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Small Firm Staffing: Is It Time to Offer Unpaid Internships?

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

There are many ways to handle a staffing shortage at a small firm. We've suggested a few ways to handle staffing shortages to free up your time for more billable hours. After all, you aren't being paid to answer the phone, organize file cabinets, or troubleshoot a crashing computer.

Some firms, especially smaller firms, can't afford more support staff, however. There is also a surplus of unemployed law graduates desperate for experience or employment. These circumstances have given rise to one of the more controversial employment arrangements: the unpaid internship.

Controversial, you ask? But why?

It's Illegal

In order for an unpaid internship to be legal, it must meet the following requirements:

  • The training is comparable to that of an educational environment;
  • The training must primarily benefit the intern;
  • The intern can't replace the regular staff;
  • The employer can't benefit from the intern's grunt work (unless the employer's benefit is outweighed by the training time to the intern);
  • There's no promise of employment post-training;
  • There's a mutual understanding that no wages will be paid.

Does that still sound like a solution to your under-staffing issues? If you are required to spend as much time training the interns in the practice of law as they spend answering your phones, the entire purpose of exploiting interns goes out the window. You're now going to be either violating labor laws or wasting billable hours on teaching trainees.

It's Unethical

How many times in your life have you worked a 40-hour work week for free? What if you had to do that for months, all in the name of "valuable experience"? While an unpaid training period might not be ethically-challenged (though it might be illegal - see above) if there is a high likelihood of paid employment upon successful completion of training, an indefinitely long unpaid position is merely an excuse to use unpaid labor in the guise of "paying dues."

The purpose of an internship is to learn the practice of law. It is not to provide a free source of labor to shady sole practitioners.

Before you start mumbling about "entitled youngins' with unrealistic expectations," consider this: law graduates are leaving school with more debt and far fewer job prospects than ever before. This ain't your entry-level market. We're the ones walking uphill both ways to school in the snow. Many recent grads are shouldering student loan payments than can reach over $1,000 per month. Try managing that while working for free.

Here's a modest proposal: hire a few recent grads at a pitifully-low hourly wage while they study for the bar. Transition the best of these grads into lowly-associates with financial incentives if their hiring pays off for the firm's bottom line. It's legal, it's an investment, and you might actually grow your firm's business instead of dealing with the turnover and lack of productivity that comes with an unmotivated and unpaid workforce.

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