Why law professors might invite students to work on briefs, for no credit and no money


I circulated an e-mail inviting students to work on a short (about 3-page) pro bono amicus letter, but I noted that they wouldn't get any credit for it (and I didn't offer any money). I'd usually offer credit, but this project is unusually short, and UCLA rules apparently make it hard to give class credit for projects that take place entirely during the Summer.

Above The Law suggested this wasn't quite right:

[T]he problem here isn't Volokh's—as he said, he can't give out credit unilaterally, and he probably doesn't have a budget for hiring help—as much as it's endemic to the academy. Many professors, like Volokh, perform real legal work and rely on their students to act as a stable of ersatz associates working, basically, as interns. And while internships for credit are all well and good, an internship for nothing is just exploitation.

Defenders of this system—and there are many—will trot out the same tired excuses spouted by the private sector (and federal judges, and the DOJ): the "experience" is its own form of compensation. But all work provides experience. The only thing you get when you depend on free labor is a limited pool of applicants, constrained by their ability to take on free work on the side.

Or that their work is "important" and just wouldn't get done if they had to pay for it. Oh, come now. It's important to you, but that doesn't make it important to anyone else—and it certainly doesn't make it important enough that someone should do your pet project for free. When Floyd Abrams writes an amicus brief on some important First Amendment issue, Cahill doesn't short his associates because his work is so "important." Obviously, there's such a thing as volunteer work, but pawning off your projects on other people isn't a charitable enterprise. If it's so important, do it yourself or figure out how to compensate someone for their effort.

What Professor Volokh needs is a school willing to pay—even a pittance (as a 2L, I helped a professor on a matter and NYU paid me $10 an hour)—to fund his work. If the school markets itself on having a high-profile academic engaged in real-life First Amendment advocacy, they should cough up the resources to let him do it effectively.

Here's my take on the matter: Sometimes, I want some help, for instance with cite-checking and proofreading. I then generally turn to the UCLA law library Research Assistant program, and they assign a task to the student. The student gets paid, I get a task taken off my docket, and the student gets some slight extra training and exposure to legal argument, and not much.

But sometimes I invite students to do a task not because I think it will make things easier for me, but because I think it will help teach the students about legal writing, research, reasoning, and the like. Indeed, while I do get some psychic reward from working with students this way, I'm not really doing this to save time or effort. Often, giving a student instructions and feedback (and I always try to give them detailed feedback in such situations) means that I on balance invest more time and effort in projects that I do with students than ones I do by myself. It's hard for me to see much "exploitation" under these circumstances.

Of course, I'm not trying to make myself out as a martyr here; I do this partly because I enjoy working with students, and teaching students, and because it makes me feel that I'm better discharging my duties as a teacher and as an institutional citizen. But in many such situations—not all, but many, and especially those where there is neither class credit nor payment—the purpose of working with a student is indeed to educate the student, not to save time or effort for the professor.

UPDATE: Just to make clear, the letter here was a pro bono project, not one for which I was being paid.

FURTHER UPDATE: Commenter TwelveInchPianist notes:

ATL doesn't know that half of it. Why, every page of this blog has a little text box at the bottom where readers are "invited" to provide additional content to the blog. I have been providing such content for years and have yet to see a dime. The yoke of "Volokh the exploiter" is a heavy one, I tells ya.