Legal Practice

Working with Interns as a New Attorney

Summer is my favorite time at work—not because of the nice weather or all the trips planned, but because we have a ton of student interns working with us, and that means that I’m going to get a ton of work done. A TON! Now, when I was still very new, I was uncomfortable directing students and didn’t know how to give them proper guidance. I would be disappointed in the completed work, and instead of confronting the student; I’d decide to just do the work myself. I think that is the method a lot of attorneys take because they get frustrated in the amount of work they have to do upfront for what they may not see as a lot of pay off. But, within the past few years, I’ve become more aware of what works and what doesn’t, and can attest to how much you can accomplish in your case load if you take the time to really supervise interns.

For me, the biggest hurdle was becoming comfortable assigning specific things. It just didn’t feel comfortable to tell someone that seemed like a peer to do something. Obviously, the older I get the less that will be an issue for me, but for attorneys that are still young and new to the profession it really means finding a balance between feeling too uncomfortable with assigning projects versus lording over and micro-managing them.

This is what has worked for me:

working with interns

One. Give clear instructions. This part seems easy but it can be the most tedious. I have found that it’s not enough to say, “mail this letter.” Rather, there needs to be almost a step by step instruction on what to do. I don’t mean to say that a 20-something in law school doesn’t understand the concepts of mailing a letter. What I mean is that if your office requires special processes to mail things; if you prefer UPS versus Fed Ex; if you need it certified; etc. etc. then it’s better to walk the student through what you actually need done (and how to do it, if it’s out of the ordinary) rather than assuming they’ll do it right and then get annoyed when it’s done wrong.

Two. Give short deadlines. I used to give files to students and tell them to finish the case by summer’s end. I was dead wrong to do that. Aside from needing to see what kind of work quality the student is producing; short deadlines are necessary to help the student understand what areas of theirs needs improvement. For example, if I wait towards the end of the internship before I really review their written pieces then it’s not giving them enough time to improve their work, and it’s creating more work for me to correct.

Three. Give background info. I can’t tell you how many attorneys I interned for that just gave me a case with no background information or explanation as to why the case had reached that point in litigation. It’s such a feeling of disconnect—that I was just churning out some motion draft without any real understanding as to how this was affecting the big picture. I get that this may be the easiest approach for some attorneys—and really why does this student/basic stranger need the nitty-gritty details? But, I have found that more zealous arguments are created when students understand the full concepts and details. It also helps the student learn about the actual practice of your area of law if you can explain how and why you’re at the point you’re at with the case. Obviously, this can’t be done with every case but I have found even brief synopsis of cases really helps them get a better grasp on the assignment.