No Money, Mo’ Problems: Why Unpaid Law Firm Internships are Illegal & Unethical

25 Pages Posted: 10 Dec 2012 Last revised: 15 Jan 2013

See all articles by Eric M. Fink

Eric M. Fink

Elon University School of Law

Date Written: January 15, 2013


Unpaid internships appear to be on the rise in law firms, as in other sectors of the economy. The practice of law firms offering unpaid internships in lieu of paid employment substantially harms law students and law school graduates, who face an increasingly tight market for paid legal employment.

This article argues that unpaid internships for law students in private firms are illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"). It further argues that illegally hiring law students as unpaid interns is conduct involving dishonesty and misrepresentation, and that lawyers who engage in this practice should be subject to discipline under the ethics rules of the legal profession.

While law students collectively have an interest in ending this illegal and exploitative practice, they have a disincentive against taking action themselves, lest they hurt their prospects in the already perilous postgraduate job market. To address this collective action problem, This article urges an institutional response.

First, the U.S. Department of Labor should exercise its authority under the FLSA to bring enforcement actions against employers whose use of unpaid interns violates the law. Second, state bar authorities should take disciplinary action against lawyers and firms whose practices regarding unpaid law student interns entail dishonesty and misrepresentation. In addition, this article concludes by suggesting that the American Bar Association should also help educate lawyers and law students about the problems with unpaid internships, and should discourage the practice through its law school approval standards.

Keywords: FLSA, internships, law students, law firms

Suggested Citation

Fink, Eric M., No Money, Mo’ Problems: Why Unpaid Law Firm Internships are Illegal & Unethical (January 15, 2013). University of San Francisco Law Review, Vol. 47, 2013, Available at SSRN:

Eric M. Fink (Contact Author)

Elon University School of Law ( email )

201 N. Greene Street
Greensboro, NC 27401
United States
336-279-9334 (Phone)

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