The Lowdown on Finding Unpaid/Paid Internship Opportunities for Law Students

It’s a tough time for students seeking real-world experience through internship opportunities. Due to U.S. labor laws, it’s become too much of a liability for organizations to take on a student intern without paying them. A string of lawsuits over the past few years sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry, albeit some of the complaints were warranted due to the mundane tasks with little-to-no educational value that students were being asked to handle. We’re looking at you, Black Swan team. As an undergraduate student interning with Sony Music in Nashville, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience and never once was asked to grab coffee.
A recent post on Reddit’s law school subreddit is serving as the inspiration for this blog post. It’s increasingly becoming harder to find opportunities to work for free in exchange for the experience. It’s just too much liability for most companies. I strongly believe in paying interns for their work, but that’s just my opinion. I’ve put together a list of option in an effort to help students looking for ways to still find practical experience while in law school.

#1 – Talk to your school’s administration

If you find an internship that’s unpaid and have to get school credit, it can be expensive taking on additional student loan debt for a summer “externship” course. Start by talking to your school about taking on a summer internship that’s unpaid and working the credit into your fall or spring semester. Doing this helps to defer the cost to credits you’d already be paying for and allows them to count towards a semester minimum or graduation requirement. If your school won’t allow this, I’d strongly challenge them on it because most law school’s look to avoid appearing as though they are trying to take financial advantage of their students. Another angle to approach the situation is that this internship opportunity could lead to a job after graduation. Appeal to the school’s desire, or at least the career services office, to have high employment rates after graduation and they’ll certainly be more open to working with you on scheduling.

#2 – Seek smaller firm & organization opportunities

I recommend students try starting with smaller local law firms. I found a lot of my law school friends were finding paid, typically it was minimum wage to $10 an hour, opportunities with smaller organizations. During the summer of my 2L, I applied to and got hired by a law firm that posted on my school’s Symplicity system and it was a paid opportunity. I find that smaller firms and local companies seem to have more flexibility than larger firms or national companies. Local companies might be ones also willing to let you work for free and not worry so much (or even know) about the labor laws. Either way, check out local firms and companies because they often are in desperate need of legal help and you can tailor your internship pitch to meet those needs, rather than coming across as a drain on their time with training.

#3 – Don’t discount government & non-profit work

The Department of Labor created exceptions to unpaid intern rules for government entities and non-profit organizations. I worked for free at the Tennessee Office of the Attorney General when I was in law school. My school actually had a program setup that gave school credit as part of a semester-long course. Since the AG’s office is a government organization, they were an exception to the labor laws. The same was also true for my internship with the local volunteer lawyers for the arts organization. Government and non-profit organizations are wonderful resources for gaining valuable experience as a law student. Even if you don’t plan to practice in the government sector or work with non-profits, you’ll likely encounter or interact with them throughout your future professional life. It’s beneficial in your career search and interviews to be a well-rounded student with a variety of internship experiences that diversify your work perspective.

Resources for Finding Internships

Do you have any other tips or ideas to share on obtaining internship opportunities as a law student? Or, do you have any questions? Share them in the comments!