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September 27, 2007

"You Ask...I Answer - Should I Hire Law Students?

This question has come from a gainfully employed lawyer who is looking to start his/her own practice soon so I will not disclose his/her name.  They write:

Hi Susan, 

You may have blogged about this in the past, but I was wondering what your thoughts are about using law students as part-time help (either paid or unpaid) for a solo practice?  Of course, it depends on the quality and commitment of the particular law student.  But, in general, do you think this could be an effective way to get help with cases (especially investigation, research, and document discovery) before one's practice has grown enough to be able to hire a full-time paralegal or associate?  Any thoughts and reactions would be very much appreciated.

This is a great question for many reaons.  First, from an experiential perspective for students, I would like to see more solos and small firms step up and look to these soon-to-be lawyers as a resource.  You develop a mentor/mentee relationship; the attorney can test their management skills and their ability to delegate work while still being responsible for the student's work product. 

If it is in the context of an actual externship program from a law school, the student will be committed to a certain number of hours and the attorney will be responsible to the school for providing enrichment to the student based upon the school's externship criteria.  There will be site visits by the supervisor and paperwork to complete.  The school works with the student as they are representing the law school within the community so they will be more involved with the student's success and, thusly, you benefit from their selection process.

One caveat, the law schools have a big public relations agenda, pro bono work.  What this means to the solo and small firm is they don't want their students working on billable hour work because they perceive they are providing 'slave labor' as the solo/small firm is profiting off their students.  In addition, they further believe this will not position their students for paying jobs in these firms upon graduation if the practitioners can get a steady stream of 'free' labor from the law school each semester.

However, I disagree with law schools on this point.  Solos seldom can afford to have someone around the office who is not producing work for paying clients.  This creates a catch-22.  You can look to these externship programs but have to delegate time and energy to students who are not permitted to work on those matters which generate income for you.  So, how likely are you to want to do this?

And if you are not likely to do this, the student who has a sincere interest in going solo or be able to work on a case from start to finish will not otherwise have a chance to see how a solo practice works unless you are willing to go outside the school externship program and pay the student for his/her time.  Given students are generally strapped for cash this could be a very good situation all around.  Imagine paying someone $15-$20 per hour which you can bill out for whatever is appropriate in your jurisdiction (there are some ethical rules on what you can bill out for time associated with a non-lawyer especially if you are suing for fees.)  You have no restrictions regarding the type of work they can perform and all the other benefits remain intact with one huge extra benefit, you can free up your more valuable time for more profitable work while still having your paying work done by another. 

There are many ways you can approach this. You have to decide which is the best business decision for you.  When you utilize an externship program check out your responsibilities regarding worker's compensation, etc. even though they are not paid employees. When you hire a student, even part time, employment (and unemployment) laws kick in.   You have to decide if you are ready to be an employer.

There is no free lunch whether you are paying for the law student or not.  I would also recommend you read some very thoughtful answers by fellow practitioners in these posts:  "I'm A Solo Growing By Leaps and Bounds...." and the follow up post here.

And for those who have had experiences utilizing students through externship programs or paying law students for their time as employees, I'm sure the writer of the question would love to hear other opinions.

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Comments

PT-LawMom

As a law student considering going solo after graduation (in immigration/labor & employment), I would love this kind of opportunity, especially for the exposure to the way a solo practice is run! You could put an ad in the school newspaper's help wanted ads or ask a local law student to spread the word.

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