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?
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
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
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.
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
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.