Seriously? New York law firms can now charge clients for the work of unpaid interns

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Where's the justice?

I've written a lot about the subject of unpaid internships lately, and I've been met with a variety of responses. For sure, it's a complicated issue influenced by a variety of factors. But in the end, I still hold strongly to the opinion that just about all interns should receive some form of compensation. It's not just a matter of fairness, companies benefit from these policies as well.

But what if a company uses interns to accomplish necessary work, refuses to pay them, and then charges the client for that work?

According to an opinion published by The Committee on Professional Ethics of the New York State Bar Association, New York law firms can do just that.

In addressing the topic of "Billing client for work performed by an unpaid student-intern," the committee deemed that there is nothing wrong with law firms charging for the services carried out by interns who receive academic credit for their work, even if they are unpaid.

The committee reasoned in its official opinion:

"We find nothing in the Rules that would prohibit a sponsoring law firm from billing for the services of a law student-intern on a fee basis, even if the sponsoring firm is compensating neither the intern nor the sending law school, provided that the client has been advised of the firm's intent to charge for the intern's services and the basis of the charge (e.g., per task or per hour or some fraction thereof) and provided, further, that the fee is neither excessive nor illegal."

I wonder: What exact dollar amount the committee deems excessive--in exchange for free labor?

All of this highlights one of the major problems discussed in my original piece. To be fair, interns receive invaluable, real-world experience from their employers. And yes, it can cost employers time and money to train and shadow interns.

But which interns can afford to take unpaid jobs?

The ones who are privileged enough to receive outside support, or are willing to take on more debt.

For example, recent law school graduate Anamary Batista says unpaid internships are a hot topic of conversation among her and her peers. She points out that many law internships are full-time positions (or at least require more than typical part-time hours), which means having a second job to support yourself isn't always an option.

"It is indentured servitude of credit for hire," she says. "And in addition to harming firms, it creates a definite inequality among students who could not otherwise gain that type of experience--without sacrificing their livelihood for a fuller resume."

Rachel Bien, a partner at New York law firm Outten & Golden has also argued in favor of interns. "Students who cannot afford to work for free, including many students of color, either must forgo unpaid internships and lose out on the networking opportunities they offer, or take on more debt in order to intern unpaid," she said in a recent interview with The New York Law Journal.

Bien penned a letter criticizing the state bar opinion, calling the decision "fundamentally flawed" and asking the committee to reconsider. A number of groups signed the letter, including Brooklyn Law School, Labor and Employment Law Association, the Labor & Employment Committee of the National Lawyers Guild--New York City, the NYU Black Allied Law Students Association, and the NYU Latino Law Students Association.

I'm disappointed by this latest development of using unpaid interns, but I can't say I'm surprised. In fact, if the current trend continues, it's scary to imagine what's next.

Maybe companies will start charging interns to work there.

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