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.

Internship criteria

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.



  1. Avatar Drew says:

    Randall: Thanks for the article. It is informative, and provided useful information. One small nit: this is not a complete sentence: “Specifically, when the internship involves training and mainly serves to benefit the employer.” Thanks, again.

  2. Avatar Randall R. says:

    What is a nit?

  3. Avatar Todd Gallinger says:

    A nit is the egg of a louse, used colloquially to mean a small shortcoming.

    In this economy, unpaid internships can be a valuable experience for students or recent graduates. Attorneys working with them need to be sure that they are mainly educational, and that they do not receive a substantial benefit. Ignorance of the law is never an excuse, but it looks especially bad when a lawyer claims it.

  4. Avatar Jessica07 says:

    This was a great article to find. I had no idea that there were regulations about internships. That being said, it entirely makes sense that there would be. Life decided I would be unable to move to go to law school (probably a blessing in this economy), and now I’m trying to find a place to intern as a virtual paralegal. I have a B.A. in Pre-law, as well as a Paralegal Certificate (the latter from Boston University), and I am astonished at how hard it is to find an internship. I kind of figured that in this kind of economic environment, lawyers would be salivating for free help. Perhaps I’ll tweak some of my inquiries to include some of their possible concerns (based on these regulations). Do you think that would help? I’m all ears, at this point.

  5. Avatar Torie F. says:

    If you graduate with massive student loan debt, then work for no pay after graduation, just how poor will you be in ten years?

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