What Can a Law Student Learn by Interning at a Big Law Firm?

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We asked attorneys and other legal professionals what a law student can learn by interning at a big law firm?. We hope their answers will give law students a good idea of what it's like to work at a large firm. Do you know what it's like to intern at a big law firm Please share your thoughts in the comments below the article.

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Law students learn a lot from interning at a big law firm. One of the most important lessons is how to prevent a mid-life career crisis!

I am a workplace consultant (www.stevelangerud.com) and principal at Steve Langerud & Associates, LLC. Attorneys and law students making career andlife decisions are a core of my practice and I have served as assistant dean of a top tier law school. I have worked with over 15,000 people on career and professional development issues.

Here is what I hear from clients about interning at a big firm:
  1. I was wrong! I would love/hate to work at a big law firm. Many students have preconceived ideas about the work and culture at a big firm and no experience. The experience of interning provides them with a real experience with which to make a good decision. Many students hold out life at a big firm as the Holy Grail, but with no experience often make bad decisions on their first jobs.
  2. I am/am not a specialist. Many students learn important lessons about their personal and work style while interning at a big firm. They report that seeing the path to becoming a specialist is not conducive to their style. Other students learn that they get great energy from the depth and detail with which they are able to develop a specialty in a big firm.
  3. Culture and lifestyle matter. All big firms are not alike and you cannot judge every firm on one experience. The key is to be clear about what you need and then seek the firm that best fits.
  4. It's all about the people. The work done by firms remains consistent across firms. What changes is the people with whom you work as colleagues and those you will serve as clients. You should like them! And you do get to choose. So, know what you need from people and go find it. An internship is a great way to learn where you fit.
  5. I am/am not the smartest kid in the room. There is no equalizer as great as working with smart people. Big firms are filled with the smartest kids in the room. Can you keep up? Do you want to keep up? On the flip side, many students learn they are far more competent than they ever imagined. And this is where great relationships and careers can start.
A simple formula to work from the inside-out to be proactive in finding the right practice:
  1. Be clear about the skills you wish to use in the firm.
  2. Articulate the issues or topics of most interest to you in your practice.
  3. Identify the types of people who are most engaging as colleagues and, more importantly, who you wish to serve as clients.
  4. Finally, be honest about the environment in which you will thrive. This includes location, dress, attitude, compensation, competitiveness or cooperation.
Together, these four things will allow students to speak clearly about they need and for employers to help them find the right fit.

What I have experienced is that internships matter. But it is the preparation of the student before leaving and the facilitation of their reflection during and after the experience that makes the most difference in helping them make good career decisions. If this is done well in law schools, we can take a huge step forward in addressing career dissatisfaction and mid-life crisis!

-Steve Langerud
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My name is Jamie Hopkins and I am a Professor at the American College in the Retirement Income Program. I am also the Associate Director of the New York Life Center for Retirement Income.

Interning at a big law firm can be incredibly beneficial to law students for a variety of reasons. First, the student will be presented with an opportunity to build legal connections, networks, and even the possibility of obtaining a job offer at the end of the internship. However, the benefits of interning at a big law firm do not cease there. Instead, one of the biggest benefits of interning at a big law firm is what the law student learns about the legal field and most importantly about what he or she wants to do upon graduation. Many law students have had zero experience with the inner workings of a law firm before interning, so this is a way to test drive that type of career and figure out if it's the right career path for the individual. Sometimes students leave an internship program with a big law firm and realize that it is not the right environment for them to succeed in. Additionally, law students can learn some basic practical matters such as billable hours, research mechanisms, court standards, and are able to learn law in a few new areas. The cases that law students get to work on in their internship can help shape their networking and interview discussions over the next few years as it provides them with a real life case to leverage in conversation.

-Jamie Hopkins
Assistant Professor of Taxation | Academics
The American College

The most important thing a law student can learn from interning at a big law firm is to NOT work for a big law firm.

They'll witness associates working 6 and 7 days a week, 12 hours a day to make the big bucks for someone else. The initially attractive salary is not worth the soul sucking and health crushing experience. The billable hour is dead.

-Wendy Witt, Esq. | Advisors Forum Director

On one hand, the student can see the lawyers that are earning the income that they hope to acquire. And they can develop and showcase their research and writing skills and, hopefully, secure post-law-school employment in a tough market.

But the summer internship programs don't accurately reflect the lifestyle of the firm's lawyers -- there are luncheons, retreats, field trips, office-funded lunches, and few obligatory weekends. But if that intern is fortunate enough to be hired, the encounter the 2000 - 2400 hourly billing requirement (which can mean 2800 to 3000+ hours of work), resulting in regular hours from 9:30 - 8 when not facing deadlines, all-nighters when deadlines approach, and very few, if any, weekend days for non-work-related purposes. Exercise, family and social life suffer tremendously. And once you are in, and earning over six digits in your first year, it is hard to break away if one ultimately chooses that other priorities need attention. Some 'make it all the way' to partnership. Others don't. And many 'burn out' -- which actually may lead them to a more fulfilling life.

-Attorney Ian Wallach
The Law Offices of Ian Wallach

They can see how a law firm really works, politics and all. When they intern they'll realize a law firm is really more like a library than a vibrant, social energetic place with a happy hour like camaraderie to it, as one would see on a show like 'The Good Wife.' Instead of people constantly coming and going, hustling and bustling, discussing such exciting topics as sex, fashion, or politics, in a big law firm most people stick to themselves, spending hours in front of a computer researching and writing. If you're lucky enough to find a free minute to get outside your office the most you might get is a passing 'hello' from a co-worker.

So before a law student decides they want to work in a big law firm for the excitement, consider an internship to see what it's really like.

-Shane Fischer, Attorney at Law
www.fischer-law.com (criminal defense)

We set up a scholarship to encourage students to join a Federal or State Public Defender's Office. Because this opportunity is less lucrative, we created a scholarship fund to offset the cost and encourage more students away from big law firms towards a position at a public defender's office.

In short:
  1. Students join big law firms because the opportunity pays well. But being at a large law firm often results in your name being quickly forgotten and isn't always the wisest decision.
  2. We both gained more valuable experience at a Federal Public Defender's office. As an intern, employee or even an Assistant Public Defender, you are directly exposed to the widest variety of cases at a State or Federal Level.
  3. Due to our experience at a Federal Public Defender's Office, we were able to start our own law practice, which has been operating in Dallas for more than twenty years.
-Clint Broden and Mick Mickelsen

Pros: Competitiveness. A law student can see true competitiveness in action inside a big law firm with high achieving associates running around.

Negative: Inefficiency and bloat: While big law is striving to fix this, the legal industry is still notoriously far behind in technological efficiency and waste.

-Christian Denmon, Denmon & Denmon Law

Big law firms generally practice all types of law, from white collar criminal to trusts and estates. Therefore, an intern, which is usually referred to as a law clerk, can have the opportunity to be exposed to all different areas of law and thus, possibly learn what area of law they are interested in.

James Alston, Attorney

There's definitely a whole lot that a law student can learn from interning at a firm. Essentially, a summer associateship gives the student a taste of what a first year associate will do at a firm. The difference is that in reality they won't be working as much, not to mention there are a lot of social functions and events that they will be attending.

-Michael Pesochinsky, ESQ.

Immediately after law school, I was awarded a fellowship to work 6 months at a big, international law firm. Based on my experience, a law student can learn whether working in big law is for them or not by working in an internship at one. For example, they can learn whether they:

- Like the billable hours requirement;

- Are willing to work the long hours that are typically expected;

- Like working in a rigid, hierarchical environment (and if they dislike certain personalities and if the firm values new ideas and innovation);

- Like working at a satellite office (vs. the firm's main geographical office) that may not provide sufficient work and IT support; and
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-Want to work at an organization that prioritizes diversity, women, and professional development.

Ms. Avery M. Blank, Esq.

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