Virtual Practice/Virtual Externships: Past, Present and Future

By: Dena Bauman, UC Davis; Gillian Dutton, Seattle University; Kendall Kerew, Georgia State; Chipo C. Nyambuya, Loyola Chicago; and Amy Sankaran, University of Michigan

When we proposed a concurrent session focused on remote externships in November 2019 for the March 2020 Externships 10 Conference, we expected to be exploring a novel field placement arrangement, that of students working from a different location than their supervisors, and/or remote from the physical site.  A few months later, at the very time the conference was originally scheduled, we found ourselves in a global pandemic. We were living in the environment we planned to explore.

Overnight, our “novel” work arrangement became reality. Students were working remotely from both the law school and from field placements and supervisors. We planned to “model” a Zoom supervision meeting for panel attendees. Overnight, virtually all law school faculty, law students and field supervisors were relying almost exclusively on Zoom and other video conferencing platforms for classes, work at field placements and site visits.

Survey on Working Remotely and “Best Practices” Template:

Per our November 2019 proposal, we planned to survey the externship community about their current practices and rationales regarding remote placements. We also planned to create and distribute a template to use in evaluating and making decisions about virtual externship sites and advising students. We are linking to the template.

We distributed a revised survey through the national externship list serv in September 2020 that took a “snapshot” of practices before and during COVID. It also asked externship clinicians to consider what they might do post-COVID. [1] We used the 81 responses to create a template for assessing potential virtual placements and distributed the template at our rescheduled panel on October 23, 2020 along with a brief summary of the survey.  We used these three definitions.

  1. Traditional remote placement: Student and site supervisor physically present at the site, but remote from the faculty member.
  2. Remote supervisor placement: Student physically at the site but separate from the supervisor.
  3. Virtual remote placement: Student physically separate from both the site and supervisor.

We are including several tables summarizing the primary survey findings. The complete data report is linked here.

Pre-Pandemic: Few Schools Allowed Virtual Remote Placements but Many Allowed Traditional Remote Placements

Type of Placement AllowedPercentageNumber
Virtual remote10.78%11
Traditional Remote60.78%62
Remote supervisor11.76%12
None of the above16.67%17
Reason for not permitting remote placementsPercentage of SchoolsNumber of Schools
Students would not have the same immersive experience30.59%52
Students would not get the same or complete learning opportunities36.47%45
Supervisors would not give adequate feedback17.06%29
Reasons for allowing remote placementsPercentage of schoolsNumber of Schools
Benefit part-time/evening students19.44%7
Supervisors work in a different location16.67%6
Evolution of law practice16.67%6
Student want to work in virtual environments13.89%5

During the Pandemic (as of date of survey):  No Schools are Barring Remote and/or Virtual Placements

In response to the pandemic, we asked schools whether they were permitting a traditional remote placement and/or a virtual remote placement. 80 schools, out of the 81 respondents, permit virtual remote placements. 69 schools are permitting students to work apart from the faculty but are on site with the supervisor also present.

Another question asked why they were permitting these new arrangements. The three top reasons were:

ReasonPercentage of SchoolsNumber of Schools
Externship sites are closed or ask students to work remotely45.65%63
Students asking to work remotely for caregiving or other reasons31.16%43
Law school requirements10.14%14

Law school comments included: students need to complete graduation requirements, confidence that students are getting adequate supervision and experience in a new work environment, distance and traffic, and public health and safety concerns.

Nearly ¾ of the law schools said the changes have been both beneficial and problematic. As the pandemic continues through the fall, likely into the spring, and perhaps beyond, we will continue to learn much more about those changes.

Post-Pandemic: Training will be a Priority in Permitting Virtual Placements

Schools predict that training requirements for law students and field supervisors will be an important condition for considering virtual placements after the pandemic has passed.

RequirementPercentage of SchoolsNumber of Schools
Externship program will train students in remote work 22.73%50
Sites must demonstrate training for attorneys and students12.27%27
Supervisors must agree on training from externship programs11.36%25

Faculty Anticipate a Case-by-Case Approach

Factors that schools would consider in assessing the virtual and remote placement include family, health, financial and geographical circumstances, as well as the availability of the experience.  Schools also noted that it is too early to know if and how law practice will change, but that consideration is important in preparing our students for their careers. Additionally, we also realized that we need to scrutinize and analyze this nearly overnight reliance on technology in practice. Our presentation discussed these issues, such as access to technology and roles at home.  We will discuss those issues, and how they will affect our preparation of students for their post-graduate careers, in another posting.

Summary:  We believe our survey is a good starting point for future assessments, even as the pandemic continues to upend legal education and law practice.  Our template, which was favorably received at our panel, will help externship clinicians make decisions for placements and students, gather reasonably consistent information that they can use, and share with the community to build a record of useful information. Post-pandemic, we will depend on each other to share information about what we are contemplating and are implementing regarding virtual placements.


[1] Thanks to Inga Laurent, Gonzaga University School of Law, Theodora Pina, Santa Clara University School of Law, Sue Schechter, UC Berkeley School of Law and June Tai, Iowa College of law for their review and suggestions regarding the survey instrument.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: