In today’s soft legal services market, some aspiring members of the profession feel pressure to work for free, but the fairness of such arrangements in general has come under scrutiny.  In a twist (and just in time for the summer crop of interns), the New York State Bar Association earlier this month said that law firms can bill clients for services provided by unpaid legal interns, as long as the amount is not excessive, and the internship program complies with applicable law.  If charged to clients as an expense, the law firm can build in its overhead costs, such as for supervising the intern, the Committee on Professional Ethics said in its Opinion 1090.

U.S. DOL standards judicially rejected

Last summer, the Second Circuit refused to apply U.S. Department of Labor standards barring employers from deriving immediate economic advantage from unpaid interns, in favor of a non-exhaustive set of considerations that focus on what the intern receives in exchange for the work.  The ruling overturned the grant of class certification in a wage case against Fox Entertainment.  The Second Circuit also upheld a trial court denial of class certification in another intern wage case against Hearst Corp.

Many law schools place students with private-sector employers who do not pay them; but the interns do benefit in some cases by getting academic credit.  Whether and how clients can be billed for the work of such credit-earning interns was the subject of a law firm inquiry.

Billing intern work as fees vs. expenses

In response to the inquiry, the NYSBA ethics committee said that there was nothing in the state’s ethics rules that would prohibit a law firm from billing clients for the services of a law student-intern on either a fee basis or as an expense to the firm, even if the firm didn’t pay the intern or the law school.

The state’s version of Model Rule 1.5(b) mandates communicating to the client “the basis or rate of the fee and expenses,” and under Rule 1.5(a), as interpreted by previous opinions, neither the fee nor any expenses may be “excessive” — defined as one where a “reasonable lawyer would be left with a definite and firm conviction” that it is too much.  Nothing in the opinion appears to require the firm to inform the client that although the intern receives academic credit, the firm is not compensating the intern.

While the firm could bill the student’s work to the client as legal fees (by the hour or per task, for instance), the committee also approved the possibility of billing the work as an expense instead.  In that case, the committee said, “the lawyer may charge the client ‘either … an amount to which the client has agreed in advance or … an amount that reflects the cost incurred by the lawyer’ to sponsor the intern (e.g., the cost of supervising the intern).”

In other words, although the law firm does not have any direct costs in connection with using an unpaid intern, it does incur overhead costs, and may peg the expense value of the  intern’s work to include those costs to the firm.

ABA opinions on billing

The NYSBA’s opinion tracks the ABA’s 1993 opinion on billing issues.  There, the ABA ethics committee said that in the absence of disclosure, it is improper to mark up expenses such as taxis and meals charged to the client unless the lawyer herself has incurred additional expenses beyond the actual cost of the disbursement item.  Later, in 2000, the ABA’s committee expanded the same principles to cover the work of temporary or contract lawyers.  This most recent New York opinion continues the same line of reasoning to support using the lawyer’s overhead cost to value an unpaid intern’s work when it is charged to the client as an expense.

The social justice aspect of using unpaid interns is hotly debated; but at least in New York, lawyers and firms have some guidance about the rules of the road in billing clients.