The role of law school internships and supervisors

Today’s ABA Journal contains an op ed by a law student complaining that “law school  biases”  infringe on his right to free speech. Part of his critique involved a change in clinical policies after he wore a #BuildTheWall T-shirt to his internship.

“It had been expressed that we could wear T-shirts, and that has been the norm for my one year at this internship. I took extra precaution by bringing a light jacket to cover it up if a client came to meet with me unannounced.”

Others are better prepared than I to debate the issue generally of whether his claims demonstrate bias in higher education or bias on the part of the student. Others can ponder whether as educators, we are more apt to be triggered by exclusive versus inclusive messages since we value designing welcoming learning environments  and growth mindset .  However, I am not interested in this school’s particular behaviour or this student’s startling apparent nonchalance about how his clothing affected his colleagues, peers and the workplace.  Rather, I am more interested in developing a better understanding of the difference between an academic discussion about self-expression, and the responsibilities and possible repression of some self-expression that most lawyers and law students undergo when donning their professional role as legal interns do.

In my 30 years in clinical education, I have witnessed multiple instances of clinical faculty navigating the tricky balance in communicating professional norms, protecting clients and academic programs, and  respecting a student’s rights. Here are just a few issues we have addressed:

helping students without wealth obtain professional clothing

multicultural insensitivity to clients by both majority and minority students

student difficulty interacting with racist, homophobic and/or sexist, clients, judges, witnesses or opposing attorneys

Unlaundered clothes, smelly students

tight clothes (in men and women)

Clacking heels, scuffed shoes, or wearing clogs all day, every day, one’s whole life

Hair over eyes

dirty fingernails

evolving norms around piercing, black women’s hair, women wearing pants, more casual clothing, hair with color not found in nature

evolving norms around cell phones in local courts, e-mail

learning to use an ancient device called a telephone, to actually initiate a call or listen to voicemail

navigating support for transgender students in unwelcoming situations

drooping pants, belly showing, off the shoulder outfits, cleavage

loud talking, gum chewing,

informality in general which can appear as rudeness to supervisors

“distracting” jewelry

women students raising their voices in a question at the end of a sentence

…and I am sure you teachers can add many more. Feel free.

As a law professor steeped in clinical legal pedagogy and theory, I start the conversation with a few  questions:

  • what is the student’s “educational goal” for her academic/professional journey or experience
  • what is the student’s “lawyer goal” in the context of this internship, case or professional experience
  • what are the client’s/workplace’s needs and goals
  • what are the needs and goals of the community that supports you having this experience — the support staff, the court officers, your sister and fellow students, the local legal community (in this area I first must acknowledge my priorities and how current student behavior may close off opportunities for future students)

Then I discuss with the student how the student’s desired self-expression fits within those questions and priorities, and the possible disconnect from her goals and the programs.

This is my approach.  What do you do?



2 Responses

  1. These are tricky waters to navigate as students make the journey from an individual identity – carefully honed through the high school and college years – to a professional identity in which they represent not only their own values, but those of the profession at large. And this is why careful faculty supervision and guidance, beginning with the questions you suggested, are so important. We clinicians have a whole semester to carefully guide clinical students moment by moment, but field placement faculty may not be in positions to immediately spot when students struggle to adjust to professional roles.

    At KU, we try to level the playing field by engaging all students entering clinics or field placements to participate in a required “professionalism in practice” training offered each semester.

    We start by asking students to take implicit bias tests before the training. At the training, we begin with the excellent ABA video on implicit bias and a foundational discussion of the concept that all lawyering is cross-cultural. We then break into small groups to examine and discuss a series of hypothetical workplace experiences, using the ABA Model Rules as a guide. The hypotheticals range from a conversation with a judge who uses an ethnic nickname for a lawyer, to an interaction with a client who wishes to press for a custody modification that is at odds with the tribal jurisdiction’s views on extended family, to a challenge faced by an associate mentoring a summer clerk who – perhaps inadvertently – makes a racist comment.

    We spend time discussing the tensions at each decision point. There is rarely a black letter rule on how to respond, so we sit with the discomfort for a while. Inevitably, at least one student defends the intentions or ignorance of the transgressors, often using an argument based in free-speech / individual expression. This provides a rich moment to explore free speech as individuals vs. as representatives of clients, a firm, or the profession as a whole, and the liability that could also attach when speech is inappropriate in a workplace setting. All clinical and field placement faculty are involved in facilitating small groups, and we get a fresh idea each semester as to what is most challenging to our current students.

    This is, of course, just an opening orientation. But we find that by working as a united experiential faculty, front-loading these ideas and setting the tone for all KU students setting out into the workplace, we help students to identify and feel more comfortable reflecting on these issues as they arise through the semester.

  2. This is such an important issue because it really gives us an opportunity to level the playing field so that all our students are competitive for jobs regardless of previous knowledge of lawyer garb. Often alumnae are happy to step in and give advice which may be more appropriate than those of us who give grades. I tell students that the law interview outfit is essentially a costume that people don’t notice if you are wearing but notice something’s wrong if you’re not—And might wonder what else you don’t know.
    I’ve also advised students to go to target and buy a timex watch ( maybe we should have a few available for them ). It helps keep them on schedule and reduces the urge to look at their phone . I’m more specific talking about what they should wear when attending events at the med school where even students tend closer to business casual than regular casual. This also involves closed toed shoes (even in summer) and not a lot of exposed skin because it’s a messy environment, But at the same time no need to wear a suit and tie. I wish there had been someone to tell me not to wear a dress decorated with multiple metal buttons on my first visit to Florida’s death row—It made the process of getting in much more difficult And the unusually patient guard somewhat unnecessarily advised me not to wear it again.
    For all the ways it is uncomfortable to talk to students about something as close to their identity as what they’re wearing and how they style their hair, I think we owe them a duty to find a way so that they are making their own choices based on full information—not because they are unaware of conventions

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