Monday, May 20, 2019

You Have a Summer (Legal) Internship... Now What?

First: congrats on securing a legal internship! Just getting to this place proves your intelligence and drive. You have your foot in the door, and now is the time to do good work for your supervisor, learn about a new area of the law (while evaluating whether it’s for you), and earn a positive recommendation (or even a job)! The effort starts now.

One point you might find challenging is that you and your supervisor (not to mention your clients) may have different ideas about what working efficiently looks like—or even what the role of an intern entails. It’s always best to clarify in person if you have any concerns. Here is a list that can serve as a general guide to office etiquette and summer work. When in doubt, however, check with your supervisor.

  • Always be on time. Clarify your start and end hours a few days before you begin the internship, and leave home early to make sure you make it there— even if traffic is horrible or you spill coffee on your new dress shirt.
  • Speaking of dress shirts, dress for court on the first day unless your office has told you otherwise. Even if the office ends up being casual, it’s better to overshoot this mark than to undershoot it.
  • Always be courteous and friendly to office support staff, as well as to your supervisors and fellow interns. Administrative staff were there before you arrived and will be there after the end of your internship. Their expertise and feedback can help you have a better experience.
  • Always bring a notepad and pens to meetings with your supervisor(s), colleagues, and clients. If the matter is important enough to call a meeting about, it will be important remember what is discussed and decided—especially if it involves an assignment for you.
  • Use situational awareness and courtesy when asking a supervisor or colleague to meet with you. Are they on the phone, typing furiously, and looking stressed? Is the door closed? It’s generally a good idea to knock on the doorframe and ask, “Is now a good time?” before just walking into someone’s office. If the door is closed, email and ask to schedule a time.
  • You will often be asked to work on projects that are unfamiliar to you. When you first get an assignment, clarify as much as you can with your supervisor. Then make your best effort before you return with further questions. There is a balance here: no one wants to see you labor on your own only to find you were confused or didn’t have the information you needed to make real progress. On the other hand, you should try to find answers to your questions before running to your supervisor every five minutes. Try these resources as you begin your work:
    • Online legal research databases (search relevant key terms, statutes, court rules, and cases)
    • The office’s brief or motions bank (or the file of a similar case or project)
    • Google or Wikipedia (if only as a start)
  • Be friendly and be yourself, but also be cautious about using jokes to break the ice when you’re nervous. This is often when we make errors in judgement about what's appropriate under the circumstances. 
  • Most supervisors will not judge you for what you don’t know coming in, but coachability is key. Stay curious about how to improve. Always recognize the authority of your supervisor’s strategic and legal decisions, but don’t be afraid to ask for further feedback.
  • Be very clear about your start and end dates, any vacation time, and your daily schedule. It’s best to have this conversation in person and then to confirm in email so your supervisor can have a record to refer to.
  • Never discuss office or client matters with anyone outside the office. Even if it is positive, don’t post client news to social media without express permission from your supervisor.
  • Likewise, strictly limit your time spent on social media or your phone during work hours. Never text or scroll during work meetings-- and beware of even having your phone out during a meeting (the temptation to check is often too much for all of us).
  • Take advantage of every opportunity to join outside meetings, happy hour gatherings, and socials—especially if your supervisor suggests it. You will make contacts this summer who will become friends and colleagues for the rest of your career.
  • Keep a journal. Even if this office or area of law won’t be where you build your career, enjoy it and integrate the lessons you learn into your life of practice.
  • For far more detailed discussions of work habits, office etiquette, and internships, enroll in an Externship class at your law school.

Most of all, stay engaged and learn what you can this summer—and enjoy this time as much as you can!

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