Onboarding an Intern for Your Law Firm: Dos and Don’ts

What to Do and What Not to Do with Legal Interns

One particular advantage of running your own law firm: You’ll never have a shortage of eager law school students offering to help out as legal interns. When you do it thoughtfully and correctly, onboarding an intern for your law firm is a win-win situation. You get access to fairly cheap labor for those menial tasks piling up in the office, and your intern gains valuable work experience that will help them move ahead with their career.

That said, you can benefit substantially by utilizing an intern in the right way, or you can squander the opportunity and even wind up with messes to clean up. Let’s look at some basic dos and don’ts when it comes to bringing on interns.

DO Offer Compensation

Let’s be clear: Legal interns are not “free labor.” They are in your office to learn, whether or not they are paid. If you treat them as employees without paying them, you could be in violation of the fair Labor Standards Act. Besides, these are law students, and they could use the money. (You know how much law school costs.) If you truly cannot afford to pay them minimum wage or higher, at least “compensate” them by offering college credit so they’re getting something for their efforts. If you do take unpaid interns, make sure your internships meet these seven tests as prescribed by the Department of Labor.

DON’T Be Vague About Expectations

Internship positions should have a clearly written job description, the same as any other position in your firm. Interns should come into the office knowing what duties they may be asked to perform. Otherwise, they will either stand around and do nothing or get in someone’s way.

DO Establish Clear Boundaries

In tandem with the previous point, make sure your interns know if there are any parts of the office they should avoid or if there are any jobs they should not do. Quite often, an overeager intern looking to prove their worth may take the initiative on something without knowing proper protocols, and they may cause more harm than good in the process. We all value people who “step up”; just make sure your interns know in advance if there’s a certain place they shouldn’t step.

DON’T Treat Interns as “Less Than”

Yes, interns are asked to do the stuff no one else in the office wants to do, and a little bit of “dues paying” is to be expected. However, that’s no excuse for anyone on your staff to deal with an intern in a demeaning manner. Not only is it wrong in general, but the interns who do well may one day be future colleagues, or even your adversaries in court. This business, like any other, is about relationships. Nurture good relations, even with your interns.

DO Help Them Learn

Finally, taking on an intern presents you with an opportunity to impart some knowledge and wisdom to up-and-coming lawyers, the same as others did for you when you were working your way up. You don’t have to become a mentor to all your interns unless you feel a particular kinship. Just make a little effort while they are with you to help them leave your firm a little better for the experience than when they arrived.

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