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A case for paid externships

Paid Externship

With the American Bar Association’s ban on paid externships officially lifted, each law school in the country is faced with an impending decision. The passage of Resolution 100, which gives individual law school’s the ability to allow students to receive pay for academic externships, is a monumental achievement for law students that has been several years in the making.

But as great as that achievement has been, the fight for implementation of this policy is nowhere near over. The burden now shifts to each individual institution to decide whether or not to implement some or all of the ABA’s recommendations, and to allow their students to receive pay for the unpaid work that they currently do.

This policy is not just about money. It’s not just about learning or supervision or experience. This policy is about improving the lives of every single law student in this country and helping to make their day to day lives just a little bit easier.

Every law student goes to law school in order to get a degree and prepare for practice. But at this moment, we have the unique opportunity to change the way that law school works. To beneficially change the entire landscape of legal education for future students.

In analyzing the issue over the last several months, I have compiled 5 main points for consideration.

FINANCIAL IMPACT: Allowing paid externships does not have a negative financial impact on law schools. Under a new policy, students still pay for their externship credits just as they did before. The only difference is that students would be able to simultaneously get paid for the work that they are doing. Instead of paying to work for free, they are able to get paid in exchange for credits that they are already paying for.

PRACTICAL TRAINING: Paid opportunities at for profit firms can offer the same hands on experience and supervision as the government, non-profit, and clinical organizations currently eligible to host students for experiential learning credits. Private law firms offer a multitude of diverse practice areas and opportunities for students to learn and develop practical skills under the supervision of experienced attorneys.

MITIGATING EXPENSES: With rising law school costs and decreased returns on educational investments for law students, paid externships are a viable way to allow students to mitigate the costs associated with a legal education. Many students are already drowning in debt. At a time when law schools continue to raise tuition in order to keep up with inflation and decreased enrollment, students must look at other ways to mitigate the increases costs.

WIDENING THE NET: Allowing paid externships at for profit organizations can enrich the educational experience and expand future employment opportunities and outlooks for students. By expanding the amount of firms and organizations that are available to students, opportunities for post-graduate employment can greatly expand.

AN EMPHASIS ON MENTAL HEALTH: The ABA has a continued focus on the mental well being of our profession. The reality is that the mental health statistics associated with law school and the legal profession are startling. Research undertaken by the Dave Nee Foundation reports that depression among law students is 8-9% prior to matriculation, 27% after one semester, 34% after 2 semesters, and 40% after 3 years. Financial problems are one of the leading causes of stress among law students. Allowing opportunities for students to earn extra money through a paid externship can put a significant dent in the large and cumbersome financial burdens that many of our students experience. Decreasing that day to day financial burden could have a significant impact on the overall mental health of the nation’s law students.

Truly understanding this issue requires the groups who will ultimately make these decisions to become intimately familiar with the day to day realities of their students. Law school is notoriously difficult. And students know that going in. But the “difficulty” of a legal education is no justification to ignore policy that would improve students mental and financial well being. Improving these things is a must.

It will be a long road to implementation, and one that will require students to work respectfully and collaboratively with their own administrations. It will also require students to speak candidly about their experiences and the issues that they face in their day to day lives. It’s difficult. But I am confident that it can be done.

Proper implementation of this policy has the ability to improve the lives of law students for generations to come.

And that is something worth fighting for.

Chris Morgan Chris Morgan is a 3L at the Gonzaga University School of Law and Governor of the Law Student Division’s 12th Circuit. Chris has published editorials on civic engagement and public policy for some of the Northwest’s largest newspapers including The Oregonian, The Columbian, The Spokesman Review, and the Portland Tribune.