The Unethical Thing the Justice Department Did to Its Youngest Lawyers


If you naively thought that the unpaid internship grind would end after college, when all your uncompensated hard work would land you a fancy job upon graduation, you thought wrong. Forget college, it apparently doesn’t even end after graduate school. What’s even more disheartening is that not only is this practice sanctioned by the government, in this case it is the government: the Department of Justice (DoJ) has currently employed 96 unpaid assistant attorneys, and its jobs website features advertisements for 12 more such positions. For a Department charged with looking after the public interest, this is a misguided and unethical policy.

The DoJ began advertising jobs for Special Assistance U.S. Attorneys, as the unpaid lawyers are called, in January 2011 when Attorney General Eric Holder declared a department-wide hiring freeze. The Department has justified the practice as a means to manage caseloads while staying within its budget, which was reduced by $1.6 billion after the sequester. In an emailed statement to ProPublica, a Justice Department spokesperson stated that the positions provide “a valuable support to the Justice Department as we continue to address the staffing challenges imposed by sequestration and still fulfill our commitment to protect the American people.”

While this might be a practical solution, it is not an ethical one. Just on principle, it is unfair not to compensate people for their work. In a sluggish economy with few job prospects, one could even consider it exploitation. This is especially true for lawyers. As record numbers of new lawyers graduate each year, the competition for legal jobs has become more intense. Only 56% of the law school students that graduated in 2012 were able to find full-time work that required a legal degree. Compounding the pressure to find employment is the rapidly increasing tuition for law school, which on average encumbers graduates with an average $100,000 of debt. People desperate for work will take any kind of work in an effort to enhance their resumes. Furthermore, taking on unpaid jobs may become a necessity to avoid long stretches of unemployment, which potential employers view negatively.

The argument in favor of unpaid work usually goes like this: since students in high school and college lack the necessary skills to gain entry-level employment in professional fields, unpaid internships can provide valuable experience to help them later get that job. This argument can’t even be used here, as many of the unpaid positions advertised by the DoJ call for at least three years of job experience, research abilities, and exceptional writing skills, among other qualifications.

The point of view completely disregards that unpaid internships reinforce class bias; the experience that unpaid work provides is only accessible to those who can afford to take it. Not only is this fundamentally unjust as it shuts out otherwise qualified applicants, but it also creates a system of dependence. The media is always complaining about millennials mooching off their parents, but if most of the work available is unpaid, what choice do we have?

The DoJ’s decision to hire unpaid lawyers is only the latest indication that the unpaid job market is spiraling out of control. Graduates cannot build substantial, sustainable lives by working without compensation. When does the unpaid work end and when do the real jobs begin?