I’m 6 weeks-in at my summer internship and I am absolutely amazed at how much I’ve learned! I’m convinced that I haven’t used any knowledge acquired from my entire first year of law school. I didn’t expect to be able to think back to Pennoyer v. Neff or International Shoe or that-crazy-quail-hunting case (the name of which has totally escaped me). But I figured that I would at least be throwing around words like “collateral estoppel” or “adverse possession.” So far, nada. And believe me, it’s not due to lack of work or experiences at my summer job! I have done A LOT.
I’m spending my summer at the Legal Aid Clinic and I am so grateful that I’ve chosen to work in an environment where summer associates are handed a stack of files and told to “have at it.” From the very first day, I was given an enormous amount of responsibility with very little oversight. I have guidance available to me when needed, but only after I’ve exhausted my own abilities and have run out of avenues to search. The idea is that we are responsible for the clients so we ought to do everything we can to effectively advocate on their behalf. The Clinic’s philosophy (for which I’m utterly thankful) is that if we throw you in the water, you’ll learn to swim on your own. There’s no hand-holding – these clients are my responsibility. I’ve drafted mediation memos, attended settlement conferences, worked on discovery requests, and have met with my clients to discuss their concerns and goals. Thank God I had some preliminary exposure to the various documents I’m working with as a legal secretary and then later as a paralegal.
In all seriousness, law school is solely academic – as a law student, we aren’t really learning the law per se, but rather, we are pushed to develop the skill of “thinking like a lawyer.” Yes – the cliche´actually has some merit. The 1L skills I’ve put to use are all about critical thinking, analysis, reasoning, etc. I’m ascertaining the legal question at issue, figuring out what has to be answered before I can move forward, researching the law to resolve my issue, etc. This is all really important stuff. But even more than this, I am constantly amazed how much my prior paralegal experiences has played a role in my success (and comfort) this summer. For example, as a paralegal I’ve sat-in on numerous client meetings, have gotten a feel for how my supervising attorneys handle difficult or tense situations, how one of my former boss/attorneys would track down a form they’ve never used before, or how to contact the court (and treat the staff). I find myself frequently asking myself “How would Attorney Rockstar handle this situation?” or “What would Mr. Micromanager say?” I would say 75% of my job has been all about contacting and dealing with opposing counsel, the court staff, my clients, etc. I am so thankful to my prior experiences which have made me feel more comfortable doing these things, now, in an attorney capacity. The other 1L intern does not have any experience working in the legal profession and while he is doing an amazing job this summer, I do sense a lack of confidence and sureness about his work. He is often asking me to read his letters or he seems more apt to second guess his intuition. I think that’s to be expected for anyone who has not yet been exposed to this crazy world. But it’s far less painless to have had that introduction as a secretary or paralegal, when no one is judging or expecting you to know what to do.
Notably – I’ve been granted a wide array of discretion and responsibility because I’m working in a resource-constrained environment. I ran into a few classmates this summer who snickered at my decision to work at the Clinic (as they accepted “prestigious” firm jobs) and they have informed me that so far they’ve learned how to copy, scan, and google. While I am really fortunate to earn a paycheck this summer, I know it’s about 50% of what my firm-working classmates are earning (I know this because I was also offered a position with the same firm). And I’m happy with the trade off – it was really important to me that this summer represent a clear transition from paralegal to advocate and I’m happy that my goals are certainly being achieved. Best of all, my clients are so grateful for the smallest of things. It’s been really eye-opening and I’ve developed a keen sense of awareness for the needs of the underserved. I really feel that we all have a moral obligation as advocates to open our eyes to those in need and lend assistance to those in need.