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Slaves of DC


“Your great-grandfather was a former governor of this state,” she said. “Your grandfather was a prosperous land-owner. Your grandmother was a Godhigh.”

“Will you look around you,” he said tensely, “and see where you are now?” and he swept his arm jerkily out to indicate the neighborhood, which the growing darkness at least made less dingy.

“You remain what you are,” she said. “Your great-grandfather had a plantation and two hundred slaves.”

“There are no more slaves,” he said irritably.

— Flannery O’Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge —

I was talking to a journalist yesterday about the law school mess, and she mentioned interviewing a couple of people in front of American University’s law school, which according to the school’s virtual tour of its facilities is in one of DC’s more desirable areas:

Located on tree-lined Massachusetts Avenue in the District, WCL is minutes from downtown D.C. yet close to parks, trails, neighborhood restaurants, shopping, and some of the nicest residential neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C. area.

I quoted her the school’s graduating class of 2011’s appalling employment statistics — 300 of 467 graduates didn’t have a legal job, loosely defined, nine months after graduation — and described how the average member of that class had around $200,000 in educational debt (officially the class averaged $151,000 in law school debt, but with accrued interest this gets kicked to around $175K, plus undergraduate debt isn’t counted in that total).

But of course even those grim numbers are probably fluffed by things like this, sent along to me yesterday by a helpful reader:

District of Columbia Court of Appeals Senior Judicial Internship Description

Judge Blackburne-Rigsby sits on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Congress established the District of Columbia Court of Appeals as the highest court of the District of Columbia in 1970, and the court is the equivalent of a state supreme court. As the highest court for the District of Columbia, the Court of Appeals is authorized to review all final orders, judgments, and specified interlocutory orders of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. To learn more about the Court of Appeals, please visit:


The Judicial internship provides an excellent opportunity to learn first-hand about the court, and hone your legal writing and research skills. Judge Blackburne-Rigsby has two full-time Judicial Law Clerks, with whom the senior judicial intern will work closely. The intern’s major responsibilities will be divided between substantive legal research and writing at the appellate level and record review. Please note that this is a non-paid position. The start date will be mid October 2012.

Qualifications: Recent graduate with excellent legal research and writing skills as well as the ability to multi-task.

Time Commitment: Must be available to work a minimum of 30 hours per week.

Interested graduates should send a cover letter, resume, transcript, writing sample and references to:

LaVerne Atiba
Judicial Administrative Assistant to
The Honorable Anna Blackburne-Rigsby
District of Columbia Court of Appeals
430 E Street, N.W., Suite 208
Washington, D.C. 20001
Phone: 202-879-2731
Email: [email protected]

I would very much like to know how The Honorable Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, who is already provided by the District of Columbia with two full-time assistants who perform most if not all of the less pleasant tasks associated with her sinecure, believes it’s honorable to take advantage of the desperation of new law school graduates in this fashion.

Does it occur to her Honor that this sort of thing just creates one more barrier to entry to the legal profession to everyone but the children of privilege? Most people, after all, can’t afford to work for free while plugging a resume gap with a phony “judicial clerkship” that is likely to swell the employment stats collected by some lucky law school’s office of career services (what do you want to bet that this “internship” ends up getting counted as a full-time “long-term” position requiring bar admission?).

At least if a Georgetown or GW grad snaps it up, he or she will get kicked $15 per hour from the school. American, despite its enormous class and its $50,149 annual tuition, is apparently sufficiently penurious that it could only afford to pay for “part-time short-term” positions for 21 of the 27 of its 2011 graduates it was employing in February of this year. Thus a 2012 graduate of the school is consequently less likely to provide Judge Blackburne-Rigsby with a year’s worth of free labor than is an unemployed alum of one of the school’s more prosperous legal academic neighbors.

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  • baltassoc

    Sad part of this is that American is a pretty good school with national (or at least a large regional) reach. And still less than 40% legal employment.

  • Anon21

    I guess I don’t entirely see what the point is of invoking the comparison to chattel slavery here. Ruinous educational debt is no picnic and can “ruin your life” in the 21st century sense of the term, but Sallie Mae’s not gonna come sell your children if you miss a few monthly payments.

    • Informant

      Haven’t you heard? Law school grads are the n*****s of 21st Century America.

      • LoriK

        Obviously the comparison is hyperbole, but it’s not just law grads. The District runs on unpaid interns to a much greater degree than most people realize. If you’re not a trust fund baby able to provide TPTB with significant amounts of unpaid labor you’re sort of screwed from the jump.

        Sticking with AU as an example, there are several programs there for which an internship (which you have to line up on your own, the school doesn’t help with placement) are a standard requirement for graduation. There are ways of getting around it, but if you opt for them you leave school at a competitive disadvantage that can have a serious impact on your career trajectory.

        Everyone involved knows this and is well aware that that’s why they’re able to get thousands and thousands of hours of unpaid labor year after year.

        • John

          But the way that unpaid internships suck isn’t that people are forced to perform slave labor against their will.

          It’s that it serves as a way to preserve elite jobs for the privileged few who can afford to take unpaid work. This is awful, but it has nothing to do with chattel slavery.

          • dl

            Granting the effects of unpaid internships (=favoring those who can afford it), I think this judge is most concerned about getting some free labor, not perpetuating the system. Probably same with most others.

            Does it matter? Maybe not.

          • LoriK

            It has the effect of preserving privilege and I agree that’s the bigger problem. However, they are doing it to get free labor. There are other ways to reserve privilege. The major reason TPTB love this method so much is the free labor.

            An intern is not supposed to be a substitute for a paid employee. The work is supposed to benefit the intern, not the organization. Saying that the reality doesn’t quite conform to that rule is a massive understatement.

      • L2P

        Not lawyers especially, but all jobs littered with unpaid interns. Unpaid yearlong internships in gateway jobs reinforce inequality and privilege. You need that gateway job to move on to powerful or high-paying positions; if you need to be able to work for free for a year to do that, only the privileged can make it to the top.

        I think Paul brings up lawyers because the it’s increasingly common in the legal profession. Lawyers almost never get any significant grants or scholarships, so they have a lot of debt (or rich parents). Doubling that up with unpaid internships in gateway jobs is an … unusual combo. If it expands (hint: it’s expanding. My large government office doesn’t pay new attorneys any more) only the privileged need apply for judicial jobs.

        • Warren Terra

          This. One reason I donated (a tiny sum) to help save The American Prospect earlier this year, when I get all the political commentary I could possibly consume if I never glanced at the magazine or its website, and so had no great need for it to be saved, is that I greatly respect them for paying their interns, some of whom come from backgrounds that were at least not deeply marinated in money, and many of whom have gone on to achieve career success and even prominence.

    • John

      Yeah, the comparison is totally outrageous.

  • Minimum of 30 hours per week AND unpaid?

    Jesus. It’s not even a summer position. So basically, it’s open to any rich kid who has a trust fund.

  • thusbloggedanderson

    How is that even legal? Is the D.C. gov’t exempt from labor laws?

    • Murc

      Wouldn’t be surprised. I know the Feds are exempt from a lot of labor law.

      • Paul Campos

        The FLSA includes various exemptions for both non-profit and “professional” workers.

    • Just Dropping By

      If this counts as “practicing law” then it’s completely FLSA exempt, even from minimum salary requirements. See page 3 of the DoL document here: http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/fairpay/fs17d_professional.pdf

      • Cody

        Which it has to be, otherwise this awful regulation would stifle job growth!

        I’m shocked that Commie Obama hasn’t tried to regulate this vital industry yet!

  • JL

    The comparison with chattel slavery is, as others have said, awful and insensitive at best. Unpaid interns are not having their families broken up by family members being sold, or being regularly raped by masters, or being whipped when the master is unhappy…I could go on, but I don’t think I need to.

    However, this practice of unpaid internships is gross. I’m not opposed to internships. We have internships in science and engineering. When I was an intern as an undergrad, in an overseas research institute, I got paid roughly $1500/month for two months. In the first company that I worked for out of college, undergrad interns got paid $23/hour. The interns are workers. Pay them. If you can’t afford to pay them because you’re a nonprofit or whatever, then what you’re actually looking for is volunteers (and in that case it’s unreasonable to set their schedules such that they don’t have time for at least part-time paid work in addition to the volunteer work that they’re doing for you).

    • L2P

      You know, most people say that “slavery” is more or less having to work for free with little recourse. You’re right, yes, it’s not literally as bad as slavery, but it doesn’t seem like a crime of rhetoric when that insensitive bastard Noam Chomsky talks about “wage slavery.” And it doesn’t sound like anyone’s demeaning the experiences of antebellum American slaves when communists talk of liberating workers from their chains.

      I’m not sure why saying repressive working conditions are “like slavery” is offensive unless the conditions are literally “like slavery in the Confederate South.” I’d say as long as the conditions are pretty bad (much more than “That assistant manager made me clean out the grill every night last week, and Johnny never touched a mop! Slavery!”) But offensiveness levels can very I guess.

      • Anon21

        It would be one thing if he just threw the general term “slavery” around. But he explicitly invoked chattel slavery in the antebellum South by using that Flannery O’Connor quote as his opener. Why do that?

        • Paul Campos

          Maybe you should read the story and find out.

          Or TL;DR: There are various kinds of slavery.

          • Anon21

            I did read the story before commenting, and I’m still at a loss as to why you invoked the comparison.

            I think in general you would do well to restore a sense of proportion in your discussions about this issue. That may be difficult, since it’s increasingly the issue you’re associated with as a public presence. But really, the group of people who attend American law schools are privileged relative to most other people in this country and massively privileged compared to most other people in the world. Law schools’ deceptive lending and enrollment practices are unconscionable, but you want to be careful what you compare them to.

      • JL

        Actually, despite being a lefty and understanding what the phrase is getting at, I do have a lot of reservations about “wage slavery”. This is not because I think Noam Chomsky or any other lefty who uses the phrase is a terrible person. Sometimes common usages of words or phrases are problematic. I’ve been guilty of plenty of problematic language use in my time, often because the language that I was using was common and it hadn’t occurred to me before that there was a problem.

        In the US, at least, the word “slavery” has a certain connotation. You could make an argument that we shouldn’t be constrained by that history in our choice of language – I might not agree with you but it’s not an unreasonable position. But in this case, Campos removed any ambiguity by deliberately invoking that connotation, as Anon21 has pointed out.

      • Just Dropping By

        it doesn’t seem like a crime of rhetoric when that insensitive bastard Noam Chomsky talks about “wage slavery.”

        In my experience, amongst the general American population, someone using the term “wage slavery” is considered to be an idiot.

      • Murc

        Trivia: the term ‘wage slave’ has very different connotations today than once it did.

        The term springs out of the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, when America was industrializing rapidly and you had more people than ever before who weren’t their own masters, who preformed work for wages in the employ of another. Today, that’s commonplace; even people who secretly despise the workingman will at least mouth platitudes praising him.

        Not so back then. The ideal was that every man would be his own master, and if he wasn’t at least on the road to that there was something wrong with him. More to the point, though, significant numbers of people argued that anyone who was answerable to another for his daily bread could not really be considered a free man, and that he shouldn’t be allowed the franchise or other privileges accorded to the truly free.

        The term for these people was ‘wage slave’ because they were considered to be only one step up from, you know, SLAVE slaves. It wasn’t entirely derogatory; people used the term to highlight the conditions early industrial robber barons were subjecting people to.

        • Dave

          The term emerges very specifically from campaigns to highlight the appalling working conditions of people in English factories from the 1820s onwards, in the context of widespread middle-class revulsion at Caribbean slavery, and in an effort to highlight the hypocrisy of favouring the abolition of the latter, and the rapid expansion of the former.

          See, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Oastler

    • Warren Terra

      As you yourself acknowledge, whatever you think about Campos’s rhetoric, and I might join you there, these are deeply exploitative unpaid internships. As such, they’re just one more unwarranted and undesirable class boundary in our society.

  • NorthLeft12

    My daughter took a teaching position in England due to the dire employment opportunities here in Ontario. She was told a number of times that it was expected that she “volunteer” at a school if she wanted to have a chance at getting on the substitute list, much less a full time job. and of course, there is no guarantee that any offer would ever be made. But as Harvey Dent would say…”It couldn’t hurt your chances.”

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