The attorneys at Forester Haynie have subscribed to one consistent message throughout the firm’s existence: work shouldn’t suck. To us, this means a lot more than those three little words might suggest. It means employees’ rights should be protected and their interests should be considered. It means employers should treat their employees with respect and integrity every day. And it means everyone in the office should be appreciated for their hard work.
As a firm that helps members of our community when employers violate the law in their employment practices, we are painfully aware that not every employer shares our firm’s values. What did surprise us, however, was how common it is for law firms in particular to underpay their clerks and interns- or not pay them at all. Unlike other entry-level positions, law firms typically hire law students for these positions, meaning they are hiring individuals with Bachelor’s degrees and career experience at pay rates that simply are not competitive with other markets. According to PayScale, the average hourly rate for legal interns is just $15, meaning many interns make less and could be living in areas with high standards of living. This is, of course, assuming interns are being paid at all.
Unpaid internships are common at many firms, and particularly so in the public interest area, where it has become the norm for those seeking public interest positions to work for free. Over the years, it has remained a consistent practice for many law firms to not pay their legal interns. Partially to blame are the lax regulations and inconsistent case law. The Department of Labor uses a multi-factor test to determine whether interns are employees under the FLSA, thereby entitling them to being paid the minimum wage. This test turns on the unique circumstances of each case, though, making uniformity difficult.
Undeniably, the prevalence of unpaid internships has a deterrence effect, where law students from under-privileged backgrounds or with considerable student loan debt will feel it the hardest. If students cannot afford to take unpaid positions, they may leave the practice of law altogether or feel forced to pursue higher-paying areas of law when other areas are in need of passionate attorneys.
From Day 1, Forester Haynie has understood the value its law clerks, interns, and paralegals bring to the firm. In many ways, our interns are the backbone of our organization, working behind the scenes to better the community and seek justice. Paying our interns, and providing them with the skills and insight they will need when pursuing their own careers, is just one way we show our appreciation for these critical members of our firm. We strive every day to help those in our community who have suffered at the hand of their employers, so we understand that ensuring work doesn’t suck means starting with us.