October 01, 2017

Introducing Law Students to the Inside Counsel Role

Carl J. Circo

Much buzz in legal education today centers on how law schools can produce graduates who are more practice-ready. Law faculties increasingly address this challenge through educational partnerships with lawyers who agree to supervise law students in practice settings. Drawing on my experience with the Corporate Counsel Externship program at the University of Arkansas, I am writing this article because I believe that Forum members would make excellent supervising attorneys for externship programs designed to expose law students to the special role of inside counsel, and to the important working relationship between an in-house legal department and outside counsel.

Traditionally, most law schools have relied on simulation courses (such as trial advocacy) and legal clinics to offer students practical skills training. Legal educators call these kinds of courses “experiential” to distinguish them from the doctrinal courses that dominate the law school curriculum. Simulation courses and clinics, however, only go so far in providing lawyering experience. Through simulations, students can develop certain discrete skills, such as how to conduct a direct examination or techniques for negotiating a settlement agreement, but simulations do not expose students to live clients, and they cannot replicate the dynamics of the practice of law. Clinics allow students to represent actual clients, but only in limited practice areas suitable to a law school setting. Moreover, simulation courses and clinics strain law schools’ limited resources, first because they require low student-faculty ratios, and second because the faculty who teach these courses must have highly specialized experience. Rarely can a school offer a simulation course or a clinic that uniquely helps prepare students to represent construction industry clients.

Over the past generation, more and more law schools have embraced a third form of experiential learning--externships. (Legal educators call these courses externships, or sometimes field placements, rather than internships because, from the law school perspective, the school is sending the students beyond the walls of the school for an external learning opportunity.) A legal externship differs from a clerkship in two important respects. First, students enroll in an externship course for academic credit. Second, and most importantly, the school and the externship placement collaborate to provide work assignments designed to help the student develop selected legal competencies identified as course learning objectives. The law school develops the structure and educational goals for the program and establishes and maintains relationships with organizations that agree to provide students experiences consistent with that structure and those goals. A faculty member oversees the program, teaches a supporting classroom component, and works closely with the placement organization to monitor the experience. A supervising attorney makes appropriate work assignments and provides ongoing guidance and regular feedback to the student and to the faculty. Externship courses often require the students to maintain journals or write self-assessment papers to foster iterative and reflective learning opportunities.

Several years ago, I wrote an article for the Journal of Clinical Education about the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Corporate Counsel Externship program. (An Educational Partnership Model for Establishing, Structuring, and Implementing a Successful Corporate Counsel Externship, 17 Clinical L. Rev. 99 (2010), available at http://ssrn.com/author=622638). Here are some highlights from that article’s discussion of special advantages of placing students in corporate legal departments:

  • Experiencing the practice of law in a business context—students see how decision makers in a business factor legal considerations into cost-benefit and risk assessment analysis.
  • Learning to translate law into the language of business—law students who wish to represent business clients benefit immensely from observing experienced business lawyers as they draw on legal knowledge to advise clients on how to achieve or support business goals, using the client’s terminology, not legalese.
  • Understanding the importance of corporate culture—by shadowing and assisting in-house lawyers, externs begin to recognize that every business has a personality of its own, influenced by a distinct history, value structure, and environment, and they observe how successful legal counsel for businesses operate within a particular culture.
  • Using law as a problem-solving tool—in school, legal principles usually lead to arguments or conclusions about rights and liabilities, but through a corporate counsel externship, students see how lawyers also use legal principles to help a client achieve business objectives.
  • Developing teamwork skills—legal education rarely teaches teamwork, but in most businesses, lawyers work as team members with other professionals who share common goals.
  • Discovering the relationship and distinct roles of inside and outside counsel—corporate counsel externs see how inside counsel manage litigation, transactions, and other matters outsourced to lawyers in private practice and how the best outside lawyers partner with inside counsel to add value for the business client.
  • Exploring career opportunities—externs work with lawyers who serve in roles they do not encounter in law school, and they often make connections and establish relationships that can eventually lead to job opportunities in both law and business. (Most recently, our program has been able to introduce many of our students to expanding opportunities in compliance departments.)

Most of what I know about externships I learned from our Corporate Counsel Externship program, in which students work under the direct supervision of in-house lawyers. Other programs, however, offer similar benefits in different settings. For example, we also place students with courts, government agencies, and legal aid offices and other not-for-profit organizations, as do most other law schools. Due to faculty staffing limitations (among other reasons), we do not place students with law firms, although some schools do. Even though I have not personally worked with law firm externships, I can easily envision outside counsel providing experiences comparable to what our Corporate Counsel Externship offers, especially if a firm can have externs work on matters being handled for in-house counsel. In keeping with the traditional academic perspective, we also do not grant externship credit to students who receive compensation for their work, even though the law school accreditation standards were recently revised to allow credit in those situations. Some schools have started to experiment with paid externships that also award academic credit, and more of these programs will likely emerge over the coming years. All of these variations provide to students hands-on experiences beyond what legal education can provide in regular classrooms, simulation courses, and clinics.

The supervising lawyers in the corporate departments where we place our students consistently report great satisfaction with their mentoring roles, and most of them are eager to continue working with our students and faculty. If you practice in an in-house counsel capacity, or if you are outside counsel who regularly works with in-house lawyers, I hope that you will consider contacting a law school near you to explore the possibility of accepting legal externs to work on matters for business clients under your supervision.

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Carl J. Circo

University of Arkansas School of Law, Fayetteville, AR, Division 11 (Corporate Counsel)