The FLSA’s learned professional exemption provides an exemption from overtime for employees who have academic credentials in a field of “science or learning customarily acquired prolonged academic instruction” and who utilize this formal educational training in the performance of their job duties. Typical examples include doctors, lawyers, and certified public accountants, and doctors and lawyers need not even be paid on a salary basis. States with wage and hour laws generally have a similar exemption.

Historically, overtime disputes regarding the use of this exemption have centered in particular fields, such as engineering or, more recently, accounting. In a recent appellate decision from California, the Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District considered and rejected a challenge to the application of the California Labor Code’s learned professional exemption in the legal field. Zelasko-Barrett v. Brayton-Purcell, LLP, 2011 Cal. App. LEXIS 1080 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. Aug. 17, 2011).

In Zelasko, the Defendant firm utilized law students and law school graduates who had not yet passed the bar in the positions of Law Clerk I and Law Clerk II, respectively. Plaintiff held the Law Clerk II position prior to his admission to the bar for approximately 2 years, then moved on to the position of Associate Attorney. The Marin County Superior Court held that the plaintiff was properly classified as exempt when he held the position of Law Clerk II. 

Observing that the “federal regulations after which [the California learned professional exemption] was explicitly patterned . . . condition the learned professions exemption under federal law upon completion of an advanced course of education, not upon licensure,” the appellate Court ruled that possession of the degree, along with Defendant’s undisputed evidence that a Law Clerk II was required to perform all the same duties as a junior attorney, satisfied the exemption’s requirements.

Zelasko is an encouraging result for legal industry employers, which simultaneously highlights the broad scope of potential wage and hour liability. Industry employers must ensure that all employees classified as exempt are properly classified under federal and state law.