The Supreme Court just told the nation’s law schools they should pay minimum wage to their staff

The highest court in the state has ruled that the mandatory tuition of law students should be set at a “living wage.” Here’s a shot of how that goes down: “I started this summer, August 10th, and today, today’s the first time I make money. I’m making $38,400. My hourly wage is $17.23. And I need to make $19.34, to live properly.” (emphasis mine)

The decision is a simple matter of math. That $38,400 number is the amount an employee at a minimum wage job would earn after tax if they took home a paycheck of $10.01 an hour. So since low-wage workers already make minimum wage after taxes, and know full well that living wages are far below that level, what would an employee be earning if they received a paycheck of just $7.25 an hour? The national average for the income needed to live has grown dramatically: just over 20 years ago the national average for living wage was just $10.68. The current top wage in the United States is about $42,000 annually. And we’re good?

The bottom line is simple. We have an economic system that requires us to spend a significant chunk of our paycheck, while most of us can barely survive on $8 an hour. We’re taking home far too little at far too high a cost. But who is going to come up with the money to raise the minimum wage to living wage levels? Tax payers? That’s ridiculous. Law students? A no-brainer. After all, we’re paying tuition.

I’m confident the Supreme Court will apply this logic to another mandate on the books. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is usually invoked when we are talking about wages, we have three levels of salary, ranging from $5 to $34.40 an hour, for salaried jobs. Under the FMLA, an employee can only be made to earn a salary for a job under a set federal standard. (This is a reason why the federal minimum wage — a concept at odds with states and employers — is so important.)

Enter the ABA President’s Committee on Standing Committee on Standards, Rules, and Ethics, which has two parts: Standards of Conduct and Standards of Conduct for Chartered Lawyers, one of the three ABA body of standards that applies to attorneys. The committee adopted the following criteria for determining if someone’s salary would be set at a living wage: “A minimum salary and a living wage for a ‘chartered’ attorney.”

That’s why the current debate about how to create a federal mandate for employing articling students is an embarrassment to the legal profession.

If the court rules that minimum wage requirements should apply to an exam prep course, then law professors must take back the idea that law schools are a “trade school” and return to the idea that law school is an expensive course in which the average debt remains lower than nearly all other education plans. The students still enjoy a four-year loan repayment plan; how will they ever pay off their loans after they complete their law degree?

Being an articling student allows many of them to pay for school, maintain their independence, and find significant internships, which can be invaluable in developing professional skills. The state has declared we are paid a living wage and now, according to the court’s ruling, it is time for the ABA to do the same.

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