Seven Important Rules for Legal Internship Etiquette

Etiquette Guide for Legal Interns

Knowing how to act is just as important as your legal knowledge

Being respectful and having the right attitude are some of the most qualities to ensure success at your internship. Our guide identifies 7 of the most important behaviors for legal interns to demonstrate.

Having secured a legal internship is a win whether you’re an undergraduate or current law student. An internship is your best opportunity for networking and can be a substantial resume booster. Nevertheless, you can do yourself more harm than good if you don’t act with professionalism at all times.

This article discusses 7 of the most important aspects of workplace etiquette that you need to uphold throughout your internship.

1. Maintain your dignity when facing criticism or disappointment.

As a lawyer, a “poker face” is among the top skills to learn. You WILL lose cases and you won’t get every motion you want granted. Your client or the managing partners may have harsh words to say on occasion. You won’t be in the line of fire as an intern, so it’s best to hone in your ability to handle unpleasant events now.

As a legal intern, you will probably receive negative feedback or make a mistake or two while you broaden your practical skills. Though you may show a bit of disappointment, being too emotional in terms of tears or anger will make you look immature and unprofessional.

2. Punctuality matters.

Punctuality is particularly important in the legal field. As you may already know, judges have an overabundance of cases to hear, and everything in a courthouse runs on a tight schedule. Running late to a courtroom proceeding could result in an attorney losing the opportunity to challenge a case or motion, the attorney could be fined and the trial could be pushed to another date. You can’t be the reason your client is penalized, so strive to be early rather than on time.

Even if you aren’t in litigation, punctuality still reflects professionalism and a dedication to your job. Be on time every day and don’t be the first one out the door when the workday ends.

3. Maintain formal office communications.

Millennials are a generation of emojis and abbreviations. Senior partners and supervising attorneys, however, are not. Rather than be the face of the younger generation, you should match the tone of your supervisor and the rest of the staff when sending emails, text messages, etc. Don’t send a message full of slang and “hahas” to a managing partner or your supervisor unless they’ve sent messages like that to you.

Address emails with a greeting and a signature, as well. Sounding overly formal won’t cost you a recommendation letter or employment opportunity, but sounding disrespectful or immature will.

4. Remember that you’re there to help as much as you are to learn.

This aspect can be a little tricky, especially if you’re an undergraduate legal intern or a 1L. In truth, some firms may not have much work you can do, since you lack the appropriate credentials. You may become frustrated that all you do is make copies or retrieve documents from LexisNexis or Westlaw. Ask to attend as many events as possible, but know that your responsibilities will be limited. Never look annoyed or bored at your job, and remember that you’re lucky to even have the opportunity to work at a law firm or in the public sector.

As a 2L or 3L, however, you likely completed the requisite courses that allow you to take on some legal tasks. Though you may think you’re ready to handle a trial, your supervisor may have you do little more than legal research and perhaps make a copy or two. Remember that none of these tasks are “beneath you.” You’re there to learn and help the law firm in any way you can. Accept each task with a smile and remember that everyone starts somewhere.

One caveat, however, is if you feel as though you’re being mistreated. If you do nothing but grunt work and have yet to take on anything that’s a true learning experience, you have the right to politely speak up. Ask your supervisor if there’s something specific that you’d like to see or do, and see what they say. If you’re denied all of your requests, consider speaking to your law school advisor or another member of the firm that you feel comfortable with. Don’t overstep, but you also should be able to get some value from your legal internship.

“Securing an internship is only the start; you have to make the most of this opportunity. The best way to make an impression is to show up early, dressed to impress. No matter what an employer tells you, show up in a suit the first day, and continue to do so until someone important instructs you not to. As you work, remember, no task is beneath you. Always volunteer to help, stay late, and assist on any task no matter how small. If they need someone to grab coffee, greet a client, make copies, hole punch, put binders together, do it all. Not only is it great experience going forward, they will notice that you’re a team player willing to do what is best for the organization as a whole. Double and triple check your work product before submitting it to someone with authority. Willingness to learn paired with mistake free work product is a combination any boss would cherish.”

Peter Tragos
Tragos, Sartes & Tragos

5. Consider social events an extension of your internship.

Social events are highly encouraged for every intern. A luncheon or other office event is a great way for you to see office culture and perhaps feel a bit less intimidated with the other attorneys and staff. Remember, however, that you’re still the intern at these events. Wear clothes that are truly “business casual.”

Don’t indulge in too much alcohol. Don’t curse or talk as though you’re speaking to your roommate. A good rule of thumb is to think back to the days of school field trips and behave as you would then. In many instances, attorneys watch interns MORE closely at a social event to gauge your maturity and personality, so don’t disappoint them.

6. Treat each and every person you encounter with respect and politeness.

Rudeness and ego are some of the worst traits an intern can display. Even if you make mistakes with your legal tasks, you’re more likely to be seen favorably if you’re personable and respectful. If you’re rude to someone, news will travel fast. You could be top of your class, but lose potential employment opportunities due to a bad attitude.

Though your politeness shouldn’t have ulterior motives, being a pleasant coworker will also help you in the long run. You may be feeling at a loss with a particular job assignment and not know who to ask. Other employees are more likely to offer assistance to the friendly intern versus the know-it-all or egotistical one.

“The best advice I received in law school was, ‘Be nice to the clerks and legal secretaries.’ They can help you or hinder you tremendously. A little kindness will have a major impact on your career. You will only have one reputation, guard it carefully. Oh, and I’d like to add, sign everything with a blue pen!”

Jessica Spencer
Assistant District Attorney for the 21st Prosecutorial District

7. Send thank you emails and cards.

Here’s an example of when good old fashioned manners still mean something. A simple thank you card, note or email is as valuable now as it was back in the old days before Snapchat and Venmo. In all seriousness, the small gesture of thanking someone is worth its weight in gold.

Don’t overdo it with the thank you notes to the point of sounding disingenuous. If someone helped you with a simple task, then an email is fine. But if an attorney other than your supervisor let you shadow them or attend an event with them, these gestures deserve at least a handwritten note.

Lastly, at the end of your internship, it can’t hurt to send your supervisor a formal thank you card. Gifts often raise ethical questions, though a simple edible item or gift card may not be too much. That choice is up to you and how comfortable you felt with your supervising attorney. A card, however, will never be a bad decision.

Overall, your internship is like one big audition. Your legal expertise matters, but so does your behavior. Use your internship as a chance to shine and earn the networking and employment options that come to the best interns.

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