Lainee Beigel, Career Esquire
Often times law students think they know exactly what they want out of their careers. They then arrive at the big firm office (mine had a view of the Statue of Liberty) and realize, shortly after the glamor wears off, that this was not the right move. This leaves you in a position asking yourself, “did I just waste 3 years and an obscene amount of money on law school?” A summer internship can prevent this kind of traumatic entry into your legal career, but only if you pick the right position.
The summer after my first year of law school, I interviewed for quite a few positions. For me, it boiled down to two: one that was with the city of New York, and one that was with a mid-size firm. I decided to take the firm job because it paid more, was located in the Empire State Building (which sounded prestigious) and because I thought a firm position looked better on a resume. These pre-conceived and uninformed notions led me astray.
While having a job that looks good on your resume is important, there's so much more to consider before making your decision. Many times students do not take the time to research what they really want out of a summer internship (or their careers altogether) and end up with a bad fit. Or they get a great opportunity, but don't know how to take advantage of their short time there. Therefore, when seeking summer positions and legal internships in general, these are some guidelines to follow:
1. Ask detailed questions at the interview.
This will allow you insight into the job you will be doing, and the value of the internship you are trying to acquire. Asking questions also implies to the interviewer that you are really thinking about the job, and considering what you want out of it. During my summer at the law firm, I didn’t like the type of law I was assisting with, and the partner I worked with was directly out of “The Devil Wears Prada”. I was working on meaningless tasks and sitting in a library while she was out at hearings. The only thing she taught me all summer was “make sure your nail polish isn’t chipped, it looks unprofessional.” Thanks for the tip. I regret not asking more questions and seeking advice about which job I should accept. To avoid a situation like the one In which I found myself, the following questions can be very useful:
- Will I be working with various partners or just one?
- Will I be working in different departments, or focusing in one area?
- Will I be able to attend Court and/or depositions?
- What tasks will I be performing?
- Is there opportunity to continue working here during the school year?
2. If the partner or associate you interview with is the main contact for the summer, make sure you can see yourself working well with that person.
During my initial interview, the partner was very intense and hardly smiled. She kindly told me at the end of the interview that interns and associates often quit because they can’t handle her management style. This statement was a huge red flag. Shockingly, on the job, she didn’t have much time for her interns, didn’t want to be bothered with questions and I could hear her yelling at her husband from down the hall on a daily basis. I should have known to work at Starbucks for the summer before taking this job, but I missed the signs.
3. Seek a position in an area in which you think you would like to practice.
Law School summers should not only be about money and your resume, but should also be about learning which career path you want to take. If you think you want to litigate, make sure you will get to observe what it is like to actually litigate. Choose an internship that allows you to observe what a practice area entails so you can determine whether it is right for you. When I started law school, I was sure I wanted to get into family law. After interviewing for a position at the Bronx Family Court, I discovered the reality was not the same as the sweet picture I created in my head. I went in a completely different direction.
4. Talk with firm associates and partners to discuss their summer experiences, and learn from those who have been there.
Learning from the experience of others, especially in the field you want to enter or at a company you want to work for, can be extremely helpful in determining what legal path you want to take. These lawyers have made mistakes they can share, and perhaps keep you from making them yourself. Remember, most people (especially lawyers) love to talk about themselves and their careers. Once you show interest in someone’s job and career path, often times you will get some valuable insight into how they achieved success. This will also allow you to make contacts to utilize in the future. I still have several mentors from law school internships that I call often for career advice. Success in your career has a lot to do with your network, so start early!
5. Look around and observe the culture of the firm.
Although it may be hard as a law student, try to think long term. Are people friendly? Do associates stay in their offices all day and only come out for lunch? At my first job, the partners did not speak to associates unless it was necessary. If I had a question for one particular partner, I would have to stand in her doorway until she decided to acknowledge I was there. I once stood there for twenty minutes while she reorganized her desk, (yes, I am serious). Take the time at your internship to observe these issues so you can spot them more easily when it is time to interview for a job.
It is perfectly acceptable to be inquisitive and interested at an interview and on the job. Partners and associates love an enthusiastic intern who is ready to learn, and who is serious about their position. Don’t let the kind talk and fun activities distract you from doing your research. Remember, you eventually want to end up at a firm or corporation where you can begin and enjoy a successful legal career, and however temporary, this is your first step.
Lainee Beigel practiced as an attorney in New York City for several years before making the move to a corporate job. She's since founded Career Esquire, a legal consulting firm, with the goal of helping law students and legal professionals choose the right career path. She specializes in alternative legal careers and work/life balance for attorneys.