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April 22, 2019 Law Students

Fostering the Development of Law Students While Advancing the Legal Practice

By Rachael Bailey, Tommy Pan, and Ana Alford

Taking on law students at law firms fosters professional development and advances legal expertise in the professional setting.  When law students are given opportunities to work in legal positions prior to becoming members of the bar, the experience gained provides mutual benefits to law students and employers alike.  It is important to note, the true value of the opportunity stems from efficiency – employers should utilize law students’ full potential while providing mentorships to foster the legal minds of future attorneys. 

Employers and law students can mutually benefit from taking on law students in a professional legal environment.

Employers and law students can mutually benefit from taking on law students in a professional legal environment.

Credit: 10'000 Hours via GettyImages

Benefits of Employing Law Students

In order for law students to truly hone-in practical skill sets and further advance their legal knowledge, their work assignments and contributions should be consistent with that of a first-year associate, rather than those of support staff.  Meaningful and challenging tasks will sharpen their critical thinking skills, develop fundamental time-management skills, and further enhance the level of professionalism that should be displayed in the legal community.  Law students should not be asked to perform clerical work and simply provide assistance with filing and record keeping. Instead, they should be challenged with drafting court documents, preparing for hearings and conducting extensive legal research.  The emphasis should be placed on providing law students with mentorship opportunities, and the ability to learn and receive constructive feedback.  Furthermore, law students should be encouraged to network, interact with clients, and have exposure to various lawyering styles.  It will help shape law students as better professionals as they transition to their first associate positions.   

The benefits to the employers are equally as rewarding. Law students offer a unique perspective to completing tasks and conducting research.  Overtime, it is common for attorneys to get accustomed to practicing law in a particular way.  Law student employees can offer new suggestions and a fresh viewpoint on various issues.  Since law students are still in school, they are often more familiar with blackletter law and have access to numerous research databases, which can be helpful during discovery or preparing for trial.  For example, Westlaw recently introduced its newest product, Westlaw Edge.  Law students are amongst the first to have access to this new search tool.  Although attorneys may not admit it, legal research tends to become more difficult for senior level attorneys because they have fallen behind with technological advancements in the legal profession.  Law students are the perfect bridging mechanism in this regard.

Another positive aspect of employing a law student is the cost benefit to the employer and clients.  There are many internship programs at law schools where law students are compensated by receiving college credit, rather than a paycheck.  Additionally, many law students accept positions solely as a means of expanding their resume, acquiring new skills and offering pro bono services.  For those who opt out of course credit and prefer monetary compensation, their salary is still less than that of a first year attorney.  From a client perspective, the work law students perform can be billed at a much lower rate or offered as a courtesy, which can help keep global legal costs down.  For complex cases, law students can assist with discovery, legal research, client communications, and trial prep, all while keeping the litigation costs as low as possible.  For attorneys looking to expand their practice, another additional benefit is the ability to train law students based on their own standards and philosophies, offer post-bar employment opportunities to post-bar law students, and ideally, once results are released, hire these newly licensed attorneys who are already familiar with the firm culture and can hit the ground running. 

Challenges of Employing Law Students

Though having the extra help around the firm can be invaluable to attorneys and the legal support staff, most law students lack the knowledge or working experience to effectively contribute to the firm dynamic.  There is no doubt law schools prepare students in legal research and analysis.  However, these skills are mostly unrefined and conducted in a theoretical and controlled environment.  Many attorneys who have mentored law students or junior associates would agree attorneys do not hone in their legal research and analysis skills until two or three years into their practice.  For example, moot court and the majority of legal research courses are closed universes.  The facts in those courses are so specific that students usually arrive at only a limited number of “correct” outcomes.  Similarly, first year associates are given simpler cases where case laws are clearly settled in an area of practice.  The heavy lifting is left to the senior associates.  Once in a while, a promising junior associate will be given the opportunity to prove him or herself through a research project.  Even then, a more seasoned attorney will need to review the work and supervise.  It may be unrealistic to expect a law student to be able to perform such tasks.

Another factor to consider for a firm is the trade-off between billable hours and non-billable administration hours.  Revenues and profits do not often favor letting law students take on the legal work they signed up to perform.  By assigning legal research or drafting tasks to law students, the supervising attorney ultimately must review the work done and make sure everything is correct.  In the fast-paced setting of a law firm, few attorneys have the luxury of spending non-billable administration hours to proof the work of law students.  This deters attorneys from seeking out the assistance of law students to perform legal tasks.  What happens instead is law students are asked to perform mundane tasks such as making copies or putting together trial binders.  

Bigger law firms definitely have resources set aside to train and mentor law students and foster the next generation of associates.  However, the majority of firms do not have such resources and seek out law students because of the prospect of unpaid or cheap labor.  The system itself works: law students putting in the hours at a firm to get experience in return.  However, the execution often falls short of expectation.  Law firms need to find that fine balance of economically feasible tasks for law students while still making the experience worthwhile for law students. 

Law Student Perspective/Expectations

Throughout law school, the most invaluable experience is putting students’ classroom knowledge to use in the work force.  In order to do this, students work hard and aspire to be hired as a law clerk.  It is important to sharpen interview skills, as employers will likely ask questions that hone in on law students’ observance abilities.  As a law clerk, especially in family law firms, students will work with clients of various socioeconomic statuses who are facing the most difficult times of their lives.  One of the most important lessons learned as a law clerk is to pay close attention in the initial consultation with clients to better gauge if the case is worth taking, if the potential client is truthful, and more.  This is one of the reasons employers test law students’ observation abilities in interviews.  While this may seem senseless, a clerkship in law school teaches law students fundamental skills that are not taught in the classroom and helps them become successful, practicing attorneys.

Gaining a mentor as a law clerk is a priceless relationship, as law students can ask many questions regarding the process of a lawsuit, learn about local judges and their preferences, as well as how and where to file court documents.  It is without question that law students lack the experience and legal knowledge when compared to attorneys.  However, that should not deter law students from seeking mentorships.  In fact, many attorneys are willing to teach these skills to future attorneys.  Mentorship relationships may take time to form, as first-time law clerks may not know exactly what to ask in the beginning.  As time goes on, and law students become more comfortable with the work, asking questions is a great way for them to show their interest in the work and firm, while also learning from experienced attorneys.

For future clerkships, law students and mentors should keep in mind it is sometimes difficult for law students to understand a complex issue within a case, and it takes time to learn the attorney’s personal preference.  For example, most firms have a specific way to save files on the office server or have protocols for certain situations.  While it is a learning process throughout the entire clerkship, patience on both sides of the mentorship relationship is something law students will appreciate and benefit from.

To conclude, firms should take on law students if they have the resources to help foster the future generation of attorneys.  Employers and law students can mutually benefit from taking on law students in a professional legal environment.  Although law students will not be able to perform the same job duties as an associate attorney, that should not be the sole expectation.  The focus should be giving law students hands-on experience that at the same time will alleviate some burden from attorneys.  As a result, everyone grows from the experience and the legal profession will flourish.

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Rachael Bailey

Co-Chair, ABA Family Law Section Law Student Committee

Tommy Pan

Co-Chair, ABA Family Law Section Law Student Committee

Ana Alford

Vice-Chair, ABA Family Law Section Law Student Committee