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July 20

07/20/2010

“Summers free now has new meaning for law students”

By: Arielle Kass

Law students continue to face difficulty in their quest to find employment in their field while still in school unless they’re willing to work for free, Northeast Ohio law schools are reporting.

Local law schools said employers sometimes are reluctant to pay summer associates and instead are seeking unpaid interns, with some employers favoring students earlier in their law school careers in the belief that they will be less likely to expect a job in the near future.

Barbara Weinzierl director of the office of career planning for the University of Akron School of Law, said she has had “a couple” potential employers call, saying they would love to hire an Akron law student, but that it wasn’t in their budgets to do so.  Ms. Weinzierl said as wonderful an experience as working for those firms or companies might be, she was not advertising the unpaid positions, which she thought might be in violation of wage and hour laws.

“I don’t feel comfortable advertising something that might be under scrutiny from the Department of Labor,” Ms. Weinzierl said.  “That’s not to say that it’s not going on out there.”

Indeed, Ms. Weinzierl said the requests for unpaid labor have risen not just at Akron, but among her colleagues around the country.

Many employers are not aware of the potential illegality of what they’re proposing, Ms. Weinzierl said, and one has come back to revise a job so that it offered minimum wage. But Ms. Weinzierl said she expects some students may be taking advantage of connections to take work even if it doesn’t pay.

“Our students are anxious to get experience,” she said.  “Some, where it’s financially feasible for them to do such a thing, may.”

Jennifer Blaga, director of career planning at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University, also said she’s seeing more unpaid internships offered.

The Department of Labor outlines six criteria that are required in order for an internship to qualify as unpaid.  They include intern training that would be similar to an educational environment and a conclusion that the employer does not immediately benefit from an intern’s work and may be impeded by it, as in cases where an intern requires instruction that takes up time other employees would be spending on work.

Ms. Blaga said she brings up those criteria with students, who in turn are discussing them with potential supervisors.  In addition to the three law firms Ms. Blaga said had inquired about Cleveland-Marshall students’ interest in unpaid internships, she has heard that some companies are looking for law students on an uncompensated basis.

“It’s a pretty hot issue,” she said.  “Students are taking anything they can get.”

“Some are bartending or working other part-time jobs so they can afford to get the unpaid law experience that will help build their resumes, Ms. Blaga said.

“A large and increasing number of students are able and willing to work for free.”

Opportunity Knocks

Steven Larson, a second-year law student at Cleveland-Marshall, said he participated in a six week unpaid program at the Reminger Co. law firm, along with one other student.  The firm also is hosting two more students in a second six-week session and had a third split his time between the first and second six-week session.

Mr. Larson said his work at Reminger allowed him to “dip my toes in the water a little bit and see how a law firm really operates.” He spent much of his time shadowing attorneys and seeing what paid law clerks do, writing motions and memoranda.   He said he also was able to assist with research projects and to help prepare presentations.

 “I’m grateful for the opportunity to have this experience,” he said.  “In this market, there’s really nothing available.”

Bethanie Ricketts, a Reminger associate who runs the firm’s law clerk program, said the firm couldn’t bill clients for anything done by the summer interns.  Instead, the incentive was to provide opportunities to students who might not otherwise see the inside of a law firm.

“Financially, there really was no benefit to us at all,” she said.  “It’s a way to give back to the legal community a little bit and hopefully help them out with their next job.  So many people are just looking for something.”

‘Everything’s tougher’

Kelli Curtis, assistant dean for career services at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, said in an e-mailed statement that the school “supports students who secure unpaid opportunities by offering a variety of summer fellowships.”  Many she listed are focused on specific work, such as fellowships for human rights or environmental law.

Ms. Curtis wrote that CWRU’s first and second-year students “have been successful in securing summer employment” and the school’s employment rates have been consistent with past years.  She said the career services office “is working hard to help students and graduates navigate today’s legal hiring landscape.”

As for those students who are closer to graduation, Cleveland-Marshall’s Ms. Blaga said she has seen some “hesitation” from employers looking to hire law clerks because they are “cautious about (the students’) expectations.”

Copyright: Crain's Business Communications.

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