This past fall semester, I burned myself out. I took 17 credits at New York Law School, which included a clinic where I put long hours into client interaction; working two days a week as an unpaid intern at a federal agency; and working two to three days a week with a solo practitioner to earn some pay – in addition to my co-curricular activities and school events.
I didn’t particularly have a passion about the practioner’s field of the law, but it helped with the exorbitant cost of living associated with going to law school in a city – the rent, the groceries, the everyday costs – and it allowed me to garner hands on experience in a law office setting. Between my clinic, my unpaid internship, and paid job, I worked over 50 hours a week – and I was still considered a full-time student. It was unsustainable.
I’ve since realized I’m not alone. Current law students are under extreme stress. They juggle more balls than they can keep in the air, with hopes of graduating without crushing debt, and if they’re lucky, with a job. One study reported that 96% of law students say they have experienced extreme stress; and 40% of third-year law students say they experience depression.
There isn’t data to back this up, but for one factor in this mental health equation, I’d point to the fact that under current ABA policy, law students cannot be compensated for work they do for school credit. So paid externships are out.
This rule is called Interpretation 305-2. Interpretation 305-2 has also been called the “pay-credit ban.”
The ABA has had an internal (albeit sometimes public) debate on this issue for some time. The ABA’s Law Student Division asked in late 2013 for the interpretation to be repealed. The division argued that the interpretation imposed a financial burden on students. The then-chair of the division wrote that, “the education system, on principle, should make an effort to ease the burden of juggling survival with expensive schooling.”
Conversely, the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA) and the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) – two groups made largely of clinical faculty – have long argued that dropping the pay ban would dramatically change and degrade the externship or academic experience. They have argued that “a small paycheck will not do much to defray the high debt load most students must absorb to become lawyers.”
I have to disagree with those that argue this point. Taking a step back to where I was last semester, something had to give – and it was my paid internship. I couldn’t give up my clinic because of the knowledge and direct client interaction I was gaining from it. I couldn’t leave the governmental agency, because that’s where I would like to return after my yearlong federal clerkship ends.
So that left the paid internship. Leaving the internship cost me an additional $10,000 in student loans as the position was directly offsetting my rent cost in New York City. The internship provided all of the bells and whistles that are required of externships for academic credit – direct oversight, substantive work, opportunities for feedback and improvement, and so on.
The elimination of the pay-credit ban is a short-term fix that law students can directly benefit from.
Luckily for students to come, though, there may be an opportunity. The Standards Review Committee (SRC) voted in February to remove Interpretation 305-2, the rule that banned these compensated externships. The SRC further recommended that Standard 305 – which Interpretation 305-2 is housed under – be moved to Standard 304, to allow for greater faculty to student oversight. SRC’s recommendation came to the Council of the Section of Legal Education on Friday, and the council agreed that the rule should be eliminated.
The council has actively worked towards improving the lives of law students and more specifically has worked to minimize student debt. This recommendation to eliminate the rule now goes to the policymaking body of the ABA, the House of Delegates. And as long as the House approves it in August at the annual meeting, the pay-credit ban will be eliminated.
The Law Student Division will be ready to carry this fight over the finish line in August at the Annual Meeting. Even if only a few law students will be earning a rent check or money for groceries, at least law school might be a little less stressful.