As a lawyer who currently serves in a position where I provide career advice to both J.D. and LL.M. students, I am dismayed by a recent trend: the unpaid legal position, following law school. The best (or worst) example of this phenomenon, in my view, are new positions advertised as uncompensated special assistant U.S. attorneys, offered by the agency where I spent my prior career, the U.S. Department of Justice.
Having served as a special assistant U.S. attorney (known as a SAUSA) for six months in 2003-2004 in the Northern District of Texas, I can attest that the experience for a new attorney is incredibly valuable. I served, while on detail from another DOJ component, immediately after admission to the bar. I wrote motions, prepared pen register/trap and trace applications, presented to a grand jury and, most importantly, gained both district court and magistrate court time. I even second-chaired two trials. And I was paid for my work.
The legal market for young lawyers is, as we all know, difficult. It can be particularly hard for lawyers in high-competition areas like Washington, and even more so in specialized areas like mine, the national security field. The prospect of SAUSA experience for the young lawyer trying to break into the field is exciting and tempting.
But I will not encourage students to apply to an unpaid SAUSA position following graduation because I believe it is an unhealthy and unhelpful trend. As of May 15, DOJ’s website advertised 12 unpaid SAUSA positions. Various of these positions called for "outstanding academic credentials," "exceptional lawyers," "superior oral and writing skills" and "excellent communication and courtroom skills," among other highly desirable competencies and qualities such as research abilities and computer skills. Some of the advertisements specifically stated that "at the conclusion of the term of appointment, the SAUSA will not be hired by this office," although they are permitted to apply in the future. In other words, unlike the conventional thinking about externships that students complete while enrolled in law school for academic credit, where there is at least some hope that good work and an effort to establish a positive reputation may lead to a paid job, these post-graduation SAUSA positions offer no such hope.
Anecdotally, the only students who have ever asked me about the unpaid SAUSA program are young women. This troubles me. Women of my generation have benefited from the prior generation’s advancements to the highest positions in the field: U.S. Supreme Court justices, attorney general, managing partners of top law firms, deans at law schools and more. I am concerned about a young attorney starting her career, after having made the investments of money, time, effort and relationships to achieve a law degree, only to accept a reality that exercising its value is not worth getting paid for. This is a bad message.
The positions also run the risk of excluding those students who have worked particularly hard to pay their own way through law school, or, as many do, have a substantial amount of debt. After three years of law school, during which many students agree to unpaid school-year or summer-term externships for academic credit, graduates need to be paid in order to live. This is, of course, a key purpose of work in society: being paid so that one can live the life one desires to live.
The unpaid SAUSA positions likely are pulling in only those graduates who have the luxury of being able to rely on family or spouses to carry them yet another year financially, or those who think the ­opportunity is worth the risk of going into even more debt. Either scenario is demeaning and sets an unfortunate precedent for a young adult starting a professional career.
I understand that the federal government is under a budget strain. I also understand that recent graduates are tempted to try anything to get a foot in the door. But I don’t believe that the profession — and particularly, the Department of Justice — should devalue the law degree to such a place that its recipient is led down the path of believing that she (or he) is not worthy of being paid for her knowledge, skills and performance in the legal workplace. Entry-level attorneys should be paid for their service.
Carrie F. Cordero is the director of national security studies and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.