Unpaid Internships: A Garbage and Discriminatory Legal Practice

Do you want to know the best-kept secret in the legal community? Unpaid internships. In my last blog post, I mentioned that I had four unpaid internships in law school. I received several stunned responses from friends outside the legal community, specifically those in business school. I thought it was common knowledge that many law student internships are unpaid. Spoiler alert: it’s not.

For those outside the legal community, here are two important things you should know. One, it is very common for law students to work full-time, unpaid internships during the summer and school year. Two, law students are not likely to receive employment after law school without internship experience creating a culture where we are dependent on unpaid internships.

This is a problem for two reasons. First, unpaid internships are bad. Okay, bad is not really the best word to use but it’s the best blanket phrase I could muster. Second, this bad practice will continue unless the stigma around unpaid internships is changed, which requires public knowledge and outrage. Ida B. Wells once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” So, I’m grabbing an industrial-sized spotlight and shining it all over this phenomenon.

Unpaid Internships are Discriminatory

The law student population is changing. It’s no longer a scene from Paper Chase where old, crotchety, white men teach young, wealthy white men. Law students are increasingly becoming less white, less male, and less wealthy. In a survey by the Indiana Center for Postsecondary Research, 27% of law school respondents met the definition of “first-generation college student”. 

The majority of those students identified as Hispanic, Black, or Asian. Women are also changing the status quo, making up the majority of law students for the first time in history in the United States. While this is all fantastic news, law student debt is also on the rise. In 2014, 86% of law students reported accumulating student loan debt prior to or during law school, with 93% of first-generation law students acquiring student loan debt. I could write an entire book on these trends, but the basic premise you need to understand is law students are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, increasingly female, and are typically in debt and unable to rely on their parents for extra funding.

This isn’t a mystery. Employers know this, law schools know this, so why on Earth are the majority of law student internships unpaid when students can’t afford it? I did a very unofficial survey of my law student friends. Out of 100 responses, 94% of students had an unpaid internship in law school. The majority of those students had two unpaid internships throughout law school with some having up to six. For a profession that lauds its logical abilities, this is disgraceful. The majority of our law school population is in debt and employers are expecting us to work, typically full-time, for free. Furthermore, the majority of those students in debt, and therefore likely unable to work for no pay, are students of color meaning employers are more willing to spend money advertising their diverse workplaces than employing (and paying) diverse workers. 

Why Are Law Schools Picking up the Financial Burden?

In an effort to counteract the negative effects of unpaid internships, many law schools have started providing stipends for students interning in the public sector. On the surface, that is great and shows these schools are committed to helping students make public interest work feasible. For example, my alma mater provides a $3,500 stipend for students working qualified public interest internships over the summer. But, why are we depending on law schools to use their own funding when employers should be reallocating their funds? Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful schools do this as many individuals couldn’t work for a public defender, judge, non-profit, or prosecutor’s office without this money. However, the stipends usually do not cover enough of student’s expenses to make living economically feasible. 54% of the respondents in my survey stated their internship stipend covered over half their living expenses but they still had to rely on other sources for financial assistance. At least 29% of the respondents claimed their stipend wasn’t enough to cover 50% of their expenses.

Employers are dependent on law schools to pick up their slack. What is their incentive to pay their interns when they know law schools will do so? In order to hold employers accountable, both law students and schools need to pressure them to reallocate their funds. I guarantee many employers could at least supplement law student stipends creating a combined, livable income for students. At the bare minimum, employers should pay for students travel and parking expenses. Many of those surveyed detailed how they were basically paying to be an intern because of all the extra spending associated with interning in a larger city.

Internships are Great… but Pay Me!

I want to make this clear, I’m not bashing the idea of an internship. I greatly valued my many unpaid internships and I would not be working where I am today without them. Internships are a fantastic way to receive relevant experience in a field of interest, network with potential future employers, and learn the ropes from professionals. That being said, these experiences must be paid. Without law student interns, employers would be paying an employee to do this work. Nothing I worked on in any of my internships was menial errand running. I was writing briefs for federal court, writing reports, attending meetings on behalf of my supervisors, and working with clients. It’s criminal to rely on an unpaid, dependent workforce to do the work of attorneys and law clerks. Additionally, employers are losing out on students by not paying them. In my survey, 29% of respondents turned down an internship because it was not paid.

When I was looking at several of my survey responses, students wrote they were upset to not be paid by their internship but this is a reality we must accept in order to get the experience we need. That is how brainwashed we are! We accept, nay defend, this practice of working for no pay. This has become the status quo that we grumble about over lunch and cry to our parents about but ultimately have adopted as the norm. Please internalize this: if workplaces valued us, they would pay us. Any employer who claims they cannot pay you needs to reallocate their budget or provide other forms of financial assistance to their interns. Internships ARE work and you would never expect to work at a restaurant, in retail, or any other job for free.

Lastly, you make still be shaking your head at this article thinking "it's one summer... can't you just save up your money and get over it?" The answer to that is probably not. Students are not given loans during the summer, meaning we cannot depend on that type of financial assistance. Many students are young and fresh out of college with minimal savings while the others have families and children to support. Imagine going 3-4 months without any funds coming in yet working 40+ hours a week while spending money to take the Metro to work or park at your office and potentially paying 2 rents if you find an internship in a different city. That is the reality for law students nationwide every summer. 

Law students, professors, and administrators; consider this your rallying cry! Organizations must be pressured into paying their interns to curb this discriminatory and immoral practice. You can help make this a reality in several ways. First, write an article or an op-ed about this to help create public awareness about this issue. Second, let’s get some academic studies done! Researching for this blog post was nearly impossible because there is almost no academic research on unpaid law student interns. Third, put the pressure on employers. Talk about it with your supervisor, write about it in your evaluation, or create some public awareness among friends and family. Let employers know this practice should not stand.

If you’re looking for some help on how to do this, check out Pay Our Interns. They are a great organization of former Hill interns that worked to allocate funds to pay Congressional interns.

This post has been brought to you by the Ms. JD Journalists. If you have suggestions for any topics that you think should be covered on Ms. JD, feel free to email your suggestions to and the Ms. JD Journalists will get right on it.



You’re right, employers can afford to pay at least minimum wage to an intern. But they don’t because they have a never-ending supply of law grads who are desperate to work. It’s a highly saturated job market. Did you know that some of these unpaid internships won’t even write letters of reference?

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