This week’s Expert Opinion, on how to maximize your summer internship experience comes to us courtesy of Deb Ellis, Assistant Dean for Public Service at NYU School of Law, where she directs the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) and the Root-Tilden-Kern Scholarship Program and oversees the Judicial Clerkship Office. Prior to heading PILC, Deb had a varied public interest career, including serving as Legal Director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, where in 1992 she argued Bray v. Alexandria Women’s Health Clinic before the U.S. Supreme Court. She also served as Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey, and as a Staff Attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, and at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Deb graduated from Yale College and from NYU Law where she was a Root-Tilden-Kern Scholar. She clerked for the late Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in Montgomery, Alabama.
Exams are over and you’ve begun your public interest internship! How can you be the kind of intern that employers will rave about and hopefully want to hire as an attorney someday?
From my perspective as both a public interest practitioner and now a law school counselor, I have developed eight tips based on what I look for when I hire: individuals who take initiative — who can figure out what needs to be done on their cases and projects. In short, I look for people who are proactive.
Sometimes students find that it takes a change of perspective to be proactive after a year spent in classrooms, where their role is more passive. But in the work world it is essential to take responsibility for your own learning. If you make that effort – to think through your priorities, contribute as much as you can to your employer, and be a team player – you will learn the most, and have the most fun, too.
Tip 1. Know your goals and be proactive in seeking out opportunities to accomplish them.
Early in the summer, identify what your goals are. Possible goals include:
- Creating a writing sample
- Strengthening legal research skills
- Observing court proceedings
- Developing client interview skills
- Representing a client at an administrative hearing
What should you do once you identify your goals? Because your first responsibility is to meet your employer’s needs, you have to be strategic – if you simply announce your goals, you will be viewed as self-absorbed and entitled. Many employers will make it easy by asking about your goals. But if they do not, you can still seek out opportunities to develop your skills. It may sound like a truism, but if we know our goals, we are more likely to look for ways to accomplish them. For example, if you want to create a writing sample and the employer gives you an option to write either an outline or a memo, you would choose to write the complete memo.
Identifying your priorities will give you the courage to volunteer for assignments that may seem intimidating. I recall, regretfully, how early in my career I passed up an opportunity to do a substantial argument in federal court because I thought I was too junior. Now I’ve learned that the only way to gain experience is to seize it!
Tip 2: Discuss your internship with your supervisor before or soon after your arrival.
It is best if your supervisor initiates such a meeting, but if she does not, you should be proactive and ask if you can meet briefly to discuss the office’s expectations of interns. Among the issues to discuss are:
- The office’s needs and expectations
- How to request guidance on an assignment
- Whom to go to if you need more work
- Your eagerness to do a particular kind of work (such as create a writing sample), subject to the office’s needs
- Reading that could help you contextualize your work
Tip 3: Be realistic about your expectations for feedback.
Realize that your supervising attorneys are busy people. Their job is to serve their clients, not to mentor you, although they would like to do both. It is realistic to ask for written feedback on one piece of major writing; it is unrealistic to expect feedback on every assignment you hand in. Realize that in the work world, handing in a project and receiving no feedback is par for the course. In some cases you can figure out if your supervisor found your work valuable by observing how she used it—was your research incorporated into the brief she filed with the court?
Tip 4: Honor your duty of confidentiality to clients.
Assume that all case matters and client information are confidential unless your supervisors inform you otherwise. If a matter is confidential, you may not discuss it with those outside your office, except in terms that are sufficiently vague as to protect the identity of both the client and the adversary. Be careful! Do not discuss cases or clients in elevators, on the subway, or in other public places.
Tip 5: Be professional in all conduct and prepared at all times.
- Wear appropriate dress (no tank-tops, shorts, or very short skirts). If you want to be able to observe court appearances, dress in suitable clothing on every day a court appearance is possible. For some offices, this means every day.
- Get to know the support staff by name. Always say “please” when asking for assistance and “thank you” when they have completed a task for you.
- Always carry pen and paper (and use them). As a supervising attorney, nothing irked me more than when a student came to a meeting unprepared to take notes.
- Always be on time, in the morning, and for meetings. You may observe that attorneys come in late – don’t assume that you can, too.
Tip 6: Meet with your supervisor mid-summer to evaluate your progress.
In the hundreds of intern evaluations that I read each year, I’ve noticed that students find a mid-summer evaluation much more productive than an end-of-summer one, because it gives them a chance to immediately implement the feedback they receive. Thus, I advise you to meet with your supervisor (or if you don’t have one, the attorney whom you have done the most work for) mid-way through the summer to ask how you are doing. Ideally, your supervisor will initiate this meeting. However, if she doesn’t, you can subtly “manage up,” and ask her if she would have time for a brief meeting because you would like to ensure that you are doing all you can to be an effective intern.
Tip 7: Be indispensable and take advantage of all learning opportunities.
- Attend lectures, discussions, brown bag lunches, outings or field trips. Some organizations take note of which interns attend all of the events that the office provides. The more involved you are, the more likely it is that the employer will want you back!
- Be a team player. Do your own copying and faxing, and offer to help the attorneys with these tasks as well.
- Find ways for your supervisor to depend on you. Make sure every citation is perfect. As a junior member of the team, you may know more about technology than your supervisor—this is a good way to be indispensable.
- Downtime is an opportunity—and Facebook is NOT your friend! Use downtime to observe court, look for new projects, or do background reading. No one ever became indispensable by playing Farmville.
- “How can I help?” is one of my favorite queries—whether from my son before dinner or from a colleague on a busy day.
Tip 8: Make your supervisor your mentor.
Most attorneys want to be a good mentor, but often don’t have the time for leisurely lunches or long chats. Make it easy for them to mentor you by using any time you have together to ask questions and seek their advice. For example, if they’re walking out of the office to get coffee, ask if you can join them. During a break in a meeting, don’t text – talk to your colleagues.
Conclusion: Having hired dozens of interns and attorneys in my career, I know that internships are crucial: hiring a former intern as an attorney meant that there would be no surprises—we knew in advance how sensational she or he would be! Being proactive as an intern will guarantee that you will gain the skills, knowledge, and recommendations that will help launch you in your public service career. Good Luck!