Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor clarified its position on unpaid internships for law students at law firms, explaining that under federal law, unpaid internships are permissible in some circumstances.
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) generally does not permit individuals to volunteer to work unpaid for for-profit businesses such as law firms. The FLSA has a very broad definition of which individuals qualify as employees, and requires employers to pay their employees minimum wage and overtime (unless an exemption or exclusion applies).
However, law students are permitted to work as unpaid interns for private law firms under limited circumstances. The internship must be for the benefit of the intern, and must be similar to training which would be given in a law school clinical environment. The intern must not displace regular employees, and must work on non-fee-generating pro bono cases so that the law firm derives no immediate advantage from the internship. Additionally, the intern and law firm must understand that the intern is not entitled to wages, and that the intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the end of the internship.
Recent law school graduates who have not yet passed any bar examination are not permitted to work as unpaid interns under the same circumstances. The Department of Labor reasoned that graduates have already completed their legal education, so law schools would not have the same ability to act as intermediaries between graduate interns and law firms.