A solo practitioner in a lawyers group asked what is a fair wage to pay a law clerk who is still in school. The responses went all over the place. Some paid little more than minimum wage while others paid slightly more. One paid a lot more. Since there is no recommended minimum as exists with the major law firms, it is anybody’s guess.
Some based their answers on what they got paid when they were a 3L. Others based the pay on the number of applicants they received. Or they base it on what they thought was the going rate by asking around or searching online.
The short answer is you can pay whatever you can get away with.
But just because you can pay a small wage to a law student, does it mean that you should? I have heard the typical reasons for not paying a lot to law students. They come with little-to-no experience, are likely to make mistakes, and the employer (and the client) should not have to pay for that. Also, since most law student jobs are likely to be temporary, the law student might not notice the higher wage. The on-the-job experience they receive is more valuable than the money. And some firms just cannot afford to pay more than the bare minimum.
Some have said that the pay is comparable to similar positions in government. While government jobs generally pay less than the private sector, the training is usually better, the work is less stressful, and employers generally prefer people with government experience. Most small firms cannot offer similar intangible benefits like these.
I may sound crazy or financially wasteful, but I think it would be beneficial in the long run for small firms to pay higher than market rate for law students. Why?
For starters, you will generally attract better employees. I know this sounds obvious but most lawyers aren’t famous for their business acumen. Let’s face it, money talks. Especially when law students today have $300,000+ of student loan debt chasing them. The best firms tend to pay the best salaries. A higher salary means that you will get candidates who actually want to work for you instead of seeing you as a last resort résumé gap filler. They will be motivated to stay and go the extra mile since they know they are paid better than their classmates.
Also, you should see this as an investment. You see, these 3Ls will one day become your colleagues, potential referral sources, or co-counsel. The sad truth is that some of them may end up being paid less as new attorneys. And others may not find jobs at all. A few years ago, I wrote about why small firm junior associates are paid relatively little. I think the struggle for new attorneys will continue, especially if Siri is one day allowed to give legal advice. You may be the one bright spot in their lives and they will remember you when they need to refer potential clients.
Of course, there are some steps you should take to make sure you don’t end up paying more than necessary. Start new law student hires on a part-time basis and with tasks that are appropriate for their skill level. If the new hire is not performing well, it is best to let him go as soon as possible.
This post was not meant to be a definitive “how to” on hiring clerks or staff in general. I only hope that it will make employers think twice before deciding to pay law clerks the least amount as possible. Most of us probably remember what it was like to work as a law clerk during law school. We did our best, no matter how much we were paid. Employers who pay the bare minimum usually end up with employees who do the bare minimum. Attorneys only have their reputation. This not only applies to future clients but also to future employees. If you want to attract the best talent, you will have to be known for paying for the best.