the unauthorized practice of law (UPL), in addition to guidelines necessary to follow to adhere to federal and state labor and employment rules.

In the recent past, some law firms have been less than fair and, at times, abusive with assigning summer work to interns. Instead of seeing the summer as an opportunity to train and mentor potential future employees, certain firms have decided to make internships a boost to their bottom line—using their naïve law students for menial tasks.

“Trudy Steinfeld, director of N.Y.U.’s Office of Career Services, said she increasingly had to ride herd on employers to make sure their unpaid internships were educational. She recently confronted a midsize law firm that promised one student an educational $10-an-hour internship. The student complained that the firm was not paying him and was requiring him to make coffee and sweep out bathrooms.”[1]

Both students and hiring partners should read the federal requirements for unpaid internships before signing on for the summer. And, it might be helpful to read this cautionary tale by the New York Times.

While it may be tempting to use summer internships with doe-eyed law students as an opportunity to fill a costly gap in paralegal or janitorial work, you’ll only being doing your firm, the student, and the field of law a disservice. As an attorney, if you’re only using law school interns to transcribe your illegible notes, try WritePad for the iPad instead. As a first-year law student, if you’re serving coffee to senior counsel just to fluff your resume, there may be a better option. With Internship Seeker for the iPhone and iPad, summer solstice doesn’t have to become summer slavery.

-WB

For more information, attend the C4CM course, Interns and the Law: Structuring a Compliant Internship Program that Meets Wage and Hour Guidelines.

[1] Reported by Above the Law on 5 April, 2010.

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