A lot of advice exists on how to start off an internship strong (which is very useful), but not enough advice exists on how to cross the finish line as a model student intern.
I’ve had students that don’t “get” the mission regarding poverty law. They didn’t realize not all lawyers are in court every day of the week; or they realize that it’s not as prestigious as they would like; or they realize that this just isn’t the area of law in which they want to practice. Those are all fair realizations. But what is unacceptable, is when students decide that they won’t try to meet the minimum standard, and stop putting in the work.
Not only does that effect your supervising attorney, but it negatively affects their perception of your school, your own work ethic, and most importantly you are doing a disservice to the client. In public interest, where a client is often of the very marginalized and in dire need of legal justice, it is completely uncool to not provide your best quality services (I have a feeling practitioners in all areas of the law feel the same).
Here is how to end things strong and possibly score a reference.
1) To borrow a phrase from Sheryl Sandberg–don’t leave before you leave. This means that you work the hours you committed to when you first signed up for the gig. It also means that you don’t mentally check out before it’s time to go. Let me be real, I had one really horrible internship experience that had a toxic environment, and supervisors unwilling to teach even the most basic things about their practice. Most days, I felt like I was lost at sea. I was frustrated and upset because I knew I could do the work, but I wasn’t being given the appropriate guidance to do it competently. I felt defeated. So, I mentally left before it was time. I did the most basic work and just counted down the days until the end of the internship. I’m sure I would have been assessed as very average, if that. In retrospect, I could have handled things better. I could have been more proactive in my experience. That would have kept me mentally upbeat, and left them with a better idea of my abilities. Remember that your time at the agency will end soon, but your reputation will stay for a long time. Leave a positive image.
2) Try to learn anyway. Maybe two months in, you figured out that you never, ever want to be a personal injury attorney, or in big law, or a prosecutor. That’s ok. Try to learn anyway. Pick up the basic skills of lawyering. Maybe you can observe a deposition–who cares if it’s regarding a personal injury case? The point is you’re learning how to participate in a depo. Maybe you don’t ever want to be a prosecutor, but you can learn how to interview witnesses. I can go on and on. The art and basic skills of lawyering is the foundation of every practice area. What you learn in one area creates skills you can use in another. Use the time you have left to strengthen your lawyering skills even if you never plan to work in this specific area of law.
3) Don’t Slack Off. Seriously. I know it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees, and forget that this summer stint is a stepping stone in your legal career. But remember that even in internships, you are creating your legal reputation, and you’re honing your work habits. At your first paid job, post-law school, you won’t be able to skip out early or neglect deadlines just because the work doesn’t interest you. More importantly, there won’t be as big of a safety net for the clients as there is while interning. It is so important that you 1) finish all the assignments 2) in the time frame given to you. If you cannot do that, talk to the attorney as soon as you don’t think it’s going to happen to give them a warning. Extra points if you can do a closing memo, or just a brief email detailing a summary of your assignments, and any important dates/information at the end of your internship.
Finally, you would think this goes without saying, but…
4) Make sure to say goodbye in person! I always attempt to give the student some token of appreciation for their hard work so a face-to-face is inevitable. However, there have been instances where a student kind of slinks away without saying a word. It’s awkward and weird, and it has almost always been the students that never rose to the potential that they claim to possess during interviews. I don’t expect adoration at these goodbyes, but I do like to get a general assessment from the students (I know I’m not perfect, and would like to know how to improve), and it’s just the civil thing to do when someone has taken the time out to help you learn and grow.
Plus, this is where many attorneys will offer to be a reference for you. Make sure you remember those offers, and keep their contact info handy for future applications!
I know there are some agencies that are so toxic and badly managed that there’s no saving your experience. Still, unless you’re facing an actual physical risk, consider it a learning opportunity and do what you can to make this a positive outcome for yourself.
An edited version of this post first appeared on Ms JD on July 18, 2014.