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Tips for Law Students to Ensure a Smooth Start of their Legal Career

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You have researched, planned, telephoned, written, and interviewed with care. As a direct result, you have landed what may be the ideal internship for launching your career. You probably want to celebrate-not pause to identify obstacles that may still exist. Nevertheless, that is what the smart career planner now does.

Problems? What Problems?


Potential obstacles can often be averted early on, and that is the focus of this article. By checking certain things in advance, you can eliminate the more common difficulties interns sometimes encounter during their first days on the job. An unfamiliar computer system, awkward work-space adjustments, or the unexpected apprehension of a coworker can cloud an otherwise sunny start. Discovered ahead of time, however, such circumstances need not become problems at all.

Other normally preventable complications include
 
  • The unavailability of instruction and feedback
  • Redundant assignments that fail to provide good learning experience
  • Competing demands of multiple bosses
  • The "Monday Morning Syndrome" or a lack of assignments at the beginning of the internship or-worse-at the beginning of each week

The key to averting these problems is twofold. First, try to arrange a preinternship meeting with your supervisor to work out a fairly specific internship plan, preferably on paper. (A subsequent section shows you how to confirm those details in a learning contract.) Second, request a tour of the facilities and a brief introduction to coworkers and office staff, perhaps right after your meeting with the supervisor.

The preinternship meeting, tour, and introductions might take place during your first-day orientation, where interns and employees alike normally find out where their desk is, briefly meet some of their coworkers, and receive their first assignment. However, your purpose is to accomplish more than that. By sitting down with your supervisor for about a half hour and finalizing the items outlined below, you can avoid many of the false starts and lost time that are sadly common in internship situations. You can create a situation that allows you to learn and perform productive paralegal work from the first day right up to the last.

By meeting coworkers and touring the facilities ahead of time, you will learn about your new environment well before the first day on the job, while you still have time for whatever adjustments are needed. Adjustments can include seeking better work-space arrangements, arranging a regular conference schedule with your supervisor, or gauging the need for instruction on the computer network system. Adjustments can also include intangible things, such as the chance to visualize yourself in your new surroundings and to experience in advance the personalities and idiosyncrasies of those with whom you will work. A good preview allows you to begin your internship with much greater insight and self-confidence-already knowing what to expect.

To begin with these advantages, you should not leave these meetings for the first day on the job when important details might be presented hastily or not explained at all. Instead, try to schedule your orientation meetings before the internship starts. If you have any concerns about the internship office you have chosen, plan these meetings for three or four weeks before your starting date to allow time for returning to your second or third choice, if that can be arranged. But do not begin your internship "cold/ You want to "hit the ground running," as employers like to say.

A word of warning: in a small or solo law practice, you may have difficulty getting a harried lawyer to agree to a formal preinternship meeting and tour. Anticipate that possibility. Explain that finding time for this process early on ensures a productive start and good use of work time when the internship begins. And be prepared to compromise. With an overburdened lawyer-supervisor, focus mainly on your half-hour, face-to-face meeting. In a solo office, the facilities and staff will be limited and your tour a rather short one in any event.

If your internship is for academic credit, you need to make every day and every hour count as a productive learning experience, no matter what the setting. That means having at least a tentative plan agreed upon by you and your supervisor. And it means getting oriented (and getting the office somewhat oriented to you as well) before you start working.

The letter of confirmation you requested from your supervisor verified for your school's internship director the rninimum information needed for administrative record keeping and follow-up: the name of the professional for whom you will work, the office, the starting date, the expected number of hours, and generally the kind of work you will perform. However, to begin the internship with confidence, you need to be sure of even more than that.

When you call to schedule an orientation meeting with your supervisor, ask for a half hour of his or her time, privately. If you need to justify the time you have requested, emphasize that the purpose of this meeting is to make the internship as productive as possible-not just for you, but for the entire office. Mention a few of the italicized phrases in the following list as examples of tilings you need to discuss together. And be sure to thank your supervisor for accommodating this request.

When you finally sit down with your supervisor for pre-internship orientation, here are some of the issues mat should be confirmed before the internship begins:
 
  1. What will be your work area and how does the arrangement affect coworkers? Is an employee moving elsewhere to accommodate you? If so, perhaps extra courtesy should be shown to that person.
  2. What hourly schedule works best? Agree in writing on a definite work schedule. Calendar in several "flex" days to cover possible storm cancellations, car breakdowns, or a bout of the flu. Double-check the office's work calendar, too, for holidays and vacations.
  3. What equipment is available for your use on the job? Do you have ready access to a telephone, computer, printer, copier, fax machine, and the right paper for these things? What is the procedure when others need the same equipment at the same time?
  4. Are you among the fortunate few paralegal interns who will have occasional secretarial support? If so, what secretary will be accepting your work?
  5. Are there rules regarding use of the law library, conference room, and other shared spaces? Get such rules in writing so you can consult them later.
  6. What is the plan for overall supervision and review of your work? Ask for a regular schedule of meetings with the supervisor who will evaluate your performance. Try for at least a half hour per week-more if possible. If your supervisor will often be out of the office, be flexible about accommodating his or her schedule.
  7. If your day-to-day supervision and training are being partly delegated to others, get their names and verify when they are usually available.
  8. In the event of a client's emergency, whom should you consult if your attorney-supervisor is out? The name and number of another responsible attorney should be available from the beginning.
  9. What assignments can be given to help you meet your learning objectives and career goals? With your supervisor, rough out a plan for mutually beneficial assignments and experiences.
  10. Will you be receiving assignments from more than one person? To avoid being overwhelmed by competing demands, ask how your work will be prioritized among two or more supervisors.
  11. With multiple assignors, agree on a system for tracking assignments from various sources in the office and periodically informing all assignors about them.
  12. In this office, who are the best people to go to for various kinds of advice or guidance? Different coworkers have different areas of expertise. For example, whom should you see about computer advice, or for sample documents and forms, or just for routine help?
  13. Does the office have a procedures manual for support staff? If so, it serves as a valuable reference on the office's systems, policies, and protocols.
  14. Who evaluates your performance? If your school provides an evaluation form for supervisors to use, allow all evaluators to become familiar with it in advance.

When you meet with your internship supervisor, take along a note pad. As you ask the fourteen questions listed above, write down the answers. Try to get the correct spellings for coworkers' names. Find out whether any coworkers are from paralegal programs like yours. If responsibility for your routine, day-to-day supervision and training is being delegated to someone else, explore this situation with some care. Is the person assigned to oversee your work completely comfortable with that arrangement? Probably so-but if not, you now have the chance to resolve any misgivings before difficulties arise.

If a happy resolution of the matter is not clearly conveyed, ask whether you might assume some of this person's workload in return for the training.


About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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About Harrison Barnes

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