New York Firms May Bill for Work of Unpaid Interns
A recent opinion issued by the Committee on Professional Ethics of the New York State Bar Association ruled that law firms may bill clients for the work of unpaid interns. Specifically, law firms are free to bill for work executed by unpaid interns, who receive academic credit in lieu of pay, so long as:
- The internship program complies with applicable law,
- The intern’s school does not object to the firm charging for the work, and
- The charge is neither excessive nor illegal.
In response to the opinion, several organizations wrote an open letter, printed in the New York Law Journal, criticizing the decision as “fundamentally flawed.” Among the letter’s signatories are the CUNY Law School, the CUNY Labor Coalition, the NYU Black Allied Law Students Association, the NYU Latino Law Students Association, and the National Employment Law Project. In the letter, the signatories ask the ethics committee to reconsider its decision because the opinion “fails to consider the circumstances of most unpaid legal internships and the important moral questions they raise.”
The letter also challenges the assumption that unpaid internships at private firms comply with the applicable labor laws. The organizations contend that when a law firm charges for an intern’s free labor, they implicitly derive a substantial and economic benefit that cannot be offset by the academic credit that the interns receive, and they therefore may be entitled to pay.