If the opportunity is right, unpaid legal internships can be worth the time and effort. There is no denying that law school is expensive and working for no pay seems like some sort of injustice, but don’t rule out taking an unpaid internship position during law school. Remember that you are going to law school looking for a career, not a short-term paycheck. The right unpaid internship can pay plenty of long-term dividends, maybe even outpacing that well-paying summer associate position. Here are a few good reasons to take an unpaid internship.
1. Get Experience in your Desired Area of Practice
If you are looking to enter a specific area of the law or type of practice, sometimes an unpaid internship is the right route to get your foot in the door. Getting hands-on experience with the law in your area of interest and meeting lawyers in the field is truly invaluable. Obviously a paycheck is nice, but in terms of value to a law student, experience is a close second. Everything you do during law school writes the story you will have to sell to employers after you graduate, so make sure your experiences will open the doors you will later want to open. (For tips on how to be successful once you get started at your internship, listen to Law School Toolbox Podcast Episode 66: Tips for a Successful Law School Internship or Externship.)
2. Develop your Resume and a Quality Writing Sample
One unpaid internship does not mean you will always be unpaid. If you are intentional about getting the most out of your internship experience, you can both develop your resume and produce a quality real-world writing sample. Academic credentials, law school extracurriculars, and a 1L LRW memo writing sample will only take you so far as you apply for advanced internships, summer associate positions, and clerkships as you progress through law school. Even if working for free seems to be too high of a price to pay, if you gain a resume line and standout writing sample that will wow future interviewers, it could well be worth the unpaid effort.
3. Build a Strong Network
Unpaid internships can be like networking for dummies. For all of those that hate networking in the traditional sense, an unpaid internship can be a pain-free way to build enduring relationships with established practitioners. Many who disdain the networking happy hour just wish their work could speak for itself. An unpaid internship is that chance to let your professionalism and work product speak for you. If you do good work, are not a pain to have in the office, and make your supervisor’s day a bit easier—and you do it all for free—you will be appreciated and, by the end of your internship, you will have a line of lawyers invested in your success and eager to give you tips, write you recommendations, and maybe even hire you on. (For ways to amplify your network building, read Networking Strategies for a New World.)
4. Avoid Some of the Competition
If another position falls through or you just have not had any luck finding an internship or clerkship, an unpaid internship will often be a less competitive option. Also, if you are late in the game, a less formal internship program may have no deadlines to worry about missing. In some cases, they may want you to start tomorrow. Outside of a formal for-pay internship or summer associate program, you remove many of your barriers to entry. You can even be proactive and seek out an internship position where you want to be rather than where there is a posted position. Asking for a position with no paycheck attached indicates that you are genuinely interested in the work of the lawyer you approach and that you are willing to work. Not all unpaid options are uncompetitive, but you make it much easier for a lawyer or organization to say “yes” by offering your services for free.
5. Maintain a Flexible Schedule
If you are juggling multiple responsibilities, unpaid internships might offer much needed scheduling flexibility. If you are trying to intern while taking courses or law school extracurriculars have you tied to campus, it may be a good semester to have a less formal internship. If an unpaid internship is financially undoable, pairing your flexible internship with a paying teaching or research assistant position could be a possibility to help you both gain great experience and pay the rent. For those trying to build a legal resume, hustling between more than one legal position at the same time is one way to build experience and open doors quickly. Because you are not pulling a paycheck, you will be in a better position to customize your schedule to optimize your time.
Law school may seem long, but it will be over before you know it. Keep your long-term goals in mind when making decisions about your experiences beyond the classroom during law school. An unpaid position may seem radical, but if the opportunity is right, don’t be afraid to take that great internship!
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None of these reasons preclude being paid. A paid internship can still enable an intern to accrue working experience, develop a strong résumé/CV and a legal writing sample, and build a strong network of contacts and references, and avoid competition. Indeed, ensuring that *all* law school student internships, not to mention undergraduate student internships, are paid would likely eliminate most of the aforementioned competition.
A “flexible” working schedule does not mean an internship does not have to be paid, either. “Gig economy” workers are paid, albeit at very low rates with little or no job security.
We are not suggesting that students should take an unpaid internship over a paid internship, but the reality is that some law student internships are unpaid, especially as a 1L, and we are explaining the other benefits that students can gain from working aside from being paid. This doesn’t say that paid internships can’t have some of the same benefits, but this post is about unpaid internships.