In May, the American Bar Association asked for a formal opinion from the Department of Labor about unpaid legal interns. The usual rules about interns should be relaxed, the lawyers’ organization requested, in order to permit unemployed law students to provide pro bono work to people who could otherwise not obtain legal services. The ABA’s Labor and Employment Section disapproved a request to allow unpaid internships for new graduates waiting to take or to pass the bar exam.
The Department of Labor agreed, and set out a series of guidelines for the use of unpaid labor by students. The volunteers can work only on pro bono cases, not including those in which an eventual recovery of attorney’s fees from the other side is possible. It disapproves the continued free labor by law grads waiting for word whether they passed the bar.
The ABA contends that this clarification will lead to more pro bono representation of poor people. And maybe it will. Or maybe it will permit lawyers who otherwise would devote a portion of their time to pro bono efforts to offload that obligation to untrained not-quite-lawyers. Ideally, the amount of pro bono representation increases, and the law students get some valuable training that they would not have received except for the new program. Then they will pass the bar and, if they have to set up practice on their own, may know how to handle a certain kind of case.
The use of interns has been rife with abuse. Not only are people encouraged to work for free for dubious benefits, many find that the experience did not lead to any doors opening at the place they work. A permanent underclass of serfs doing menial labor should get at least minimum wage. But since this is limited to students, the abuse factor is mitigated, since law students don’t often get paid for learning.