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So, You Want To Hire An Unpaid Intern?

By Tanya Roth, Esq. | Last updated on

So, you want to hire an unpaid intern?

It certainly shouldn't be difficult to find one.  These days, with the slow hiring in law firms, there are many young attorneys out there who are trying to get some experience.  There are also several law schools that host clinics, where students get class credit to participate in unpaid internships. 

With the need for small firms to tighten their belts, it might be smart to hire an unpaid intern. 

Before you decide to hire an intern, you do need to be aware of certain rules and restrictions.

And, you also need to be aware of the fact that strategically, the hiring of an unpaid intern might not be as easy as it seems. 

You didn't really think that you could hire someone for free and not incur any legal liability, did you?

Unfortunately, it's just not that easy.The Department of Labor lays out the critera for the legality of unpaid internships. Many state laws echoe this criteria. California, for one, has detailed guidelines for the hiring of unpaid interns, a criteria which is almost identical to the federal list. 

Although all factors in the DOL list must be present,  the one of greatest concern, in my opinion, is the fact that the intern must not displace regular employees. The reason I feel that this is an important point is because many firms feel that the hiring of an intern will be a cost-effective solution to hiring new personnel.   

If you're thinking of hiring an unpaid intern in lieu of hiring a paid law clerk, perhaps you need to think twice. How much of yourself are you able to give the intern? You have to be prepared to be a mentor and a teacher to this intern. The internship must primarily be for the benefit of the intern and not the firm, so be prepared to provide the required training to the intern.   

Management Issues

You must realize that the intern will likely hope for a job at the end of the unpaid internship. You should also realize that many students haven't entered the legal workforce yet and you will essentially be their mentor, not only in the law but also with regards to workplace-related issues. In order to effectively manage your interns, you will need to be patient enough to manage their expectations as well. 

And most managers, whether in the corporate setting or in law firm settings, will tell you that managing expectations is a difficult feat. 

Furthermore, this unpaid internship might be your intern's first legal job. Don't expect that the intern will necessarily be able to do the research you need in the time you allot. You might find yourself going over the intern's work and often, spending quite a bit of time doing so. 

In conclusion: If you are contemplating the hiring of an intern, be ready for the fact that it may not be the easiest solution. Sometimes, an unpaid intern is the way to go.  

Other times, you might want to go the way of hiring a paid law clerk. Depending on the nature of your work, it just might be worth the money.   

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