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Real World
Tips on keeping an internship.
By Susan Howery

March/April 2001 Issue

As the poet and dancer Isadora Duncan once wrote, “What one has not experienced, one will never understand in print.”

Although I doubt Duncan was addressing the issue of internships, nothing could be closer to the truth. Experience can be a harsh teacher, but the lessons learned are carried with us for many years. These lessons are direct, concrete and often provide a true awakening to the reality of the working world.

Many student interns will run the gamut when dealing with various types of personalities and issues presented in the workplace. One of the biggest obstacles for any paralegal educator is teaching professionalism. It’s not exactly a tangible skill, but one needed.

While I can teach the basics of civil litigation and legal research, and speak on the exceptions of laws and the nuances of contracts, I can’t properly prepare my students for the working world. Still, I attempt to prepare students a little by requiring they complete internships at the end of their studies. I hope this will accomplish a few things: offer real-world experience in law, provide something tangible for students to put on their resume and, finally, to apply some polish on the apple.

The latter may not happen within the time students have to complete their internship. I require each student work 150 hours in a legal setting (e.g., a government office, a law office or a corporation).

While we role-play in the classroom to simulate a law office, there is no preparation for what it will really be like. What do you do when the politics get thick? For example, a firm’s long-term legal secretary resents you because she thinks you believe you are above her in status. How would you handle this situation? What do you do when the supervising or senior lawyer tends to be a yeller? What should you wear to the office? How will you answer the telephone or intercom? Can you chew gum at work?

Reality Bites
I have had three students fired from internships. For most students, the thought of being asked to leave an internship, particularly since they are pouring their sweat and blood into a free working experience, never crosses their minds. It can and does happen.

For example, one of my students didn’t hit it off from day one with a firm’s secretary. The legal secretary had been working for this particular supervising attorney for years, and he is a sole practitioner. As a result, the student intern had to work closely with the only other staff member in the office: the legal secretary.

I am still uncertain if the student intern came into the internship with an attitude that she would be working above the legal secretary, or whether the legal secretary was completely paranoid and losing her grip on her status in the law firm. Regardless, it was a nightmare for all concerned, and resulted in a mediation between the lawyer, the student intern, the legal secretary and myself. We all decided to terminate the internship because irreparable harm had been done. The student had to start an internship somewhere else and managed to finish it without incident.

The most recent firing was for cigarette smoking. The student intern smoked, though not at the office. She was told it was a nonsmoking office when she started the internship. What she and I didn’t know was that nonsmoking meant the student could not smoke on or off the job.

I received a frantic phone call from the supervising attorney saying the senior attorney complained that the intern smelled of smoke at the office, and it could never happen again.

I was completely dumfounded. This was a new one on me. I called the student, told her what had transpired, and suggested she not smoke, if at all possible, or wear heavy perfume and shower before work. She advised me that others smoked in the office, and they smoked together on their lunch break. I also suggested she try not to smoke at lunch.

Later, I received another frantic phone call from the supervising attorney. He said the student once again smelled of smoke, and she could not work there anymore.

Shortly after, the student came to my office and asked me to smell her for smoke. She showed me the spray bottle of perfume she had bought to cover up any smell. We were both completely perplexed. Even though I have worked in the legal field most of my life, I felt like I was living in a parallel universe. Regardless, neither of us could rectify the situation.

I have also had calls about student interns snapping their gum at work, answering the intercom, “Yeah,” wearing jeans to work, and wearing blouses that overexposed flesh. Although none of these students were fired, I thought you might find some words of advice about legal office decorum helpful.

Survival Tips
I always advise students of the following before starting an internship or before starting a job in a legal setting:

Dress better than everyone else does in the office. Although you may notice some people wear jeans to the office, or that open-toed shoes seem appropriate, I advise you to resist the urge to do so. Dress up, not down. You will be thought of as a professional, rather than just one of the staff. Also, it may be all right for the attorney to dress in jeans, but he or she may expect something different from you. I was sent home once for wearing slacks to work from a large, formal law firm. Make certain you know the dress code before starting.

Be formal on the telephone or on the office intercom. My experience is lawyers expect formal communication, even on the office intercom. I usually answer my intercom or private line with, “Hello, this is Susan Howery.” Check with the lawyers or staff about their expectations. Generally, a law office has a specific way it would like to have telephones answered.

Careful grooming is a must. If you read my description of the cigarette smoke incident above, you must realize some lawyers are meticulous about clean appearance and about smells.

Most lawyers are fairly conservative, formal creatures who don’t appreciate tight-fitting or ill-fitting clothing. They also notice smells. Supervising attorneys have a right to be concerned about grooming because this is generally a heavy client-contact type of business. If they are turned off, the client might also be repulsed.

What worked for waiting tables may not work for the law office. This may seem obvious, but I have had several complaints about dress code.

Gum chewing is usually a no-no. I can still hear my mother telling me I looked like a cow chewing cud when chewing gum. If you have a habit of chewing gum, be aware of how you chew gum, and whether it detracts from your professional appearance or with your speech patterns. The office may even have a policy against chewing gum. Take up mints.

The legal secretary is your friend. Please don’t offend the office staff with an “attitude.” Baby lawyers are famous for this, but let it not be you. The office staff is essential to your existence, particularly at first. You may not like everyone on the staff personally, but you should not let him or her know.

It isn’t uncommon for a legal secretary to harbor ill will toward you before you even start an internship. Remember he or she may have a reason — you may have the job he or she wants. You should have a team-player attitude. Sometimes, you may spend hours photocopying. This isn’t beneath you. Everyone on the legal team must work together, and everyone on the team may share responsibilities from time to time. Also, the legal secretary will undoubtedly have more knowledge of office procedures and maybe even legal procedures than you will. Learn from him or her and be appreciative.

When in doubt, ask. To fit in well in your first job or internship, it’s critical to ask pertinent questions. If you don’t know what is appropriate in the law office, you will not sound foolish by asking questions. However, you will look foolish (or worse) by violating the unspoken codes of the office.

Don’t succumb to office politics. This is a long subject, which I can’t possibly summarize in a few words. I can guarantee shortly after you start an internship, you will begin to notice the office politics.

Law firms are full of politics. I suggest you quietly sit back and watch. Don’t participate. Someone may try to befriend you right away and spill stories about who is who and what is what. Listen with caution. Don’t comment. I can’t recommend this strongly enough.

Relax. It Will Get Easier.
These pointers should help you transition from the life of a student to the life of a professional. Don’t be afraid to ask what is appropriate for your office. Your goal is not to be sent home or fired for something as simple as not wearing nylons, chewing gum or smelling of cigarette smoke. Every office is different, and every office has its own quirks. Every office also has its own charm as well as its own drama.

Susan Howery is the paralegal program coordinator for Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz. She held the same position at Davenport College in Kalamazoo, Mich., for several years. Howery also taught in both programs. She initiated and advised two student paralegal associations and has been active in state and local paralegal associations. Howery is on the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) Board of Directors as the representative for associate degree programs. She was the legislative chair of AAfPE and the 1998 annual conference co-host. She also hosted the 1996 regional AAfPE conference in Phoenix.

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