It’s the season for law firm internships — the June to August ‘summer break’ for many law schools. A few years ago, a law graduate who had one or two internships on her CV would stand out. These days, internships are the norm, and a graduate who does not have any work experience is an anomaly.
An internship should be a very intense period of learning, with most interns only willing to commit a one-month period (I recommend at least two months for the best experience) to each internship — because they want holiday time, or to do more than one internship. One month can really fly by, and if you’re not intentional about squeezing the most out of that time, it will be over before you know it.
Here are 7 quick tips on how you can make the most of your law firm internship.
(1) Be clear about your goals from the outset
Think through your goals from the very beginning. What do you want to achieve? When you get to the end of the internship, what would have made it a fruitful internship?
The first thing I always ask my interns (and law graduates who are commencing pupillage as well) to do is write an 800-word essay describing their ideal internship (or pupillage). I then sit down with them and discuss what they’ve written. This is a useful exercise for both the intern (making you think about your goals, which should hopefully lead to you intentionally trying to achieve them), and the employer (allowing the employer to be aware of the expectations, and faciliating the fulfillment of those goals).
Ideally, you should think this through before the interview, so you can discuss your goals with the interviewer, and decide whether that law firm is the best place for you.
The essay should also be revisited midway through the internship as a reminder and so you can recalibrate if necessary at that point, and at the end of the internship to review how many of those goals were achieved.
Most of the essays for my interns and pupils are kept internal, but some of them have been published online (with permission of course):
- Finding Out What Corporate Lawyers Do (Justine Mei-Ern, 14 June 2013).
- The Dream(?) of a Glamorous Life as a Corporate Lawyer (Boo Sha-Lyn, 18 June 2013)
- So, I Found Out What Corporate Lawyers Do (Justine Mei-Ern, 19 September 2013)
- Thoughts from an Internship Junkie (Boo Sha-Lyn, 23 September 2013)
(2) Recognise the overall benefits of an internship
Be aware of the overall benefits of an internship — the opportunity to experience office culture (what it really means to be a lawyer, beyond what you study in law school), and the invaluable networking.
There’s a danger in being too intent on fulfilling your goals — to do certain types of work, to put certain subjects you studied into practice — that you miss out on the big picture, the overall experience of working in a law firm. An internship provides a very useful window into the working world, and you should plan your internships so that you experience different working environments. Be as observant as possible, and be aware that there are countless learning opportunities every single day.
An internship is a time to build connections which can last for most of your career. Connect meaningfully with as many people as possible — staff, fellow interns, pupils, lawyers, and clients.
(3) Have realistic expectations
When setting goals for your internship, you must be realistic. It’s good to have clear goals (my first tip above), but too many interns have expectations which are a major disconnect from the reality of the industry and their position in the ecosystem.
Some interns are unwilling to undertake an internship if it is unpaid. Some insist on being paid a certain amount. The reality is that (for the most part), an employer taking on an intern is doing a service to the intern. You must realise that you will benefit more from the internship than the employer will, and therefore insisting on being paid is not realistic.
I understand that not everyone can afford to work without getting paid. But what I don’t understand is when interns seem very keen to intern at a particular firm (because they anticipate gaining valuable experience), but then turn it down, complaining that an unpaid internship is unfair in principle.
Another unrealistic expectation is making demands on the type of work that you will do. You should be open to a learning experience, and are not really in a position to know what type of work or tasks are best for you. At a previous firm, we interviewed an intern who insisted on only working for the senior partner, and said that he would not be willing to do photocopying. That interview barely lasted five minutes. He was not offered an internship. Having a law degree (let alone being in the process of obtaining one) is not that big a deal, and you shouldn’t think that you are in a position to make any demands. I later heard he made similar demands at an interview at another law firm, and was also not hired (the legal industry is close-knit, and lawyers talk — get used to it).
(4) Be humble and understand that you can learn from everyone
Closely connected to having realistic expectations is being humble enough to accept that you can learn from everyone at the firm.
That intern above who only wanted to work with the senior partner obviously didn’t understand this. Some interns have also said that they didn’t want to work with junior associates who weren’t experienced enough to mentor them — it’s ridiculously conceited for an intern to think that they have nothing to learn from a qualified lawyer.
I always tell junior lawyers that they should try to learn as much as possible from the non-lawyers in the firm. Many of these members of staff — clerks or secretaries — have years of experience, and there are so many things which junior lawyers (let alone interns) can learn from them.
(5) Getting work done — don’t be picky, build trust, and don’t be difficult
Don’t be picky about the nature of the tasks assigned to you. Don’t be disappointed if a partner asks you to perform a seemingly minor task — compiling documents, recording information, or researching on a straightforward legal issue. Treat the task as a gateway to other work opportunities. Build on that first task as a way to being more involved in the transaction.
The best way to ensure you get asked to do more work for the same lawyer is obviously to do it well. Don’t make the common mistake of wanting to get the work done as quickly as possible, thinking that it makes you look good, and that you can then be available to do more work. Always focus on quality over quantity. It’s not about doing more tasks, but about completing tasks to the best of your ability.
Don’t be high-maintenance. It’s understandable that you will have lots of questions to ask, but be smart about how you ask them. Always think the issue through and do the best you can before asking. Compile the questions into batches, and structure them as clearly as possible — the opposite of this is to approach the lawyer several times a day with vague queries. If a lawyer has to spend too much time addressing your queries (and assigning work to you is already taking up his time — he definitely could have done it himself in much less time but wants to give you the opportunity to experience doing some legal work), it’s very unlikely he will be asking you to do anything again.
(6) Anticipate free time, and make the most of it
With any short-term office role such an internship, there is bound to be some downtime where you won’t have much to do. Prepare yourself for this, and don’t sit around twiddling your thumbs, or worse — complaining that you don’t have anything to do.
Free time is a great time to speak to the people in the firm (obviously be tactful when doing this, and be alert as to whether you are interfering with their own work tasks). Asking your colleagues about their career or work experiences is good because it’s a great way for you to learn things, most people enjoy talking about their experiences, and it’s a great way to make personal connections.
Think of some other things which you can do. Be a self-starter. If the law firm has a blog or newsletter, research a point of law and write an article. Volunteer to help your colleagues with some of their work tasks.
However, if you’re experiencing too much free time and people seem to be reluctant to get you involved, wonder why. Reflect on your attitude, and how you’ve done with the tasks previously assigned to you (see the earlier tips).
(7) End the internship well
Try to end the internship on the best possible note. Even if you didn’t have the ideal internship you envisioned, or had a misunderstanding with a colleague, there’s no need to burn bridges.
Make it a point to say goodbye to as many people as possible, and have a chat before leaving. Thank those who have taken the time to guide you during your internship — a word of appreciation is always appreciated.
Stay connected beyond the internship and maintain what are the first building blocks in your professional network. Connect with your colleagues on social media or LinkedIn. Keep them updated on your life or career — many of my former interns and pupils contact me to let me know how their careers are going, or how they did in their exams. Building and maintaining relationships are very important in what can sometimes be a cold and heartless profession.
Sit down and review your internship experience — perhaps read that essay you wrote at the very beginning of the internship and write a review essay reflecting on how many of those goals were achieved.
The tips above may seem straightforward and obvious, but many interns don’t put them into practice. If you are intentional in applying these 7 tips, you will put yourself in a position to have the best internship experience possible.