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Can You, Should You, Work for Free?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 18, 2015 9:57 AM

If you're a law student or recent graduate, you're probably aware by now that finding legal work that pays can be difficult. For a law student looking to gain important legal experience, or young lawyers just starting out, it can be tempting to offer your services for free.

We're not talking pro bono representation of the indigent here, but unpaid internships, volunteer attorney positions, and no-cost legal services for otherwise paying customers. Should you ever do it?

A Foot in the Door, You Say?

Some organizations, especially for interns and summer law clerks, simply expect you to work for free. Taking a temporary, volunteer position can be your chance bet at working under Loretta Lynch, for example, or getting experience with your local D.A.'s office.

For new grads struggling to find work, offering to work gratis can be a way to fill out your resume as you search for more steady gigs. If you're lucky, your law school will pay you near minimum wage to work for free for someone else. Don't think it's out of the goodness of their hearts though -- they just want to report you as employed when it comes time for school rankings.

Once employers see how good you are, they'll definitely give you an offer, right? Well, maybe. Some organizations may not be able to hire you even if they wanted to, while others might still run a competitive interview program and find someone they want more. Even if you're not hired, though, you will have gained a valuable network and legal experience, which you can apply when working for someone who values you enough to pay.

Working for Free Can Be Harder Than You Expect

There are plenty of reasons not to work for free. For one, you paid a lot of money to get your legal expertise. Your brainpower is what you're selling, so think twice before giving it away. Similarly, potential employers and clients may actually undervalue your skills when you're willing to work for free. If you're offering free services as a way to get clients in the door, you might be courting the kind of clients you don't want -- the ones who won't pay.

Even when free work is good for you, it could have pitfalls for your "employer." Government employers, for example, often have strict procedures for bringing on new workers, even when they're unpaid interns or volunteer employees. If you want to help out, for free, at the state's Department of Environmental Protection, for example, you will likely still have to go through an extensive "hiring" process -- which makes sense, seeing as you bring a list of potential liabilities, not least of which is are possible labor law violations and conflicts of interest, that can offset the benefit of free work.

That's not to say it can't be done, but don't expect to show up one day and begin volunteering on the spot!

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