5 steps for success
An internship while you’re a law student is a hot commodity. Though law school fully prepares you to understand the law, practical legal skills are largely left for you to learn on the job. Because of this, an internship is an invaluable learning experience and networking opportunity.
Whether your internship is in your desired practice area or not is largely irrelevant. Your resume and connections are significantly enhanced upon the successful completion of any internship. With that in mind, this article helps law students make the most of their internships.
1. Take all writing assignments seriously.
As an intern, you could be assigned anything from a memo to a case brief to a motion. Don’t assume that, because you’re a rookie, you can submit a rough draft or anything other than your best work to your supervisor. Your supervising attorney probably doesn’t have the time to be your legal research and writing professor, too. Thus, whatever you write should be courtroom ready.
If you feel as though the assignment is over your head, be honest about that. Inexperience will be handled with more understanding than laziness or carelessness.
Aside from creating a document your attorney will approve of, each and every writing sample you submit could be a golden ticket for your next job. Many potential employers will ask for a writing sample, and a real world sample is valued substantially more than just a classroom assignment. If your document has an impact on the case you worked on, meaning the motion was granted or you won your case, be sure to mention this accomplishment when you submit the sample.
2. Attend every event you’re invited to (and ask to attend others).
As an intern, your goal should be to soak in every possible event you have the opportunity to experience. From a legal skills standpoint, you want as much exposure to “lawyering” in your internship as possible. Why have your first deposition or hearing be when you’re the assigned attorney and probably a nervous wreck? If you attend these proceedings as an intern, you can take notes and be better prepared for when your actions will directly impact a case.
Similarly, if you find a trial to be a terrifying experience or simply out of your comfort zone, there’s no fault in that. You can pursue a legal career outside the world of litigation, and it’s better to make this discovery before your income is on the line.
Attendance at a legal proceeding will also impress your supervising attorney by demonstrating your enthusiasm and willingness to learn. If your internship is at a firm you would be happy to work at upon graduation, your supervisor needs to see that you actually want the job as opposed to settling for whatever opportunity comes your way. Your attorney may deny you attendance to certain events, for whatever reason, but at least you asked.
Aside from legal proceedings, attend staff meetings, lunches and other social events. If this is a firm you’d consider working at, you need to observe office culture. Is the atmosphere too high stress for you? Is the work environment one that you can see yourself enjoying from 9-5? Use social events to chat with the other attorneys about their jobs and see the pros and cons of employment in that practice area as well as for the firm. That firm may not be for you, but you don’t want to eliminate an entire practice area because of one experience.
“So much of the practice of law is learned by observing other legal professionals. A legal internship is a great way to learn basic skills and procedures through shadowing another lawyer or lawyers. To get the most out of the experience, ask to sit in on different events, such as a client meeting, deposition, mediation, motion hearing, and trial. Also, always bring a notepad or laptop and take notes.”
Bar Counsel for The State Bar of Florida
3. Ask for feedback but be prepared for criticism.
Though you may feel ready to take on the nation’s legal problems, law student interns are still very “green.” You may have aced every class but still not know how to select a jury member or deliver an opening statement.
Though you will be judged on your performance as an intern, your supervising attorney isn’t expecting perfection. Rather, a “know-it-all” attitude is more likely to harm you than anything else. Instead, ask for how to improve or for any advice they may suggest. You may not like what you hear, but you need to learn how to accept criticism gracefully.
Block out your ego and truly listen to whatever pointers are offered to you. Again, it’s much better to make a mistake when your salary isn’t dependent on whether or not you win a case. Learn everything you can now, and be ready to laugh about your internship mistakes when you’re a seasoned attorney.
“When interning, there is truly no such thing as a dumb question. Listen, observe, ask questions, and make the most out of your internship! Stay out of office politics, keep your relationships professional, and make sure to send everyone you worked with a thank you card at the end of your internship. Keeping those contacts will be important for the job application process you’ll go through after your second year of law school.”
Lorenzo & Lorenzo
4. Don’t center your internship around your supervising attorney.
This pointer must be handled with a bit of finesse. Your supervising attorney is your boss, and you must be respectful of this person. Complete every assignment they ask you to do and don’t do anything that could detract from your working relationship. On the flip side, even if your supervisor becomes either a good friend or mentor, you still need to expand your horizons.
With that in mind, ask your supervisor if you can shadow or assist other attorneys in the firm. It’s very important that you see the other types of cases that the firm handles. It’s always a good idea to get another perspective on both your legal skills and life at that firm. An internship is meant to be a learning experience, and your supervisor will likely help you to get the most out of your internship.
From a career standpoint, your supervisor may not have a say with who gets hired at the firm. You need the opportunity to shine for the managing partners or anyone else with clout. Be seen for all the right reasons during your internship in order to maximize your chance at being hired. Even if there isn’t a job for you, the other attorneys could help you network and discover whatever firms that might be a good fit for you.
5. Speak up about what you want for your career.
Don’t hesitate to be upfront with your supervising attorney. If you want a job at the firm when you graduate, be sure to tell them. Explain why you’re interested, and ask for their feedback once you’ve worked there for a while and demonstrated your capabilities. There may not be an opening when you graduate, and it’s best to know that sooner rather than later.
On the flip side, perhaps your heart is set on practicing in another area of law or at a different geographic location. Be candid with your supervising attorney about that, too. The legal field is all about connections and networking, and you never know who your attorney could put you in touch with. Your supervisor could also write you a winning recommendation letter to help your chances at the job of your choice.
A caveat about speaking up too early, however. Though you may have never imagined practicing in the specialty of your internship, the right job and right office environment could change your mind. Don’t be quick to say you want to leave before you truly gauge what the job entails and evaluate whether or not it’s right for you.
Ultimately, the success of your law school legal internship, as with legal internships for undergraduates, depends on you. Make the most of the experience, and know that you’ll be a better lawyer by having had the opportunity to practice some hands-on legal skills.