Beware of Unpaid Legal Internships

Beware of Unpaid Legal Internships


Jobs are scarce, but labor is plentiful.  Given these skewed market forces, unpaid internships have proliferated across all sectors over the past few years, and the legal profession is certainly no exception.  A simple Craigslist search reveals that a surprising number of small firms and solo practitioners offer interns the opportunity to get to know the field and build up career prospects.  Yet all these potential employers come up with clever ways to opt out of actually paying interns for their supposedly meaningful contributions:   

One private firm in the Bay Area blatantly targets foreign applicants and smoothly passes the burden of compensation to the intern's country of origin: "You should be paid by your government with a stipend, as this is an unpaid position."[i]  It seems American businesses don't just exploit unskilled labor; they'll take advantage of skilled, educated workers too, market permitting.  The real kicker here is that even unskilled immigrants might be better off than the sorry soul that signs up for this internship.  You'd definitely make more money picking strawberries in Modesto than chasing the nebulous promise of "practical experience" offered by this anonymous San Francisco firm.  

Other listings are rather disturbing in their brevity.  A solo practitioner in San Rafael provides applicants with only a one-sentence description of the position and an equally short solicitation of resumes and cover letters. But of course you don't necessarily need to write long paragraphs about job responsibilities and requirements to communicate the details of a job effectively.  Just two words in the listing - "compensation: none" - speak volumes.[ii] 

But the prize for most shameful solicitation of free labor goes to a small firm based in Pasadena, CA.   The firm makes the dubious claim that it has no money to hire a new attorney but plenty of work for an additional member of the team.  In a profession where "work" is directly correlated to profit, it's hard to believe a firm could have one without the other.  Perhaps they bill out their attorneys for free.  The firm then suggests that the new attorney would work without compensation for an undetermined period of time before he proves himself "capable of bringing in ... clients."[iii] With tactics reminiscent of those knife-marketing scams that force you to pay for a sales kit upfront, this firm openly admits that it will probably not pay you until you pay them first in new clients' fees.  

With all these employers riding the internship wave to tap into a seemingly unlimited pool of free labor, it might be surprising that the government has already passed stringent regulations on unpaid internships several years ago.  The Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) establishes six federal legal criteria that must be satisfied before employers can hire an unpaid intern.  These criteria require, among other things, that training be primarily for the intern's benefit and that the employer "derive no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees."[iv]  These guidelines also require that interns understand that they are not entitled to a job at the end of the training period, but this has done little to stop firms from enticing new interns with the possibility of a paid full-time position after the completion of their internship.   

The challenge then is not passing new legislation regulating unpaid internships and the type work unpaid interns are allowed to do.  Instead, the Labor Department must ramp up its efforts in enforcing the guidelines already in place and slap heavy fines on employers that clearly violate federal law.  While a few employers might actually offer interns an enriching experience and room for future growth, many more exploit the free labor market afforded by recent graduates and young professionals who are desperately trying to get ahead in their field.     

At the very least, job applicants should take a good hard look at firms and practitioners that entice potential interns with a wonderful hands-on learning experience but can't seem to cough up the dough to match their promises.  A few of these opportunities might be worth looking into, but these positions are as rare as a debt-less law school graduate, and you'd probably be much better off finding an employer who is actually willing to pay you for the long hours spent sifting through reams and reams of paper as a new associate attorney. 

Note: Since Craigslist links become deactivated with time, I have appended the actual listings mentioned in this entry at the bottom of the page.

Unpaid legal internship available (USF / panhandle)

Date: 2011-06-11, 7:31PM PDT
Reply to this link. 

J-1 visa holders or foreign students welcome as well.

If you are a law student or lawyer who needs 3 months of "practical training" or experience in a private law firm before you final law exams, this office has some openings for next year. You should be paid by your government with a stipend, as this is an unpaid position. Focus is on civil litigation in state and federal courts. You will not sit at a desk every day - you will be going to court and out meeting clients and witnesses.

Email your c.v. and a short cover letter.

This is an internship job

  • Principals only. Recruiters, please don't contact this job poster.
  • Please, no phone calls about this job!
  • Please do not contact job poster about other services, products or commercial interests.

PostingID: 2435312938

Looking for intern (san rafael)

Date: 2011-06-16, 9:21PM PDT
Reply to this link. 

Solo practitioner looking for intern to assist with rigorous and diverse litigation practice. Please email resume and cover letter.

Compensation: none

This is an internship job

  • Principals only. Recruiters, please don't contact this job poster.
  • Please, no phone calls about this job!
  • Please do not contact job poster about other services, products or commercial interests.

PostingID: 2445409520

New Law Firm Seeking Litigation Attorney (Pasadena)

 Date: 2011-06-26, 12:05PM PDT
Reply to this link. 

This is a good opportunity for a new attorney or an experienced attorney who wants to expand into another area of practice. This very busy law firm handles bankruptcies, family law, employment law, PI and other areas of civil litigation. We are looking for an attorney admitted to practice in California with excellent writing and research skills and a desire to build a practice in Pasadena. Another important skill is the ability to work under time pressures and with other members of the staff. We are a small firm, and we seek cooperation in all aspects if needed to meet a deadline. 

We have no budget for an additional attorney at this time but plenty of work. We would like you to work with us for a period of time to allow us to evaluate whether we may hire you when a position opens or whether you will be capable of bringing in your own clients and garnering an income for yourself without the major investment of starting your own law firm.

Please provide a resume. We are interested in an attorney willing to devote at least 40 hours a week to building a law practice. 

Location: Pasadena

PostingID: 2463579661

[i] Craigslist, "Unpaid legal internship available (USF/panhandle),"

[ii] Craigslist, "Looking for intern (san rafael),"

[iii] Craigslist, "New Law Firm Seeking Litigation Associate (Pasadena),"

[iv] Nancy Leppink, "Advisory: Training and Employment Guidance Letter No. 12-09," US Department of Labor,


Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School.   BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at

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