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Student Essentials

What to Know about Your First Summer Internship

Bill Chamberlain

What to Know about Your First Summer Internship

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The 1L summer internship is the capstone to the first year of law school. You can finally get out of the classroom and put what you’ve learned to use in actual legal practice. No matter what students do over the first summer, I find that when they return to campus, they’re universally charged up and focused and have a much better idea about what they want to do in their legal career.

The conventional wisdom is that it doesn’t matter what you do during your first summer, as long as you’re getting legal experience. If you do know, however, that you want to be a criminal prosecutor, your path is clear—most state prosecutors’ offices, particularly in larger cities, will take almost all comers. If you’ve ever wanted to be a sports or entertainment lawyer or to work in a museum or in fashion law, this is the summer to try out these niche areas and find out whether the day-to-day life with these employers is what you really want (or did you just want to be working with Kris Bryant or Beyonce?). While full-time jobs in these areas are few, unpaid summer internships will be more plentiful.

The Vast Majority of First-Year Summer Jobs Are Unpaid

Big firms seldom hire 1Ls anymore—experience has shown them that most 1L summer associates end up going to the firms where they spend their 2L summers.

Smaller firms usually look first for 2Ls as well because the 2Ls will have had some of the substantive courses that will make them more useful to the firm, such as evidence, corporations, tax, wills and trusts, real estate transactions, or intellectual property, to name a few.

So with most of the positions unpaid, you may not need to put in full-time hours to get internship credit and can do something non-legal on the side to make some bucks.

You generally can’t afford to wait to see whether Plan A works out before applying for Plan B.

What Should You Expect to Do at Your Unpaid Summer Internship?

Primarily, you’ll be doing research and writing. For most employers, you won’t be writing long memos, but you will use the basic IRAC structure you learned in legal writing to analyze real-life legal problems.

Don’t overlook judicial externships. Working for a judge is a great way to improve your legal writing skills, see lots of good and not-so-good attorneys in action, and see how law is made. You may also decide you want to pursue a post-graduate judicial clerkship.

Building Your Legal Network

Many of you have worked in a professional, and perhaps even in a legal, environment before law school. But others won’t have more job experience than summer jobs during undergraduate school. Your first summer legal job is a great place to begin building your legal network.

Most law students don’t get their post-grad jobs based on their transcripts but through their work experiences in law school, both paid and unpaid, and through the connections they make at networking events at school and through recommendations from employers. The summer is the time to learn how to work in a professional environment if you haven’t already or in a legal environment if you have. Be attuned to office culture and learn how to navigate office politics and work with people with differing styles.

When to Apply

The timeline for applying for summer intern-ships begins December 1 and continues through May. If you want to try for a large firm or be considered by a highly competitive employer, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Sierra Club, or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, get your applications in as soon after December 1 as possible—though most employers will write back thanking you for your application and asking that you send them your first semester grades. The vast majority of employers hire between February and May (yes, even that late!).

Judges tend to hire early. Government agencies and nonprofits have later deadlines. Small firms will hire closer to summer when they know their needs. Don’t be ashamed, either, if you end up working at a relative’s law firm for the summer—and the name of the firm is the same as yours.

Lean on Your Career Office

Be sure to have your resume and cover letter reviewed by your career office—these folks are the experts. Because the hiring period for 1Ls is shorter than for 2Ls, apply broadly. You generally can’t afford to wait to see whether Plan A works out before applying for Plan B.

Use the winter break to meet with alums in practice areas that interest you. Your career office can give you alumni contacts in various practice areas. Join local and national bar associations as well as affinity bar associations, and attend lunches and other events, including continuing legal education events.

A few words about the new ABA rule that allows each law school to determine whether to allow credit for paid internships: Given the additional hoops private employers will have to jump through to allow credit, the option may not be as popular with employers as it is with students.

The really good news is that every 1L who works with his or her career office will get a summer job. The vast majority of you will have great experiences that’ll be your first step on the road to getting a job after law school.