Practice, Not Theory: Externs Obtain Experience Beyond the Classroom

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This story is from the Spring-Summer 2013 issue of Carolina Law.

In her third year in law school, Janie Hauser was already forming federal litigation policy. Through UNC School of Law’s semester in-practice externship program, she was selected to work in Washington, D.C., for the Department of Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Section, which handles civil enforcement of environmental laws. The lawyer supervising her asked her to research possible legal theories and arguments for and against whether to pursue litigation, look into a settlement strategy, or dismiss a case with wide-reaching implications.

Because the assistant section chief had to approve the final decision about what to do with the case, Hauser presented her findings and opinion directly to him.

“He is important and busy, and he was listening to my opinion on strategy for a multi million-dollar environmental law case,” Hauser says. “This was an experience I would never be able to get in a classroom.” Hauser’s experience is why law schools around the country, like Carolina Law, are expanding opportunities for students to obtain practical experience before graduating. Maria Savasta-Kennedy co-founded, with now-retired law professor Richard Rosen ’76, UNC’s externship program more than a decade ago in response to students’ vote to increase tuition to boost the number of skills courses and clinics and create an externship program.

Janie Hauser 3L, left, was selected to work in Washington, D.C., for the Department of Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Section through the externship program. Maria Savasta-Kennedy, clinical professor of law and director of the externship program, advised her throughout her semester-in-practice.

“Just as you wouldn’t graduate students from med school without having them see a patient, you shouldn’t graduate law students until they have had some exposure to the actual practice of law,” says Savasta-Kennedy, a law professor and the externship program’s director.

A marked tightening in the legal field in recent years has changed the job market for new law school graduates and the expectations of prospective employers.

“Employers expect students to come out of law school well-trained,” she says. “Clients are no longer willing to pay for new attorneys’ on-the-job training.”

At its inception in 1999, UNC’s externship program enabled 34 students to work with judges and state agencies to gain practical experience. Since then the program has expanded to more than 100 sites, including state and federal district attorneys’ and public defenders’ offices, the N.C. General Assembly, nonprofits and in-house corporate counsel opportunities. Students can choose from a 5-credit summer program, a 3-credit spring or fall program, or a 12-credit full semester in practice at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., the Securities and Exchange Commission in New York or Atlanta, or the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville or Chapel Hill. This year, the 3-credit program grew to accept as many as 55 students each semester, the semester-in-practice to enroll up to 15 students, and the summer program to place at least 50 students.

An externship is an unpaid academic program that offers course credit, unlike a summer associate position, which is paid (and a law firm can bill clients for those student hours) or an unpaid internship, neither of which provides credit toward graduation. The summer program is open to 1Ls and 2Ls, but the 3-credit option during the academic year and the semester-in-practice program are open only to 3Ls. Students apply to the externship program and, once accepted, meet with Savasta-Kennedy or associate clinical professor Janine Zanin to examine their career goals and determine which program option and sites would best move them forward. Students may apply to up to four sites. The site supervisors decide whom to interview and ultimately select.

“We try to offer students an array of placements, including those such as corporate counsel that don’t typically hire students in the summer or straight out of law school,” Savasta-Kennedy says. “In the legal field, where jobs are increasingly difficult to get, the more training and experience you have when you graduate the better.”

Externs don’t expect to be hired by the organizations they work with, but the networking opportunities can be invaluable. Hauser is completing a master’s in public policy along with her law degree. During her semester in Washington, she had the chance to meet – and impress – attorneys she worked alongside at the DOJ, as well as attorneys in environmental law firms and executives in nonprofits. Though her time in the nation’s capital confirmed that she wanted to develop her career in North Carolina, the people she met in D.C. are well-connected in her field and will be resources she can draw on in years to come.

“After three and a half years in graduate school, I thought it would be more beneficial for me to get out there and practice in a government setting,” she says. “You don’t get practical experience in a Socratic classroom.”

At the DOJ, she wrote motions and helped write a complaint, conducted discovery work and wrote lots and lots of memos, she says. “That will help me be more effective at my job from Day One.” In addition to getting feedback from her site supervisor and other attorneys she worked with, Hauser turned in a weekly journal assignment to Savasta-Kennedy, who gave Hauser a different topic to examine each week — everything from attorney-client privilege to office politics. Instead of a letter grade, externs receive feedback on their skills development and work product, including an extensive midterm and final evaluation. Students participate in telephone and video conferences with other 3Ls in the program to stay connected while they are away. Savasta-Kennedy does mid-semester site visits and arranges lunchtime video seminars led by UNC professors who draw alumni at the externship sites who want to see their former professors.

“It’s a nice way to keep everyone in the Carolina community connected,” Savasta-Kennedy says. An externship can serve as a job audition in some instances. Asher Spiller wanted to clerk for a judge after law school. As a 3L, he landed an externship with U.S. Court of Appeals Judge James Wynn Jr. of the 4th Circuit. Spiller was given hands-on experience and a voice in discussions.

“I was exposed to different areas of law and all stages of the process,” Spiller says. “In a judicial externship, you’re looking at a case before the decision has been handed down. You see how the decision is made and the thinking that goes into it.”

As part of his externship, Spiller went to Richmond, Va., to hear oral arguments in federal appeals cases. “You observe the strategies of the litigants,” he says. “You learn a lot about what is effective, what works and what doesn’t. You see the different styles of the judges and the different styles of the litigants.”

The experience solidified his desire to clerk, and he proved his capability to Judge Wynn, who offered Spiller a clerkship to begin in 2014.

Elliott Deaderick took advantage of the 3-credit program, externing at the N.C. Small Business and Technology Development Center in Raleigh in the fall and Cisco Systems in Research Triangle Park in the spring. He plans a career in intellectual property law and patent work.

“I wanted to understand different sides of the legal work and legal issues,” Deaderick says. “In those two extern situations, I could get that experience while earning class credit and acquiring valuable lawyering skills.”

In the 3-credit program, he worked 10 to 12 hours a week onsite, as part of his 3L course load. “Understand the time commitment and how to balance that with the requirements for your classes,” he advises others considering an externship.

His on-site supervisor gave him feedback on his work and a surprising amount of autonomy.

Treating externs like a junior attorney makes for a more rewarding externship experience, says Alex Chu ’07, associate counsel and extern site supervisor for Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina. Chu, a former extern, runs the program like an apprenticeship, giving externs a broad variety of work, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, and helping them hone their craft to be the best attorneys they can be when they enter the workforce.

“We don’t have time for make-work projects,” Chu says. “Externs work on pieces of a project where it is their responsibility to complete that piece to help the lead attorney respond to a client.” Chu has arranged for externs to give presentations in-house to teach senior attorneys about topics such as social media.

Though new law school graduates rarely are hired as in-house counsel, a recommendation from BCBSNC strengthens a new grad’s resume package.

Hauser, following her DOJ externship, agreed.

“Having U.S. Department of Justice experience on my resume is invaluable,” Hauser says. “No one’s going to look at that and say, ‘You should have spent an extra semester in the classroom.’”

-May 6, 2013

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