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Public Interest Law Summer Stipends May Come With Strings Attached

Some students say law schools require too much of summer public interest internship applicants.

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It's fellowship application season for first and second year law students who want to work in public service law next summer. Many law schools offer public interest summer fellowships, which provide a stipend ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars, to students who pursue service-oriented roles rather than positions at big firms with much higher salaries.

Many law students and J.D.'s report that their public service internships were fulfilling, and schools' websites celebrate students' and alumni's decisions to serve the public. But some say that the internship applications come with too many requirements, warning aspiring public servants to carefully consider whether to participate.

Many law schools, including Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, the Georgetown University Law Center, Cornell University Law School, and the University of Oregon School of Law, require students to do between 5 and 10 hours of volunteer work on campus, and some also insist that students volunteer at fundraising auctions.

A student at Cardozo, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says he didn't mind the abundance of paperwork he had to fill out to apply for the public interest stipend he received last summer. But as an "already stressed out" 1L, he didn't think he should have had to do office work for the school and cold call alumni.

"To then tell me I need to do this other work, for no reason, in order to get a stipend that really is only going to cover my apartment—[that's] not really fair," he says.

Leslie Thrope, director of Cardozo's Center for Public Service Law, admits she's heard from frustrated students. But most of the students who contact her are "extremely grateful to receive the stipend in order to help them pay their bills over the summer," she says.

[See why law schools say students must job hunt more actively.]

Thrope says the stipends help students develop legal skills and transform people's lives, but Cardozo can't afford to fund them without students volunteering at an annual auction that raises funds for the stipends. "[T]he requirements are right up front when a student chooses to participate," Thrope says.

Although Thrope calls the eight hours of administrative work that applicants have to contribute "minimal," some students at other schools balk at that requirement. Cold calling and fundraising sounds "overwhelming," says Kathryn Walker, a 2L at University of Miami School of Law.

"I would not have been able to handle that as a first year law student, and those kinds of requirements likely would have kept me from applying," says Walker, whose fellowship had no such prerequisites.

Similarly, when Lynette Hoag, a Chicago-based attorney, received a summer stipend in 1991 from the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor Law School, students weren't required to fundraise. "[I]t seems like the schools are trying to turn an old-fashioned learning experience into cash for the school," she says.

[Learn why graduate school debt often curtails plans of nonprofit work.]

According to Paul Campos, professor of law at the University of Colorado—Boulder Law School and author of the blog Inside the Law School Scam, law schools "exploiting" student labor is a growing trend. And with a widespread government hiring freeze, full-time public interest positions are virtually nonexistent—so summer internships are preparing students for very limited careers, Campos says.

"[W]e've jacked up the price of legal education to such an extent that it's going to be very difficult to subsidize people to the point where they can take $45,000-a-year jobs no matter how badly they may want to," Campos says. "In order to do that, we have to do way more than maybe throw a little bit of money at a summer internship program."

Although Campos only recommends that law students with government or nonprofit connections pursue public interest careers, some students say they're thrilled to land summer stipends.

Ashley Matthews, a 3L at the University of Virginia School of Law and president of the student-run Public Interest Law Association, says summer interns at her school are glad to volunteer their time not only to fund their own stipends but also to "pay it forward" to the next class.