Pro Bono Volunteers And Internships: Turning Win-Win Into Win-Win-Win

by | Aug 22, 2013

Well-crafted pro bono projects and internships, when tailored to the needs of all involved parties, can be a winning proposition for law firms, clients, and job seekers.  Too often, however, poorly administered projects fuel a growing cynicism that firms are taking advantage of a tough job market to find unpaid assistance.  The firm and client enjoy reduced costs and billing while the job seeker muses that if he had wanted to make coffee, he should have kept working at Starbucks.

This backlash was highlighted in a recent case involving the movie “Black Swan,” the 2010 film starring Natalie Portman as a disturbed ballet dancer.  Two interns who had worked on the production of the film brought a suit alleging a violation of the minimum wage laws.  This summer, the judge agreed that they were effectively regular but unpaid employees.  The “educational benefits” of the internship were illusory and incidental, and the production company could not avoid paying the two interns merely by labeling them as such.  Employers who run internship programs, including law firms, are taking note.

Mark L. Hayes, a Durham, N.C. attorney who largely practices appellate law, recently took on his first pro bono volunteer.  Faced with a special hearing for an indigent client unlike any he had handled before, he anticipated the need for extra research and preparation.  Indigent client appointment rules, however, prohibited him from hiring a non-regular or contract employee.  Mr. Hayes then reached out to his alma mater to seek out a pro bono volunteer.  Casey Turner, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law ’13, agreed to volunteer her time to work as a legal assistant in the case while her bar admission application was still pending.

“Utilizing law students and pro bono volunteers is just another way to provide high quality legal representation while keeping costs down for clients who are cost-conscious, which these days seems to be about everyone,” Mr. Hayes explained.  “Every minute she is able to do work for which a license is not required is another minute of ‘attorney-time’ that I don’t have to bill the client.”

Mr. Hayes further explained how he was deliberate in making sure that the benefits of the project were not limited to his client and his firm.  “I started by asking myself two questions: first, is the volunteer going to get more than a line on her resume – that is, is she really going to learn anything?  Second, is she learning those skills only incidentally to the tasks I assign, or am I actually crafting the experience with her education in mind?”  Mr. Hayes described internships where the answer to either question was “no” as “wasteful at best and exploitative at worst.”

In order to make a project or internship truly educational, Mr. Hayes recommended that internship supervisors think about common advice for writing a resume and working backward from there.  Job seekers are told to use action verbs and include tangible results, so his assignments have focused on creating a diverse list of experiences with defined end points.  “Performed legal research” is generic and undefined, while “prepared subpoenas for service and organized the resulting discovery” is vivid and tangible.

Mr. Hayes also provided Ms. Turner with names of attorneys she could seek out as part of her assignments, with instructions to “use the baby lawyer card.”  Rather than simply researching an issue, the intern can gain a broader understanding of the topic by talking to a practitioner.  Experienced lawyers are generous with their time when faced with a newly or nearly licensed attorney.  This tactic also broadens the intern’s network for a future job search.

The hearing toward which Mr. Hayes and Ms. Turner were working was scheduled for the end of August, right about the time Ms. Turner’s bar application was expected to be processed and returned.  “With any luck, Ms. Turner will be able to take a seat at the table [in the courtroom] when the hearing is held,” Mr. Hayes said.  “That would really complete the experience for her.”

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