Internships in Law – EQ meets IQ processing

January 1, 2011 at 11:22 PM

Internships in Law – EQ meets IQ processing


Hillary W. Steinbrook and Jim Stellar


Hillary and I met at Northeastern when she was a Harvard Law Student doing an internship in the legal office.  She graduated and now works at Wellesley College.  We wrote a blog post together in July of 2009 on the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell.  Now we are back with more of an interview to probe how she was affected by internships (in a way that uses the processes discussed in that book).


How do you think internships have contributed to your class room learning at law school?


My legal internships have consisted largely of researching a question and writing up a memorandum in response. I may start with a source such as Wikipedia or Google if I need a term defined or I need to familiarize myself with an issue, but otherwise my research is limited mainly to cases that I find on Westlaw and LexisNexis.


At the most basic level, working for a client is very different from sitting in a classroom. When I am expected to take a stand during class discussion regarding the arguments presented in the cases that were in the assigned reading, I analyze the arguments in terms of the social or economic policies that support or detract from the argument. In contrast, when I read cases in preparation for writing a memo for a client, I must view the arguments in terms of the specific client’s needs – will the argument appear plausible before a judge or jury, are the facts of the case that I’m reading similar enough to the facts of the issue at hand that the argument reasonably can be applied, etc. However, despite these differences, internships have contributed to my classroom learning by showing me that cases involve real parties with real conflicts. Reading numerous cases that have been edited down and compiled in a textbook places distance between the student and the entities that were affected by the rulings detailed in the text. Yet, learning to help people is one, if not the only, purpose of studying to become a lawyer. Internships have given me perspective on the cases and help me think about my reading for class as summaries of real-world interactions between the parties, rather than as creative writing.


Additionally, internships have provided me with the opportunity to improve my own argumentation skills. If I am going to present a memo to my supervisor detailing why the client should act in a certain way, I want to be sure that my assertions and suggestions are legally supported and clearly stated. These skills – ideally – should translate into an ability to answer questions in class with an understanding of how an answer should be presented.


You wrote a nice piece about the book “Blink.”  How do you think that kind of thinking applies to the contribution to learning from internships.


Much of “Blink” discusses the advantages and disadvantages of relying on instinct. Similarly, much of the practice of law is based on judgment. The steepness of the learning curve in the practice of law is due not only to the need to learn the substantive law in one’s field, but also the need to accumulate enough experience to be able to evaluate parties and situations accurately. A new lawyer cannot expect his/her immediate judgments to be correct most of the time, but with training this skill can be developed until the lawyer reaches the “expert” level that Gladwell describes.


Furthermore, a seasoned lawyer may not be able to describe verbally how he/she reached a decision, since the ability to judge may have been internalized over years. This inability to express in words how one has reached a decision is a crucial reason why internships are key to an individual’s success in a field. An intern must learn by example, rather than expect his/her professor or supervisor to explain why a choice was made or an action was taken. Experiential learning allows an intern to not only learn from his/her mistakes but also observe how his/her supervisor acted to avoid such mistakes.


How has this played out after graduation?  Do you think the internships gave you a lasting advantage through EQ or IQ (e.g. a head start on learning judgment or improved study so you simply learned more law) or both?  Or was the effect just swamped by the first real job and had no lasting advantage?

I was lucky enough to find my first full-time job in the same type of environment where I had interned: an institution of higher education. Therefore, my internships certainly helped me in terms of both EQ and IQ. For example, I entered with an understanding of the legal issues that face colleges and universities, as well as familiarity with effective ways of conducting research on these issues. I also learned during my internships in legal offices at higher education institutions that while these organizations may appear to outside observers to have a unified “personality,” in reality there are multiple groups within colleges that approach problems differently and have different sets of priorities. Knowing how to interact productively with students, faculty, and staff is crucial when working with these groups. It also is easier (at least for me) to be comfortable at a new job if the environment feels familiar; I could hit the ground running instead of needing a long adjustment period.


Of course, there also are broader skills that one can develop during an internship that can be transferred to a variety of professional settings. Students should view every internship as an opportunity to grow as a person and as an employee. At the end of the internship, students should be able to look back and think about the skills that they have gained from the experience, such as writing for different audiences, working as part of a team, or supervising other individuals, to name a few examples. Regardless of the specific internship that a student obtains, if the internship provides the student with opportunities to practice writing, public speaking, and analytical reasoning, then the student is well prepared for future positions that also value these abilities. Sometimes, an internship or job also can impart intangible skills that a person does not recognize until years later. For example, during high school I worked as an office assistant in a real estate agency. My responsibilities included answering the phone and scheduling appointments for approximately 30 agents. I spent a lot of time on the phone speaking with realtors from other agencies as well as prospective buyers and sellers. Therefore, I had to become conscious of the speed with which I spoke, tone, and enunciation. Several years later, I worked in a college admissions office, and my job included answering the phone.  A couple of years after that, I started looking for a full-time job after law school. As part of this search, I’ve conducted dozens of informational interviews over the phone. My experience at the real estate agency was incredible training for what would come later, and I had no idea at the time that it would be so valuable.


This is a perfect ending that you had “no idea at the time” how it would be so valuable.  This is one of the effects for which we strive in higher education and it (and the whole post) illustrates the value of experience coupled to academic classroom learning at all colleges and universities.

A view on student diversity and STEM education from someone raised in Jamaica

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