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by Mary Kate Sheridan | March 02, 2020

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Some future lawyers know exactly what path is right for them—whether they come from a particular background, have a specific passion, or are pulled toward a particular area for another reason. But if you are like most law students, you haven’t even cracked the surface of the myriad areas of law in which you can practice, and you don’t even know where to start. Perhaps you have taken some classes that have piqued your interest or have a general idea that you are more inclined to like transactional work more than litigation. But until you actually try real legal work, you won’t know for sure. Indeed, I have had many friends who thought they were destined to work in one area until they discovered their true legal calling in practice.

So what’s a law student to do? One word: internships. Actually, two words: multiple internships.

Why should you do more than one?

Law school is the one time in your life where you have free rein to test the legal waters without restriction. Even if you are certain you want to practice in a particular area, you should use your time in law school to try some other areas too. Do internships and/or summer associate positions over the summer, but also do internships during the school year for credit. The more exposure you have to real legal work, the better able you will be to narrow where your interests lie. And the more experience you gain, the better prepared you will be for practicing, which is a bonus.

Vary the internship experiences.

It may be tempting to keep going back to the same employer if it is a good match. Or the dollar signs attached to law firm work may draw you repeatedly back to private practice. But you should strive to give yourself varied experiences as a law student. Exploring different kinds of practice—and even different kinds of employers—can open your eyes to how organizations do things differently and how much practice can differ. When I was a law student, I worked in a prosecutor’s office, at a nonprofit, and at a large firm. I also did a legal clinic in cooperation with a nonprofit, and before law school, I interned for a solo practitioner. This array of experiences allowed me a much broader perspective into different lawyers’ work, how they operated, and how my professional life would unfold depending on which avenue I pursued. The experiences were invaluable in giving me a well-rounded view of the industry and also allowed me to whittle down where I would best fit.

What if you are certain of your path?

Even if you are 100 percent sure that you are meant to practice a certain kind of law, there are still different ways to practice almost every kind of law. If, for example, you want to pursue employment law, you may consider working at a large firm; a smaller employment-law-focused firm; an organization like the EEOC; a nonprofit focused on employment discrimination; or in-house at a company, handling its employment matters—and this list certainly is not exhaustive. Working at a few of these places may give you a clearer idea of how to plot out your career or help you determine certain avenues that don’t fit with your personality and goals.

Internships can help build your network.

One of the most valuable tools in growing and building your career is the professional network that you develop. As a law student, you are somewhat siloed in your school with your classmates and professors—who are all important contacts to nurture. Internships provide you your first connection to the broader legal industry. And if you decide to eventually pursue a path relating to one of your internships, the relationships you have built may open doors.

But shouldn’t you just focus on classes?

Sure, class is important in law school. You should build a class schedule that will help you prepare for future practice and for the bar exam. But real-life experience is invaluable and something that many law students are lacking. Internships expose you the kinds of work lawyers do on a day-to-day basis and how they handle issues in the real world, rather than in the bubble of a classroom. If you hit the jackpot, you will work with lawyers who will allow you to shadow them and who will provide in-depth feedback on your work so that you can be truly immersed in their decision-making and best practices. Aside from a clinic, few law school experiences can compare to working side by side with actual lawyers. And if you can gain class credit for it, then your internship becomes a class—one with far-reaching benefits for your own professional development and career planning.

Don't be afraid to branch outside of the law.

You're in law school, so you should focus on legal internships, right? Not necessarily. Like I said earlier, your time as a student is a period to explore. Many lawyers go on to pursue nonlegal careers or to work in careers that draw upon their legal experience but aren't strictly legal. If you feel, for example, that your talents will be best utilized as a consultant, start practicing your case interviews, and try to land an internship at a consulting shop. If you think you may try to leverage your legal experience to become a sports agent one day, connect with an agency and spend a few months getting a glimpse into that professional life.

The goal while you are a student is to narrow down your professional interests and gain some insight into which of those interests is the best fit. Seeing real lawyers or professionals in action and trying the work yourself will help expose you to your options, as well as allow you to build both your network and valuable experience that you can use when you actually start to practice.

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