Potential Conflicts for Summer Hires?

Many law firms employ law clerks, or hire summer associates.  The former are often current law students, while the latter are almost always current law students.  There are benefits to both the firm and the student in these situations; the student gains real-world legal experience and an opportunity to work alongside experienced attorneys, while the firm gets capable and often short-term employees.  Many firms use these experiences as a way of determining future hiring, as a sort of “trial run” used to assess whether any of the clerks or associate could fit in well at the firm after graduating.  It’s a practice that is as widespread as it is common.

Another common practice for law students is to take on an in-semester internship.  Many law schools provide legal clinics, most of which provide free legal representation to those who could not otherwise afford it, which allow students to handle the cases and essentially practice law, all under the supervision of their professors.  As with a clerkship or summer at a law firm, these students acquire experience and skills – as well as course credit – while taking on a central role in the representation of a client.

However, the intersection of these two practices may create a conflict.  A recent advisory opinion out of Ohio may create a moment’s pause for firms who choose to employ student clerks and associates.  On June 3, 2016, the Ohio Board of Professional Conduct advised that legal interns (students certified under the Ohio Supreme Court to engage in limited practice of law) may have conflicts with cases handled by a law firm which is simultaneously employing the student as a clerk or summer associate.   If the student, in his or her capacity as a legal intern, is involved in a matter in which the firm may also have a stake, then a conflict occurs.  “For example, if a legal intern is representing Client A in a matter through the legal clinic, and the law firm where she works as a law clerk is representing Client B, who is directly adverse to Client A in any matter, the intern’s conflict is imputed to all members of the law firm,” the opinion said.

Of course, these situations are likely to be rare; after all, how often will a student representing a client through a legal clinic also maintain employment for a firm which is acting adverse to that client?  However, the reasoning behind the Ohio advisory opinion could easily be applied to other scenarios.

Another common practice for law students is to serve as either a judicial intern while still in school, or as a judicial clerk after graduation.  Looking to Ohio’s opinion, there may well be the possibility that conflicts occur in these scenarios, as well.  For example, if a student is working as a part-time law clerk during the semester, but is also serving as a judicial intern, might there be a conflict if the student’s employer has a case before the judge for whom the student is interning?  Certainly, one can imagine an opposing party raising this as a potential issue should it be brought to light during litigation.

Both law students and law firms have a vested interest in continued student employment, as each can benefit greatly from the experience.  But Ohio’s recent advisory opinion suggests that perhaps firms should make sure to take all necessary caution when employing students, in order to rule out conflicts down the road.