For first-year law school students, landing a summer internship at the corporate level is virtually unheard of. Summer associate positions within corporate legal departments generally are reserved for secondyear students. More often than not, that has meant slim pickings for 1Ls in search of summer employment.
With choice corporate internships set aside for their more-experienced peers, first-years typically look to shadow a state or federal judge, or work at a nonprofit when the academic year ends. But even those jobs are disappearing, as public and private businesses increasingly are forced to cut budgets in an effort to stay financially solvent.1 Often, internships are among the first initiatives to go.2
In recent years, however, companies such as Verizon Wireless, Prudential, Microsoft, and GE have created opportunities for students to work within their legal departments and experience firsthand what it’s like to be in-house counsel. Although the economy has, at times, slowed expansion or resulted in fewer positions at these companies, law students can still find paid legal internships while earning valuable experience early in their careers. This has been welcome news for those who have watched the number of prospective internships dwindle in an ailing economy, and it has been particularly rewarding for those passed-over first-years.
Realizing the need to dig deeper in their efforts to court future attorneys, corporate legal departments no longer solely recruit 2Ls; many are starting to realize the benefit of extending their internships spots to 1Ls, too. It’s a strategy that is proving effective on two fronts: By encouraging a broader pool of candidates among law school students, corporations are not only adding to the pipeline of talent, but also are reinforcing their diversity efforts.
“We’re targeting first-years, and not many law students can say they’ve interned at a large company after their first year,” shares Barrington Lopez, vice president and general counsel of Verizon Wireless’ Midwest division. “Verizon has offered a great opportunity for eight to ten students [each year] to gain exposure to corporate America, and thus to understand the challenges of in-house legal departments.
“We’ve had a summer internship program for several years now,” he continues, “and we’ve had a lot of success with the interns we’ve brought on board. The students gain the value of the internship, and the company helps establish future talent that will consider us an employer of choice. And we want to make sure we’re doing our part to ensure that there are diverse and women attorneys among the candidates for our future openings.”
Corporate legal departments that host summer interns find themselves practicing a kind of delayed gratification. The aspiring attorneys who spend weeks training and working within their companies aren’t likely to become viable candidates for employment immediately upon graduation. In fact, law firms are widely viewed as crucial training grounds for newly minted attorneys; most corporations want recent graduates to gain experience at a law firm before applying for in-house positions. The prevailing sentiment is that, for law-school graduates who want to specialize in corporate law, a summer internship will provide the “lay of the land” with regard to the corporate landscape, while a few years working at a reputable firm will provide the right preparation.
According to Lopez, it’s simply a matter of getting a head start. By taking the time now to mold potential employees, in-house legal departments understand that, although they won’t reap the benefits of their labor until much later, the investment will be well worth the wait. “If we have the right talent, then we can start to groom them—and by the time they’re ready to come on board, they’ll be successful,” he notes.
Like Verizon, GE views its internship program as an investment in the future, and it is committed to cultivating its students’ professional development precisely because of the long-term implications. Because tomorrow’s stellar attorneys could be among this year’s group of interns, explains Gary Collins, managing director and director of compliance at GE Energy Financial Services, the company’s eight-week summer program has, and will continue to include, a significant percentage of 1Ls.
“They have the most challenging time finding employment,” he shares. “We feel strongly that if we give 1Ls an opportunity to work with us during the summer and, as we expect, they turn out to be top talent, they will remember us when beginning employment at their respective firms—and perhaps even come back to work in our law department after gaining critical law-firm experience.”
The key, says Collins, is providing interns with meaningful legal experiences. That begins with an orientation at GE’s headquarters in Fairfield, Conn., where students get an overview of the business, meet leaders in the law department, and learn what it takes to be a successful practicing attorney. Interns are then assigned mentors, providing an opportunity to work closely with an experienced lawyer who can offer career advice beyond the classroom. That could include teaching interns about the importance of networking, or encouraging them to get familiar with a company’s culture.
In Prudential’s program, one of the skills that the legal staff helps its sixteen to twenty interns develop is the ability to interview effectively. As part of a ten-week program designed to offer real-world experience, the company sets up mock interviews, in which students learn to field questions and get constructive feedback.
General counsel Susan Blount shares that Prudential’s partner firms also take part in the popular exercise. “Our summer associates really appreciate the interviews. They find it very helpful. Each year, they tell us that interviewing is one of the areas they want to strengthen. Our staff attorneys give them interviewing tips, as do attorneys at our partner firms. The goal is to get the interns comfortable with going to people for broader professional advice.”
Collins expressed a similar view, adding that the power of building a network—for interns and corporate organizations alike—often reveals itself over time and in myriad ways. “We want to keep track of our interns when they leave,” he notes. “If someone works with us for the summer, hopefully they’ll go on to work with one of our law firms and be a part of the team handling our cases.”
That has been the practice at Microsoft for close to five years. Sandy Brown, senior attorney and legal intern program manager in Redmond, Wash., says she has a network of close to thirty former Microsoft interns that she follows and reaches out to as they develop in their careers. Legal interns have been recruited from a variety of sources, including a historically black college, schools in the Puget Sound area, and top-tier universities.
But once they spend a summer with Microsoft, Brown reflects, they become part of an extended family. “Many of our interns have gone on to work in law firms, while a few have served in judicial clerkships. One is starting his own business, and another is now employed by a Microsoftpreferred premier provider in Washington, D.C., handling work on Microsoft-related matters, among other things. We make real connections with our law students. We stay in touch with them. We offer them career counseling and advice, because we want to work with future thought leaders who have an interest in intellectual property law.”
In Brown’s view, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of working with a class of interns is seeing how the students evolve and continue to develop in their careers. “Over the course of the internship, Microsoft integrates the students within specific practice groups and within the larger legal group, expanding their networks and exposure to a variety of legal issues,” Brown continues. “At a certain point, you see it just ‘click’ for these students, when they are hard at work drafting contracts or writing research memos, then racing between client meetings and networking events. They are trying to juggle it all, and they end up doing an amazing job. Seeing them take these skills to the next stage in their careers is not only professionally satisfying, but also personally rewarding.”
Whether it’s getting exposure to the legal workings of some of the country’s most successful businesses or finding a seasoned attorney to serve as a mentor, spending a summer as a corporate intern provides invaluable experience for budding lawyers.
But the law school students aren’t the only ones who benefit, explains Blount. “There are two things that we get out of hosting interns,” she concludes. “Our employees really enjoy doing this; they get a morale boost. And we make a positive impact on the profession from a diversity standpoint.” DB
1 See, e.g., Tara Weiss, The End of the Cushy Law Student Internship, Forbes.coM, Apr. 27, 2009, available online at www.forbes.com/2009/04/27/lawinternship- associate-leadership-careers-summer.html.
2 See, e.g., Eric Young, Law Firms Cut Back on Hiring Interns, SAN FRANCISCO BUSINESS TIMES, Oct. 9, 2009,available online at sanfrancisco.bizjournals.com/ sanfrancisco/stories/2009/10/12/story9.html.
Chana Garcia is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City.
From the March/April 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®