Spiraling Economy Forces Law Students to Pay Firms for Internships

By: Charles Ronan

Since the summer of 2008, the legal industry has been in a state of upheaval.  The system has undergone change through the years, but it has also re

Some students, unable to make money through finding traditional jobs, have elected to become famous instead.

lied on many traditions despite changes in the economy.  However, it has been impacted so deeply by this downturn that law firms, industry-wide, have been looking to other business models or unique ideas, in an attempt to keep revenues high.  Some of these changes have included: dropping the billable hour model for more attractive bundled services, not charging clients for the work of first-year associates, and sending discovery work overseas.  Now, some local firms are looking to an unusual model for this year’s summer clerks: 1990’s Seattle clubs.

At this year’s spring OCI, students were surprised to hear they would be required to pay firms to work for them during the summer.  This change was based on the 1990’s Seattle practice called “pay to play.”  During the height of “Grunge” music, any band that played in a Seattle club was almost assured to get signed by a record company.  Since there were not enough bands to go around, bands were formed just to play live to get a contract.  The problem was you had to play the right club, a “real” grunge club.  Therefore, the clubs would charge—rather than pay—the bands.  As if they were providing a service.  This practice lasted for a long while, as did some of the terrible “grunge” bands—I am looking at you Nickelback.

Now, big law sees a chance to take advantage of a group that is desperate to sign a contract, any contract, just like the clubs did.  The difference is there are no firms lining up to sign these law students once they graduate.  The firms expect the students to pay the fees on a billable hour rate.  Basically, the way the fee schedule works is for every five clerks hired an associate’s pay will be covered.  So the clerks will be paying about $25 an hour to work at the firm.

So, what do you get for your $6,000 for the summer?  First, and most importantly, you get lots of firm swag.  A mug with the firm seal on it, a legal folio, a writing sample of your choice from one of the firm’s most prestigious cases, a key card from the firm’s offices that you can “accidently” pull out around your friends, and, of course, a flashy entry on your resume.  Do you think you will get a recommendation?  Not so fast.  Recommendations are a risk for these firms.  Not every clerk works out, so recommending you to someone else is a chance most firms do not want to take, at least not for free.

Once you start working for the firm, you receive a fee schedule for recommendations.  The schedule will be set up so that you can pick from words you want used on your recommendation, practice areas they will say you worked in, and partners you can choose to sign the recommendation.  For the most part, these firms are not actually giving any work to these “pay to play” students.  It is more like what would happen on the Sopranos when they would “work” at a job sight.  You go in and are sequestered away from the lawyers and clients.  Most of the clerk areas have big TVs and coffee.  Some even have windows.  However, most firms do require you to use the service door.

So, this raises the question: how many law students would do this?  The five NLJ 250 law firms I contacted downtown said, “PLENTY!”  These programs are so popular that smaller firms are starting to implement their own versions.  Did you spend too much time 1L year drunk in the Denny’s on Garnet at 2 a.m. waiting for a table and didn’t get good grades?  Do not worry.  Once you put that Big Law firm name on your resume your grades will fade into the background.  Are you trying to explain why you only took seminars your 2L and 3L years?  No problem.  It will look like a powerful statement when that partner personally calls the firm you are interviewing with—oh yes, they will do that for a fee as well.

So, it seems like there are some upsides, but who would pay that much to work?  Well $6,000 seems like a drop in the bucket when you look at your balance on your Great Lakes statement.  Also, that $6,000 could be paid off by the bump in your first salary due to your prestigious summer job.  So what is the down side?  These programs are catching on so fast in the first summer they are being implemented that they are already becoming competitive.  You need to be in the top 25 percent of the class to apply to some of them already.  By next summer, only the top 10 percent of the class may be able to pay to get an internship.

If you are interested in one of these programs, be sure to stop by Career Services today and insist they see you right away.  They may pretend they do not know what you are talking about, the school would rather send you to some lame government job, but don’t let them send you away.  Best thing to do if they will not provide the information you want is to raise your voice and stomp your feet.  Hurling some well-placed insults and using the phrase, “do you know who I am,” or “do you know who my dad is,” works well too.  Remember, this is your career and lawyers respect go-getters.

Happy April 1.

Disclaimer: This article is for comedic purposes only and is not to be taken seriously… at all.  It’s April Fool’s.  All names, places, happenstances, happenings, unhappenings, and all references to M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” are for the use of parody and did not actually happen.  No matter how much we wish they had.

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