Paid Law School Externships Will Ruin the Experience

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By Olympia Duhart

As the American Bar Association considers lifting the ban on paid externships, a simple truth bears repeating: Money changes everything. Under the current standards, law students cannot be compensated for work they do for school credit. This policy should remain in place because separating compensation and “study outside the classroom” is a crucial step toward safeguarding the academic integrity of the externship.

Yes, law students need money. They also need experience. Rolling back the prohibition on allowing students to receive pay and credit for the same work is an “easy fix” that ignores some key realities.

First, it will limit the ability of government and nonprofit institutions to attract students. Next, it will tempt employers to exploit the students under their supervision. Further, it will impair the educational objectives of the externship. 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. For example, inviting a student to reflect on a courtroom observation has an incredibly high instructive value; however, that same experience is not likely to be billable to a client. Profit and pedagogy do not always align.

What’s more, revoking the standard also collides with other important objectives for legal education. The A.B.A. has promoted legal education that encourages self-reflection, outcome measures and ethical participation in the practice of law. Even the most conscientious employer – pulled in different directions by clients and practice demands – may not be able to effectively pursue these goals. As they gain new experience, law students need mentors and educators. At the very least, the current standard incentivizes education, not making money.

But the truth is that something has to be done.

Given the alarming rate of tuition increases, law schools must finally take responsibility for the rising cost of legal education. A small paycheck will not do much to defray the high debt load most students must absorb to become lawyers. Instead, we need to dig deeper to make law school more affordable for students, especially those students interested in public interest work.

Allowing students to earn nominal pay from an externship simply is not the answer. They won’t earn much money, and they may not gain the type of experience that meaningfully contributes to their legal careers. Shifting the focus from academic study to earning pay will significantly transform the externship experience — and not for the better.

This article was originally published by New York Times on 9/18/14.  Read it here.