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Should ABA Allow Paid Externships for Academic Credit? No.

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By William Peacock, Esq. on September 22, 2014 9:21 AM

Should the American Bar Association drop its long-standing ban on academic credit for paid externships during law school? That was last week's "Room for Debate" topic over at The New York Times, with two people (a law student an an attorney) arguing in favor of lifting the ban, and one (a professor) arguing for the status quo.

If you're a long-time reader, you know how much I absolutely hate the idea of unpaid internships, though that's more an aversion to employers taking advantage of rising 2Ls and 3Ls who are desperate for resume filler by having them provide actual, valuable labor for free. But this is different: academic credit for an educational experience in a practical setting.

Let's take a look at the pros and cons, and see why lifting the ban is probably a bad idea.

Kill the Ban?

Bottom line: Law school is a six-figure-or-bigger burden, and any pay is going to help students struggling to make ends meet. This is essentially the argument advanced in the Times debate by Cooley 3L Aaron Sohaski, a part-time student who works to minimize his debt load.

Plus, allowing employers to pay students for in-school externships (where credit is also awarded) might result in more opportunities for students, as many employers are wary about providing unpaid internships and externships after the wave of class-actions hit publishers and movie studios over the last few years.

Michael Cardozo, a partner at Prokauser Rose, notes in his part of the Times debate that government agencies can offer work for no pay, without breaking the law, while private employers cannot. That's semi-true: The multi-part test basically says that folks can't work for free if the experience is more about helping the employer than gaining educational experience; one of the tell-tale signs of a violation is when a regular employee is displaced by the externship.

In practice, pretty much anything an extern does would help the employer, which is why the Department of Labor and ABA sum it up as only pro bono work is allowed, and it must be done with academic supervision.

Status Quo?

As one of those six-figure-or-bigger-in-debt grads, an argument for the ban that starts with "safeguarding the academic integrity of the externship" immediately makes me scoff. But Prof. Olympia Duhart makes a great point:

It shifts the externship focus from things that are in the best interest of the students to tasks that are in the best interest of the employer. Driven by a need to maximize profits, some of the employers will engage inexperienced student workers in tasks that have little educational value.

The Verdict: No Pay

I've worked the unpaid crapternships, and Prof. Duhart is right on the money. Employers don't offer unpaid gigs because of the warm-and-fuzzies; they want unpaid labor to cut down on the bottom line, no matter how much "valuable experience" is promised.

Law school is about learning, not about making money in a part-time law-related job that might get some course credit and might make you some pocket change while you're signing $200,000 in promissory notes.

If the goal is practical education, that's what pro bono work (for private employers), government agency placements, and clinics are for.

Legal education is ridiculously overpriced. But the pay from an externships would be a drop in the bucket compared to the $50k/year sticker price that many schools are now charging. I have to agree with Prof. Duhart and, well, anyone who has been paying attention for the last ten years: the solution is to cut tuition, not to cut education.

What's your take on the debate over paid externships for academic credit? Let us know via Twitter (@FindLawLP) or Facebook (FindLaw for Legal Professionals).

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