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Do Small Firms, Solos Need Law Student Interns?

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

It's approaching back-to-school time for law school, which means students will be looking for internships and externships (if they don't have them already). With all these students out there, should your small firm get in on the action by hiring a law student intern?

Maybe -- but maybe not. Using unpaid interns in any for-profit business is under increased scrutiny, as a lack of jobs for fresh-out-of-college twentysomethings has given rise to an "internship" economy that may violate labor laws.

If you still want to grab an intern for the semester, tread carefully, and be prepared for some potential disappointment.

Student Interns Lighten the Load -- Or Do They?

Interns can do some of the humdrum legal work that just needs to be done. When was the last time you saw an episode of "Matlock" in which Andy Griffith spends an hour researching some esoteric discovery rule? If your firm has one or only a few attorneys, they're probably busy writing and appearing in court. Having a law student around is helpful largely for research tasks. Give your law student a research assignment and require a written memo. This gives the student some valuable training and it helps you out by allowing you to focus on more important, more substantive work.

On the other hand, law students are students, after all. Just because they know how to use Google doesn't mean they know how to use Westlaw; or, indeed, that they even know what they're looking for. You may send a law student intern on a research assignment that takes him or her an hour, when it would have taken you just 15 minutes.

It's a Learning Experience, Not a Job

An internship is supposed to benefit the student and only collaterally help the firm. In fact, the Department of Labor's list of six criteria for determining whether a person is an intern or an employee is clear that "the internship experience is for the benefit of the intern" and "the employer providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern." This means that an intern isn't doing much to actually lighten the work load at the firm, and indeed, can make things harder.

You could also end up losing money on an intern, as you may not be able to bill for the time your intern spends on a project. The specific issue of billing for a law student intern's hours is an open question, but reaping a benefit from using an unpaid intern in a for-profit business (like a law firm) could violate federal labor laws, the ABA Journal suggests. This means that not only is the intern taking twice as long to do the same thing you could be doing, but no one's paying for that time, either. (This is why big law firms pay their summer associates: If they're employees, then they can be made to do whatever the partners want.)

Is an Intern Worth It?

Maybe. If you're going to be in the market for a new attorney in the next few years, then a semester-long period (or more) of getting to know your intern is probably a better way of assessing his or her strengths should it come time to hire someone new. The intern will also already be familiar with your firm's practices.

It's not all bad, but make sure that "free labor" isn't anywhere close to being your No. 1 reason for hiring an intern.

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