Law Students Demand Credit for Paid Work

Law schools will have to meet a new set of standards to receive the American Bar Association’s approval, marking the first change to accreditation requirements in more than a decade. At the ABA’s annual meeting on Monday, the group approved reforms that would allow law students to work more hours and evaluate schools on students’ success after graduating, not just the types of students they admit. But students had lobbied for one change they didn’t get: academic credit for paid externships.

Students argued at the meeting that getting a paycheck shouldn’t discount the work they do outside the classroom. “By maintaining the rule you’re artificially reducing the amount of compensation students can earn in law school, and thus law students are graduating with more debt than they could be,” says Joseph Zeidner, who represented law students to the ABA. “It is patently unfair for law students to have to choose between receiving class credit and being able to pay rent.”

Some in the ABA disagreed. “Many of the folks that supervise these programs in law schools expressed their opinion to the council that the line between pay and credit should be maintained, just because it’s a different thing to be under someone’s supervision as their employee and to be under supervision as an intern,” says Barry Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education at the ABA. Currier says learning happens on the job, but “not necessarily in an organized, coherent way.”

The ban on academic credit for paid work was left untouched, though ABA delegates asked the committee that proposed new standards to reconsider the measure. The association updated other standards, including getting rid of a provision that limited students to 20 hours of paid work per week while attending school, and allowing students to earn 15 credit hours from online courses, up from 12.

The ABA also added more stringent assessment requirements for schools (PDF). The Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which proposed the reforms, may now evaluate schools based on whether graduates pass the bar exam and get jobs. The section is the government-recognized accrediting agency for law schools and has given its blessing to more than 200 institutions in the U.S., according to the ABA Journal.

Job conditions for law school graduates are bleak, and legal experts have started to question the value of a law degree. As Bloomberg Businessweek’s Dimitra Kessenides reported in June, the employment rate for law grads continued its six-year slump in 2013, down to about 85 percent from a high of almost 92 percent in 2007. Only 64 percent of recent graduates had jobs that required them to pass the bar.

Law students amass more debt than students in every graduate education program other than medical school, according to a New America Foundation report this year (PDF). The average person leaves law school with $140,000 in unpaid education bills, a debt load that’s increased 60 percent since 2004, the report says.

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