Are Unpaid Interns and Law Clerks Illegal?
There is little doubt this a terrible economy for new graduates. Many people, including yours truly, have advocated that law students seek unpaid externships if they cannot find a paying job. A recent article, however, indicates that federal and state regulators are cracking down on employers that exploit free labor.
If your firm has, or is considering interns or unpaid law clerks, there are federal guidelines you need to follow. The overall gist of the regulations is that unpaid clerks should benefit from the experience, not employers.
Internships should be used as a means to educate someone, similar to a trade school program. Interns should not be used to displace regular workers, and employers should not acquire “immediate advantage[s]” from the intern.
The article also notes that although some states require that interns receive college credit, that does not equate to compliance with federal regulation. Specifically, when the internship involves little training and mainly serves to benefit the employer.
Replacing your receptionist with an unpaid intern probably will not fly and is unlikely to comply with federal regulations. On top of that, think about how poorly the intern will regard your firm. Not only is your firm interviewing potential interns, they are interviewing your firm.
If you decide your firm wants interns, review the regulations. Provide a structured program that actually prepares law students for the practice of law. The more valuable an experience you provide to law students, the more likely it is they will speak highly of your firm, and consider working for your firm down the road.