What to Get Out of Your Public Interest Summer Internship

It is the second week of June, which means many law students are a few weeks into their summer internships. You may be wondering what you should be trying to get out of your summer if you plan to go into public interest.

First, you should think about your internal goals. Ideally, your summer experiences should help you narrow down what you want to do after you graduate. I always say that my 20s were just an exercise in crossing careers off a list until I found something that I wanted to do. First, I narrowed it down to law, then in law school, I whittled down the list of potential jobs further until I was pretty sure of what I wanted to do. Especially, if you think you know what you want to do, you should try to do that for at least one summer to see if you actually like it. I’ve spoken to many law students who came into law school with their heart set on a particular job only to realize they actually disliked it once they tried it out. If you try something and hate it, well, that might save you years of working at the wrong job after law school.

Another internal goal might be to gain experience or develop skills that will be helpful to you on the job market or in gaining competency or excellence in your chosen job. This is something you should think about when you are deciding where to intern. Some really great organizations don’t know how to run good internship programs. While the organization is great, your experience as an intern may not be.

I was underutilized at most internships I did as a student. I spent long hours trying to stretch a small amount of work to fill the day, not because I was trying to avoid additional work, but because there was no work to do. At other internships, I ended up doing clerical work that was undoubtedly helpful to the organization, but which provided me very little in the way of professional development. You’ll want to speak with past interns of the organization to make sure the experience you’ll get will be worthwhile. If you don’t know any past interns, ask the organization to connect you.

You may also have several external goals for your summer, such as developing relationships with potential recommenders or securing a fellowship sponsor. Even if you don’t end up working at the organization or even in same field, developing relationships is important. The public interest community is relatively small, and your summer supervisor may just be the key to getting another internship or job later on. You will probably get more traction from getting to know one lawyer very well as opposed to many lawyers only vaguely. If all anyone in the office can say about you is “oh, they worked on a memo for me once,” then it will be hard for any one person to write a killer recommendation.

And a recommendation from a practicing public interest attorney will be very important during the fellowship and job application process. Remember, organizations can’t afford to hire dead weight. Recommendations from professors only go so far. It turns out that high achievement in the classroom does not always translate into good lawyering in the field. An organization will want to hear from someone you worked with over the summer (a clinical professor, who observed you doing real legal work, can also play this role).

In terms of how to impress people at your summer job, the advice I have probably sounds similar to the advice on how to excel at any job: be enthusiastic, be willing to go the extra mile, be a self-starter and don’t require constant micromanaging, be diligent and dependable. Interns don’t always add value to an organization. Sometimes, they take more work to supervise than they contribute. Don’t be one of those interns! Make yourself indispensable to your overworked, underpaid supervising attorneys, and they will repay you.

You only have two summers in law school, so use them wisely.

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