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Rainmakers Study for the Knowledge, Not the Grades: An Internship Can Transform Your Entire Career

published September 08, 2008

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( 21 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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<<Students, take note: You do not necessarily need to sit in on trials like Gray. You can take advantage of school-sanctioned internship programs and trial advocacy classes. While many law schools offer credit for these activities, some students avoid them because they are often graded on the pass/no-pass scale, rather than for a grade that will factor into their GPA.

What these students fail to realize is that relationships that are forged during internships can and generally do lead to business development activities later in practice. They even lead to job prospects during the pivotal period before graduation from law school.

While Ken Thompson, a founding partner with Thompson Wigdor & Gilly LLP in New York City, was at New York University School of Law in the early 1990s, he interned with Southern District Judge Robert P. Patterson, Jr. in lower Manhattan. That internship helped him secure a federal clerkship with United States District Judge Benjamin F. Gibson in the Western District of Michigan after graduation.

Also while at NYU, Thompson served as a research assistant for then-Professor Ronald K. Noble. When President Clinton nominated Noble to be the Undersecretary for Enforcement at the US Department of the Treasury, he asked Thompson to be his Special Assistant. Noble went on to become the Secretary General of Interpol, the international police organization based in Lyon, France, and Thompson spent five years as an Assistant US Attorney in the Eastern District of New York. ''In law school, the masses were running for the money, but I was running toward relationships,'' he says.

Those relationships have helped him build a successful litigation boutique over the past five years after developing a prominent reputation as a trial lawyer in the labor and employment group at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. ''Law students get caught up in the money, but if they just take time and are willing to be patient to get the money, it will come.'' Thompson encourages students to register for internships and participate in summer projects that will have a meaningful impact on their lives. ''Doing so will plant seeds for a lifetime,'' he says.

The value of an internship or enrolling in a trial advocacy class is not just those seeds, but the opportunity they provide for them to grow. ''If you want to become a trial attorney, you have to develop trial skills,'' says Gray. ''You need to transition from the moot court argument that never happened to navigating real-life events that take place in court,'' she adds. When you do so, you start thinking and acting like an attorney who can actually provide counsel to people. You also start building relationships that can bear fruit in the future, whether one year or ten from that moment.

Law students and junior lawyers tend to see opportunities with tunnel vision by fulfilling the obligations of the internship with a satisfactory result, or completing the necessary research and then requesting an additional assignment. The successful interns strive for excellence rather than a satisfactory result because their mindset is to learn and accomplish as much as they can from the opportunity. They approach an internship as not only another chance to get the meaningful experience Gray recommends, but also to learn at a greater level of depth, which she and Thompson demonstrate.

My first client was a referral during my fourth year of practice from an attorney with whom I worked as an intern at a nonprofit organization. There is absolutely no reason why your first client cannot come from a similar source even earlier in your career.

Sidebar: Beneficial Internships

  • Learn why issues are important, rather than simply what issues are important.
  • Listen to the answers people give, after they have answered the substantive question posed.
  • Ask people about themselves, as well as about their work.
  • Consider the factors that influence decision-making, as well as the decisions at issue.
  • Work for free, but make sure you are getting value in terms of experience and perspective.
  • Keep in touch with internship coordinators and colleagues as closely as you would with former employers and key professors.
Ben Gross is all about keeping in touch with professional contacts. He graduated with a JD/MBA from the University of Arizona in December of 2007 and was admittedly not at the top of his class. Like many people, especially students, he is not a fan of traditional networking. ''I never know how to network because I never know what to say,'' he notes. He does, however, religiously maintain relationships with former employers and their networks.

Prior to law school, he worked full-time as the paralegal for an estate-planning attorney based in Tucson (home of the University of Arizona). Before that role, he was a computer specialist consulting on various projects. At the beginning of his first year, Ben called his boss once a month until one day the attorney asked him to join him and a friend for lunch. Ben mentioned that he was looking for a non-traditional job working on legal issues for a nonprofit theater company. Two weeks later, he was on the phone with the president of the board of directors at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. ''Opportunities have arisen just having conversations with people,''
he says.

Matthew Swaya is the Vice President and Assistant General Counsel of Litigation & Employment for Starbucks in Seattle, where he has been for a decade. He has a degree in industrial and labor relations from Cornell and attended Brooklyn Law School. ''Go work for the government, Judge, or US Attorney's office while in law school because there is nothing more valuable than seeing real work issues,'' he says. He had a clinical opportunity to sit with a state Supreme Court judge in the Bronx and shadow an assistant US Attorney in Brooklyn. ''Practical experience gives you a framework for the rest of your life,'' he adds.

Practical experience also provides the opportunity to test oneself and make mistakes. It provides a forum in which to ask questions that practitioners normally should not have. Most importantly, however, it builds the foundation for a lifetime of knowing others with a bright future. Judges become higher level judges, US Attorneys become law firm partners and prominent government officials, among other professionals. As the career of a student blossoms, so too do the careers of all of those with whom that student had the opportunity to interact while in school or immediately upon graduation. These individuals form the core of a network, an advisory team and a prospective platform for client development.

About the Author

Ari Kaplan is an attorney and the author of The Opportunity Maker: Strategies for Inspiring Your Legal Career through Creative Networking and Business Development (Thomson-West, 2008). He teaches attorneys at law firms nationwide to organically promote themselves through the art of getting published and creative networking. Visit to learn more.

published September 08, 2008

( 21 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.