5 tips from an intern on making the most of a law firm internship

Crystal Wong

Guest writer Crystal Wong, who has three law firm internships under her belt, shares her tips on making the most of those short stints.

Being an intern gives you a good platform to engage in an out-of-classroom and out-of-this-world experience. Internships give you a glimpse of how the legal scene unveils itself in a practical manner. I interned in Peter Ling & van Geyzel (PLVG) in Kuala Lumpur during my summer break in August 2017, and it turned out to be one of my favorite experiences.

Having now experienced internships in three different law firms, here are my 5 tips to make the most of your internship.

(1) Get out of your comfort zone!

It is a truth universally known that most corporations operate on a rather hierarchical basis (or maybe this is just from my cynical perspective). It can undoubtedly be intimidating to interact with people who are much more experienced. But I’ve learnt that the only way to grow and learn is to not be afraid to ask for work. Many lawyers turn out to be really friendly and ever willing to help.

I was fortunate enough to blend in very quickly in PLVG, as the office culture is certainly very unique. The partners and associates were amiable and approachable, and this made me adopt a positive attitude towards my workload.

Here’s a tip: Knock on the associates’ doors, and ask questions if there are things that you don’t understand. If you’re interning in a medium or big sized law firm, grab your golden opportunity to get a ‘taster session’ in different legal departments. Identify an influential employee who can offer invaluable guidance, and volunteer to be on as many projects as possible.

You don’t need to be the most skilled to get noticed. It boils down to your willingness and eagerness to learn as much as possible in the time that you have. Picture yourself as a sponge, always ready to absorb everything in the short time that is an internship.

Don’t just stay on the same piece of work for days — though this doesn’t mean you can just discard your assigned work because you’re not that interested, or doing it half-heartedly because you’d rather be working on a more ‘interesting’ matter. The quality of your work should never be compromised, because it’s the little things that lead to the big things.

(2) ‘The biggest room in life is the room for improvement’

Now that you have work at hand and you have completed it, don’t just hand it back to the person who has assigned it to you and walk away. Get involved! Sit down and discuss the quality of your work. Ask questions and get feedback.

The importance of this tip is to actually discover your own strengths and weaknesses, to know yourself and your capacities. There are many legal practice areas, but not everyone has the chance to get a glimpse of the practical work. Internships serve as an avenue for law graduates to leverage their strengths and weaknesses and to gain practical exposure to be in a better position to gauge which practice areas suit or interest them.

Getting feedback is not always straightforward. Here are some practical tips on the different possible scenarios. If they happen to be occupied at that moment (which they usually are), ask politely if you could come back at a later time to discuss when they are available. If work is assigned and delivered via email, leave a gentle reminder that you would appreciate some feedback at the bottom of the email. They are busy people, and it doesn’t hurt to remind them, as it shows initiative.

Do not be afraid to ask for feedback. Knowing your weaknesses gives you a clearer understanding of things that may be holding you back, and you can then work to find ways to overcome your weaknesses.

(3) See value in everything you do

There’s a common misconception that interns often get tasked to do menial work like photocopying, serving tea and coffee, running errands for pupils etc. This practice is generally not welcomed, as it appears that interns are treated as ‘cheap labour’. There seems to have been a paradigm shift towards the position of an intern, as many law firms now set up a systematic internship program, aiming to provide a holistic experience for their interns.

However, you still should not discount the importance and value of the work assigned to you, despite how unimportant it may seem. The rationale is simple. There’s always a reason why things are said and done in a particular way. As an intern, your job is to see below the surface and put your analytical skills into use.

To put things into perspective, I will use my own experience as an example. On one occasion, I was asked to read through a sale and purchase agreement. Doesn’t it sound a bit boring? What’s there to learn from a standard sale and purchase agreement? There are templates everywhere — all it takes is just copying and pasting some revisions here and there. If I had just skimmed through the agreement without realising the true value of this task, I wouldn’t have learnt anything. Upon closer inspection, by reading through the agreement, I gained insight into the drafting of the agreement, the objectives behind the agreement, the different interests which the agreement sought to protect, and the mechanics and timeline involved in the transaction.

I still vividly recall when I learnt what a contract or agreement was during my first year of law school. That knowledge was only the tip of the iceberg in a practical sense, but it was a good starting point for me to start analysing this sale and purchase agreement to see how it came together and if there were any loopholes or weaknesses. All in all, I found inspiration from a simple agreement. Look at the bigger picture, and you will gain so much more.

(4) Create lasting relationships

One may ask, how does an intern use networking to effectively boost their career?

I would stress that it is not really about what you are going to learn during the internship itself (even though you’re going to learn a lot), but more about whom you meet.

Maximize networking and focus on the human connections that you’re going to make. Way too many people roll in thinking they’re going to learn about the law, when in fact 99% of the time you will probably have to learn from scratch again when you actually start working in a few years time.

Go to every after-hours event and say hello to everybody. It’s the people you meet in the law firms that you meet somewhere else, and are reminded of your good tenacity and your hustling attitude that are the ones who will give you future opportunities.

Bust your ass and volunteer to be on as many projects in different legal departments as possible, and leave a strong impression. Not only will you increase your learning, but you will meet more people along the way.

(5) Do your research before applying to any firm

Law graduates are now expected to have multiple internships listed on their CV by the time they apply for pupillage. It’s also common for interns send in a bunch of internship application emails, and just BCC-ing as many firms as possible without doing any proper research. It’s important to know the specialty of the firm before sending in your application. For instance, it’s pointless to apply to a firm which specialises in litigation when your interest lies in corporate work.

To give your application the best chance of succeeding, think about your goals for the internship before applying. Do the firm’s values and culture align with your personality? What are the areas of law that you want to experience? What can you gain out of this internship and in turn, give back to the firm?

All in all, internships and job experiences are valuable career connections. It’s up to you to see that your efforts pay off.

I had an amazing internship in PLVG, and I hope the tips I’ve shared here will be helpful to those who have yet to experience an internship. Make the most of your experience and start out right on your career path!

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