Friday, April 25, 2014

The Great Debate: Externships for Credit and Pay (ABA proposal for elimination of Interpretation 305-3).

As an Externship Program Director and co-chair of the AALS Section on Externships, I have been deeply entrenched in the proposed elimination of Interpretation 305-3 for quite some time now.  My primary reason for posting this is to provide information about why I (and many of my clinical colleagues) support keeping the interpretation. 

The main supporters of the interpretation’s elimination are students who will be graduating with vast amounts of loan debt.  Of course, there are students and clinicians on both sides of the issue; however, if you read through the ABA's notice and comment website, you will find that all of the student remarks support elimination while nearly all the clinical and community partner organizations’ comments support upholding the Interpretation.


The primary benefit of an externship should be to the student and not to the placement (employer).  There may be some employers who would be willing to build this benefit into an employee contract, but I suspect that most cannot or will not.  Without the leverage of a contract that requires the employer to put their rights subservient to the students’ learning objectives, the pedagogical value of externships would be severely undermined.  This is one of the main concerns of those who oppose elimination of the prohibition. 

To read more about this concern and several others, please see CLEA’s Statement.  

To read more about my personal concerns, please see my statement to the ABA.

Middle Ground? 

One possible way to alleviate some of the tensions that exist would be clarification of the Interpretation’s final sentence: “This Interpretation does not preclude reimbursement of out-of-pocket reasonable expenses related to field placements.”  On the externship listserv, we often field questions about what constitutes "reasonable expenses.”  Some externship directors construe this broadly while others construe the expenses that can be recouped narrowly.   If the ABA provided some additional guidance that enabled us to construe this broadly, students could benefit from grants or other stipends offered to offset the costs.  If grants and stipends are external and not directly connected to compensation for work product, the money would not compromise the relationship in the same way as a salary.

Final Thoughts

Reasonable minds can disagree.  I am certainly empathetic about the law student experience of today; I have read their comments and discussed this issue with my ABA student representatives.  My colleagues and I have given much consideration to their position.  I only ask that law students and the Council do the same.  We have the collective experiences of many externship directors, who have done this work for decades.  We too, have the value of the student experience at heart; we just have a different interpretation of the word "value." 


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