Externships: The New Economic Indicator?

[From The National Law Journal]

The recession makes externships a sweeter deal for students

The lousy legal hiring market is encouraging unpaid student work, but deeper forces are also at play.

Emily Heller

September 7, 2009

Without summer associate programs to rely on, law students are turning to alternate ways of gaining practical experience and making connections that could lead to full-time employment.

Many students are doing externships to fill that need. They work, unpaid, for credit under the supervision of faculty and an on-site attorney at a government agency, nonprofit organization or sometimes a corporation. (By contrast, internships can be for credit or for pay.) American Bar Association rules prohibit law firm externships.

Once thought valuable but not essential, externships are gaining a new stature as students do everything they can to land a job. Demand for, and participation in, externships have increased significantly, according to law school administrators.

As the economy batters law students’ hopes for employment and law firms cut back or eliminate summer-associate programs, law schools are answering the criticism that they have done a poor job preparing law students for real legal work. Schools are revamping their programs, enlarging their focus to include many more opportunities for practical training. Externships are part of that picture.

Although significant changes are afoot, the way forward remains uncertain at law firms, where during the past 35 years more than half of all law graduates held their first jobs, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

“The No. 1 change is that people are seriously talking about alternatives” in the education and training of young lawyers, said Howard Ellin, global hiring partner at New York-based Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

The economic crisis has helped lawyers realize the “apparent irrationality” of hiring people two years in advance, he said.

Under the old law firm recruitment model, externships were viewed positively but not as crucial, Ellin said.

How will law firms change their hiring methods and priorities?

“This is so raw and so nascent,” Ellin said. “This is something that is not going to happen quickly. This is something that is going to take a long time.”

Law students have “got to do something to make themselves stand out,” said law firm recruiting consultant Jerry Kowalski of Kowalski & Associates in New York. Externships have taken on a completely different meaning. “It’s got to be something exceptional.”

There is a “huge, huge impossible backlog of lawyers looking for work,” he said. The average number of applicants for every government lawyer job — from local to the federal government — runs from 20 to 30, he said. Five lawyers apply for every pro bono position.

New law graduates are even competing against laid-off lawyers for judicial clerkships, said John F. Barwell, a third-year law student at the University of Arizona and student editor of the American Bar Association’s Student Lawyer magazine.

When employment prospects dim, externships take off, said Barbara A. Blan­co, professor and faculty clinical director at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. Her school’s externship program hasn’t been this busy since the dot-com technology bust of the 1990s.

The hottest externships at Loyola are in bankruptcy court — once seen as a mere niche opportunity, Blanco said. “Now everybody wants to get into bankruptcy court.” Firms need lawyers with bankruptcy experience and “bankruptcy externships have just exploded,” she said.

Seven Los Angeles-area law schools, including Loyola, collaborate on externship programs and are “all seeing exactly the same thing,” Blanco said. This Greater Los Angeles Consortium on Externships has produced a field manual for supervising lawyers. Not all of the schools record participation rates, but at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, annual externship participation jumped from 41 students in 2007 to 74 in 2009, said externship coordinator Wendy Haro.

This “significant up-tick” is only partly fueled by a poor job market, said Susan Gillig, UCLA School of Law assistant dean for academic and clinical programs and director of the externship program.

Law schools are responding to student demands for new experiences, particularly in the making of law and policy. UCLA and other law schools have created externships in Washington, and Gillig said that her higher fall 2009 enrollment numbers reflect new externships with the U.S. State Department, Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Defense.

“They get to see a legal setting that few lawyers have access to,” she said. “You can’t replicate those kinds of experiences in L.A.”

Even students not formally enrolled in externship courses are volunteering, just to get experience, said Carolyn R. Young, director of the externship program and a law professor at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, Calif. “With fewer paying opportunities for law students, students are more likely to — and I encourage them to — take unpaid internships in order to gain a similar experience.”

Students are asking about externships earlier, said Kelly Anders, associate dean for student affairs at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kan. “Students are doing everything they can to be competitive and you can’t blame them. They want to work.”

Externships are in demand even among top performers such as law review editors, Anders said.

“Students accept the value of externships in this type of economy easier than they might have previously,” said Ilona DeRemer, assistant dean for career services at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “They’re not thinking twice about it.”

Participation in summer externships at the school jumped to 75 this year, compared with 46 in 2004, said Carolyn Landry, Arizona State Law student services coordinator associate.

Externships alone are not enough to catch a law firm’s attention, said law student Barwell. Externships have become a necessity but are still “just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. The students who are getting hired also have found significant volunteer and leadership positions outside school.

Barwell, for example, served an externship with the Tucson, Ariz., federal public defender, then was one of a lucky few second-year students to land a law firm summer-associate position and then a job offer. Rounding out his seasoning as a job candidate were his experience at the ABA’s student lawyer magazine and as a Board of Governors member.

A NEW FOCUSThe increased emphasis on externships and practical training is one way that law schools have answered criticism that they have been inadequately preparing students for careers as lawyers.

In a 2007 report, the Carnegie Found­ation for the Advancement of Teaching concluded that most law schools gave only “casual attention” to teaching students how to use legal thinking in the complexity of actual law practice.

Although central, the teaching of legal analysis “should not stand alone as it does in so many schools,” the report concluded.

Law schools should expand their programs to provide students substantial experience, as well as opportunities to wrestle with issues of professionalism, the report said.

Thus, a bad economy is not the only reason for growing externship enrollment, said David Santee, Villanova Uni­versity School of Law assistant dean for trial advocacy programs and externships. Law schools are paying attention to this critique, he said.

Villanova has added new externships, such as one with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Santee said, and has enlarged its focus on practical training. Villanova’s curriculum is being revamped to add practical components to all classes in the same way that a science lecture class would have a corresponding lab requirement, he said.

This approach is not only what students need. It is what they want.

Law students want to be problem solvers, said Louis S. Rulli, professor of law and clinical director at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

“We’ve had a very strong upswing in demand” for externships and clinical courses, he said. “This is a generation that is used to succeeding.”

With less hiring being done the old way, it puts a new focus on a more realistic way of hiring — employers want lawyers who are competent, willing to learn and likeable, said William D. Henderson, Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington professor.

Those are all things that a law student can demonstrate in an externship, Henderson said.

“We’re in a period now of innovation” where old notions are playing a new role, he said. “The unintended consequence of the recession is that law schools may be rediscovering the secret sauce of professional development.”

Emily Heller is a regular correspondent for The National Law Journal.

5 Responses

  1. I was curious which ABA rule or rules prohibit externships at private law firms.

    Thank you,


    • Bearing in mind that I did not author the above article, my research and conversations with those much more familiar with externship administration than I did not turn up support for that statement.

      You may want to take a look at ABA Standard 305: Study Outside the Classroom. Interpretation 3, states that students may not receive credit for jobs they are compensated for, but that is the extent of it.

      • Justin, thank you, that’s my understanding too, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.

  2. There is an externship listserve. The comments on that listserve were generally that the NLJ article included a number of factual errors, including the comment about students doing externships in private practice. At Vermont Law School we have always allowed students to work with mentors in private practice.There are special challenges in creating an experience worth the full semester’s tuition students pay for their full time externship, but have found they are manageable challenges, balanced by the excellent opportunities availablel.

  3. Thanks Liz and Justin for clearing up the NLJ’s errors!

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