A look at internships in Nigerian law firms

Internships are important for law students because there is a major difference between what you learn in school and what you do on the job. Internship becomes a way to bridge that gap. A good legal internship program should focus on conducting legal research in support of advising on real-life legal questions. This may be a formal legal opinion or litigation brief. Typically, the intern wants to see what legal issues the real world presents, and the hiring firm wants to see the intern’s analytical and writing skills. Other common assignments, in litigation firms, might be to summarize depositions or to review, organize, and summarize discovery documents.

Law is more about practice than about substantive knowledge as it is a vast subject and simultaneous application helps in understanding and remembering the subject in a better manner. Hence, students try to get as many internships as they can while enrolled at the university. This comes with additional challenges like deadlines, research and so on. For most interns, the initial internship will be rather intimidating as they start to interact with senior lawyers who may seem more imposing, simply, because they are more knowledgeable. Meanwhile, interns tend to forget that these seniors/lawyers have also been in their place and they know the pressure and curiosity they have.
Prominent issues of undergraduate/graduate law internships in Nigeria

1. Lack of structure to train interns – Normally, an internship should be a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional or community setting. Also, internships should provide resources, equipment, and facilities that enable students to gain experience in a professional work environment, and provide students with skills or knowledge that are transferable to other settings. Therefore, internships are expected to have defined learning objectives, professional supervision, and opportunities for reflection, and offer valuable enriched learning experiences.

However, in most cases, what we see is the contrary, and this is because many Nigerian law firms lack the structure to train interns, even for the shortest period. As much as a hiring firm will often have certain expectations of an intern, the intern also has his/her expectations of the firm. For example, a firm that takes a third-year undergraduate who has no idea what work lawyers actually do is expected to have, at the very least, a systematic approach to onboarding such interns in order to set expectations. Also, because most of these interns do not know how to behave like professionals, since they are mostly young university undergraduates/recent graduates, they are still in that zone where they take everything easy and casual.

A recent chat with two undergraduates who recently concluded four weeks internship at top Nigerian law firms discloses the unpreparedness of these firms in actually training interns. One of them specifically mentioned that she had to run after some of the lawyers to get some tasks. The other who interned in a dispute resolution firm said he was not engaged in the matters being handled by the firm at the time, and the excuse was that there were highly sensitive matters.

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It is understandable that lawyers in law firms are usually busy meeting different deadlines and may not have the luxury of time to engage an intern working with the firm for only a few weeks, it is also true that there is a duty to protect the interest of their clients by not carelessly exposing the substantiveness of every matter to interns who may not be professional enough to keep office work discrete. However, all these should be considered when developing the firm’s internship structure and strategy, so that the internship program is comprehensive and robust enough to include information on learning objectives and goals, daily responsibilities, short and long-term projects, supervisor assignments, evaluation procedures, policies and expectations, orientation and off-boarding processes, just to name the basics. What will the intern do and what are they expected to accomplish? Will they have daily tasks, or will they be working on special projects? What is the reporting structure? These and many more questions like this should be considered.

2. Remuneration – While data are lacking in this regard, there is, at least, a widespread perception that the proliferation of unpaid internships has touched the legal profession, and it is unfair and exploitative for an employer to profit from an intern’s work when the intern is not paid for it.

The employer is getting a service for free and could be seen as taking advantage of a student or graduate’s eagerness to get experience in that area of practice. For graduate interns, in particular, a long unpaid internship could be regarded as a way of having someone do a graduate job without paying them for it. Although, there is the argument that internships provide mutual benefits for interns and employers, on one hand, because it enables students and entry-level graduates to gain practical experience, develop skills, and make connections that may enhance their future job prospects; on the other hand, employers, that is law firms get an opportunity to try out potential hires without incurring the expenses and legal obligations associated with formal employment. Meanwhile, critiques of the practice, view unpaid internships as an excuse to exploit free labour from young undergraduates/fresh graduates eager to get a foot in the door.

In the United States, unpaid internships for law students in private law firms are illegal under the FLSA (The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 is a United States labour law that creates the right to a minimum wage, and “time-and-a-half” overtime pay when people work over forty hours a week) and raise concerns under legal ethics rules. The practice of offering unpaid internships rather than paid law clerk positions harms law students and law graduates alike by further impairing an already unfavourable labour market. Yet, law students have a disincentive to challenge the practice because doing so may hurt their future employment prospects. The FLSA grants a private right of action to any employee denied payment of minimum wages or overtime compensation as required under the statute. Thus, law students or others who perform unpaid internships may sue to recoup the wages to which they are legally entitled.

In Nigeria, there are no regulations in this regard, so mandating firms to pay may be a bit difficult. On the other hand, there is the culture of not paying people what they truly deserve as most law firms prioritize profit-making over other forms of employee reinforcement. If young lawyers continually complain about poor remuneration, one can only imagine what the situation is like for interns and if interns are considered at all when annual budgets are being drawn. Meanwhile, due to the engaging nature of law internships, most interns find it hard to take up other paying side-gigs that could actually fund their livelihood. Over the years, law undergraduates have to weigh their options carefully, choosing between their dreams and a job that foots the bill. Frequently, they are compelled to walk away. As a result, internship opportunities tend to favour people with privileged means.

The Nigerian Bar Association, as the primary organization representing the legal profession, can play a significant role in addressing these problems. First, the NBA should undertake efforts to educate law firms on how to create successful internship programs. Internships are not just about grunt work anymore, with the right program, these firms can develop young talent and lay a foundation for recruiting brilliant young minds to work for them. Smaller law firms especially have an opportunity to edge out larger firms by providing interns with opportunities to develop and staying in touch after graduation.

Second, the NBA and other relative bodies should push for a law that will promote fair remuneration of interns such that where an intern performs work that is part of a firm’s ordinary business such that the firm benefits from the intern’s labour, the intern should properly be regarded as an employee for whom payment of at least the statutory minimum wage is required. Even assuming that internships provide undergraduates/recent graduates with the opportunity to enhance their social and cultural capital by honing their skills and developing contacts, these benefits do not relieve firms of the legal obligation to pay for an intern’s labour.

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