After working in your field of law for a number of years, the details of your law degree and your job history before leaving school will begin to lose importance. When you're just starting out, however, there are precious few ways to differentiate yourself. Therefore, internships and extracurricular activities are crucial for securing your desired law job after graduation. Here are a few things law firms will be specifically looking for in your internship experiences.
Not just any internship will be enough to strengthen your resumé and give you a strong start in your field of choice. Law firms are looking for experiences that have meaningfully prepared you for legal work in their field. You should be able to describe the work you did in your internships in detail and talk at length about what was involved and what you learned.
An internship at a law firm where you're relegated to making copies and answering phones is not a meaningful experience in preparing you for legal work. A skilled interviewer will quickly be able to tell if most of your internship consisted of menial tasks. When looking for internships, you need to be thorough in your research and very clear in understanding what the expectations of the work will be.
Some law firms are accustomed to having interns and will teach them and use them very effectively. Others may not have any experience with having students in those positions, and working there might not be so fruitful. “Any legal internship should have the intern walking away with a better understanding of that specific field and the legal career as a whole,” says John Foy, a car accident lawyer in Atlanta. “If you intern with an immigration lawyer, you should be able to talk about briefs you wrote and experiences in court or visiting clients, for example.”
You want your experience in internships to set you apart from other candidates. Most, if not all, of your peers have completed at least one internship, so what makes your experience different? You can help your resumé stand out with an internship at a particularly well-known lawyer or firm, or simply by sharing the most significant successes you were involved in while working there. Stories about exceptional cases and successes you experienced will make your work memorable and also show the direct experience you gained.
Outside of formal internships, you may be able to find volunteer opportunities that also help your experience separate you from the crowd. Pro bono legal work under the supervision of a lawyer can be very impressive in terms of the knowledge gained and the different side of you that it shows.
Your resumé should tell a story. Just like a story, it needs to pique the interest of a potential employer and draw them in, but it also needs to tell a story of your aspirations in building your career. Your potential employer will look at your list of experiences and internships that you've gone through and try to understand the "why." What guided you through this process and led you to choose each step?
If you have always known the type of work you wanted to do as a lawyer, this is an opportunity to tell that story. Use the internships in your resumé to show your dedication and how you have worked hard, taken advantage of opportunities, and pursued your goals. If you weren't sure about what you wanted to do in law school and your internships are all over the place, that's okay, too! Find a way to make sense of the journey you went through while exploring your interests and finding your path, and share that with your employer.
Resumés can show an employer a lot about your experience and preparedness, but it only shows so much about the work you do and what you are like to work with. One of the most valuable things you can gain through an internship is a reliable reference from an experienced lawyer who supervised you.
A reference from a legal professional who can vouch for the quality of your work and your demeanor as a colleague is invaluable in seeking another law job. Your internships are a chance, not only for the experience but to build relationships with other lawyers as mentors for the present and potential references for the future.
If you work hard and follow these guidelines, you should be well on your way to securing your first job and starting out on your post-law school path. Good luck!