It should come as no shock that traditional law school coursework is insufficient preparation for the practice of law. Participating in a law school practicum program (also called an internship or an externship) is one of the best ways to get legal experience before graduating. And in a tight employment market, it may be the only way.
Here are some tips to get the most out of a practicum:
1. Do good work: You might not feel like you have much to contribute, and you might be right. But when you are given a project, do it. Beat the deadline. Do your best work. Try to be significantly involved in at least one project so that (1) you have something concrete to discuss in future job interviews, and (2) you develop the lawyering skills that other law school courses are not designed to teach.
2. Take the initiative: You are in the best position to know what you want to get out of the practicum. Don’t wait around to be offered a project or get invited to an event. If you want to sit in on a trial, ask. If you want to help prepare exhibits for a deposition, ask. If you want to help write a summary judgment brief, ask.
3. Focus on getting experience, not on getting a job: Some people have turned their practicum experience into a paying job, but you should look at the practicum as a learning experience, not as an audition. Openly campaigning for a job can detract from the educational aspects of the practicum, and might also make the employer uncomfortable.
4. Keep a journal: Even if your school doesn’t require it, it is a good idea to write down your thoughts and questions as you go along. Articulating what you are learning will help you get more out of the experience.
5. Stay in touch: Did you have a good experience? First, thank the employer profusely, and let them know that you enjoyed working with them. Politely ask the person who knows your work best if the person is comfortable serving as a reference. As you look for a job, find a low-key way to keep the person advised of your job search status. The employer with whom you did the practicum might not be hiring, but might know someone who is. If you have done your part to maintain the relationship, you are more likely to get a good reference.
So how do you get a practicum in the first place? Most schools have programs to match students with employers. If there is no existing placement at your school that piques your interest, some schools allow you to find your own placement. The latter route takes more legwork at the outset, but you will probably get more out of doing something you are truly interested in, and you will stand out for having taken the initiative to get the experience you want.