The Indiana Legal Services office in Bloomington has three kinds of student workers — those who are receiving academic credit, those who are receiving financial support and those who are volunteering.
Most of the externships offered at the agency are primarily filled by law students who are either getting paid through their university’s work study program or getting class credit. Under the supervision of an attorney, the externs gain a wealth of practical experience through interviewing clients, doing legal research, drafting documents and helping to prepare for a trial or administrative hearing.
The help the law students provide is significant.
“Overall the law student program has, I think, dramatically increased our ability to serve our client population,” said Jamie Andree, managing attorney. “I can’t even imagine this office without it.”
The possibility of paying the externs is a moot point. Andree said the agency does not have the budget.
That reality has the deans of some Indiana law schools questioning how much of an impact a recent change in the American Bar Association’s education standards removing the prohibition against law students receiving academic credit for a paid externship will actually have.
Indiana University Maurer School of Law and Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law do not expect the new standard to cause a sea change in legal education because the many nonprofit and government agencies that offer externships to law students do not have the resources to also offer them a paycheck.
They are, nevertheless, planning to take a closer look and get students’ input before making any decision about externships. The ABA decision permits law schools to lift the barrier between pay and credit; it does not mandate that law schools do so.
The deans mainly are concerned the externships, whether paid or not, give students a good educational experience in the legal profession. Assuming an organization is willing to pay, IU Maurer Dean Austen Parrish said the academic requirements would still have to be met.
Students would have to handle work that expands their skills and understanding of the law, he said. Spending a semester making photocopies would not fulfill those criteria.
The ABA House of Delegates approved the resolution that updated the standards and rules for experiential learning activities such as law clinics and field placements during the organization’s annual meeting in August. Among the changes was the removal of Interpretation 305-2 that barred compensation for credit-earning externships.
A report from the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar notes the House of Delegates recommended eliminating the pay/credit barrier in August 2014. House members maintained removing the prohibition would benefit law students by increasing the number of out-of-class learning opportunities and giving them the chance to pay down their debt with their externship paychecks.
In taking a wait-and-see approach, some law schools are reflecting a concern that the rule change could weaken the educational component of the externship.
As IU McKinney Dean Andrew Klein and Vice Dean Antony Page both explained, with an unpaid externship, everybody understands the primary purpose is education. Adding money into the mix could dilute the intent by shifting the focus from giving the students work that will provide the best learning opportunity to assigning tasks that will provide the agency or organization with the maximum benefit.
Molly Crow, a 2016 IU Maurer graduate, worked in multiple externships during her three years of law school. She started her legal studies right after completing her undergraduate degree with the goal of becoming an attorney in the public interest sector.
If she had had the choice, Crow believes she likely would have still taken the unpaid externships in the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office and the Marion County Public Defender Agency because of the experience they provided. But she conceded that getting some money while also getting credit would have eased some of her financial burden.
“I think as a full-time student for seven years, any amount of income would have made some sort of difference,” said Crow, who is now working for the Marion County Public Defender Agency.
Pressure to change
Klein acknowledged the pressure to allow for paid externships could increase if other law schools make the shift. Certainly law students pushed the ABA to lift the ban so they might persuade their schools to change the curriculum.
Inge Van der Cruysse, IU Maurer director of externships and judicial clerkships, emphasized law school must make sure that removing the barrier between pay and credit does not negatively impact the students. For example, she speculated that some places offering paid externships could stop since the students will be enticed to work there anyway because they will earn class credit.
Market forces might come into play as well.
The Bloomington ILS office does offer paid externships in the low-income taxpayer clinic, which serves clients around the state. A matching grant from the Internal Revenue Service enables the agency to pay two or three law students to work in the clinic in the summer and during the school year.
These clinic students do not earn academic credit. However, Andree said, they get a “great learning experience” by, among other things, being able to represent clients before the IRS.
Most important to the clinic, it is able to attract law students who are fluent in Spanish. The clinic is obligated by the IRS to do outreach and provide education on tax issues to the general public including non-English-speaking residents.
Andree sees the pay as key to attracting a steady supply of Spanish-speaking students. Moreover, the clinic saves money, she said, because getting law students fluent in the foreign language is “much cheaper” than hiring a tax professional who speaks Spanish.
From January through June of this year, the taxpayer clinic paid two externs a total of $8,296.
However, permitting students to earn academic credit while getting paid for working at businesses and nonprofits could change the dynamic for ILS, Andree said. In particular, filling positions in the summer months could be more difficult as students might be likelier to work at externships where they get a paycheck along with the credit hours.
Parrish is unsure how much getting an hourly wage could influence students when they are applying for externships. The experience offered by some opportunities, like working for judges, he said, might trump another position that pays.
Crow was not deterred by compensation. She did not apply for a summer associate’s position at a law firm because she wanted to work in the public sector helping the disadvantaged. Living at home saved her some money and a small scholarship from the Public Interest Law Foundation covered some of her expenses during her summer externships.
The time she spent in the prosecutor’s and public defender’s offices taught her about the criminal justice system from the different sides. In describing how she benefitted from the externships, Crow highlighted the value that can come outside the classroom.
“I gained a ton of real-life experience that I didn’t get from law school,” she said.•