Stand out to future employers

Experiences during law school such as legal internships, clerkships and legal clinics help pave the way to landing the job you want. You’ll stand out to future employers looking for a candidate with the right GPA and class rank plus hands-on “practice-ready” skills.

Here is some information and tips to help you plan for your opportunities during law school.

Female law student during on-campus interview (OCI) for a legal internship

Summer legal internships

Many courts, government agencies, public interest entities and other non-profit employers offer summer legal internships to 1L and 2L students. The goal of an internship is to get real-world legal experience under the guidance of faculty members, licensed attorneys or sitting judges. An internship is very often an unpaid position; however, some programs allow law students to earn law school credit.

No matter where your legal internship placement takes you, embrace everything as a learning experience even if it feels overwhelming and stressful at the moment. Getting a memo that you drafted back with tons of red lines may feel deflating at the moment, but keep in mind you’re there to learn the practice of law. Your supervising attorney’s critiques are not a personal judgment on you. They are aimed at developing your lawyering skills.

Legal internship tips and considerations

Go ahead and apply

You may feel that there are more qualified candidates for the position, but go ahead and submit your application. Don’t shy away from an opportunity because you’re unfamiliar with an area of law or feel you need more experience. You possess more skills than you realize and, more importantly, many employers are willing to teach what you may be missing.

Have an open mind

If an internship sounds remotely interesting, take a deeper look. Legal internships are a great way to try out different areas of law. Experience will help you discover or confirm what you like or don’t like. You may be surprised.

Consider the location

Look for opportunities in a geographical location you may be targeting after graduation. Summer employment in that location will help you build connections and start the critical networking process. It will also allow you to actually experience the area so you can either feel more confident in that location decision or check it off of your list. If you have family obligations, weddings to attend or other important events, it’s worth considering how your internship location will impact your travel flexibility.

Begin networking

Start networking and building connections while interning to set yourself up well for future opportunities. It’s especially important for small markets, where associate positions are more competitive. Plus, during on-campus interviews (OCIs), interviewers tend to notice that you’ve shown interest in their city.

Know your limits

Accepting an unpaid internship may be difficult on an already tight student budget. It’s important to know what you can or are willing to handle. Be honest with yourself when considering legal internships. Factor in lack of compensation, how you’ll support yourself during the internship, the time commitment and other obligations you need to balance.

For most, the experience ends up being worth the struggle, but don’t bite off more than you can chew.

A male law student shakes hands with an employer during an interview for a legal internship

Summer clerkships

Summer clerkships available for 2Ls and 3Ls without a J.D. are generally paid positions with non-judicial employers.

Many law firms hire 2L students as “summer clerks” or “summer associates.” Various other employers, including corporations, government agencies, public service groups and private business entities, also offer paid clerkships.

Legal clinics

Legal clinics within law school offer 2L and 3L students the opportunity to apply classroom knowledge to real-life legal situations. It’s the chance to perform real-world legal work under the supervision of a faculty member or practicing attorney.

Clinics are a worthwhile experiential learning option, particularly if you are unable to accept an unpaid internship position or can’t afford time away from school that a paid internship may require. Many employers value and appreciate candidates with hands-on practical experience coming out of law school.

If you already have an interest in an area of law, participating in a related clinic is a great way to find out if it’s really where you want to focus your career. If you don’t know much about an area of law, a clinic offers a great opportunity to explore a practice area with little risk.

At most schools, clinic selection can be a competitive process. Some law schools guarantee you’ll be able to participate in at least one clinic while others do not. You might bid on the clinic you want, often by ranking them, or you might interview for a clinic that has limited spots.

A female law student researches law clinics

Factors when considering a clinic

There are a number of factors to consider when determining whether a clinic is right for you.

Time constraints

Most law school clinics require a significant time commitment. You have a real client on the other end relying on your best work and effort. Is the semester going to be filled with pro bono hours, board meetings and other intensive courses, such as mock trial? Consider enrolling in a clinic when your schedule is more accommodating to allow you to meet all of the demands and expectations.

Semester credit

Most clinics carry a higher number of credit hours than the average law school course. You’ll want to make sure not to exceed the maximum allowable credit hours. You’ll also want to consider when other courses that you need or want to take are offered. Decide whether it’s possible to take those courses when they’re offered and still commit to a clinic.

Future employment

Consider the area of law you are most likely to practice so you can find a clinic that complements your interest or future aspirations. If you haven’t secured post-graduation employment, enrolling in a particular clinic may help you stand out to potential employers.

A female lawyer stands confidently at a law firm

Post-graduation clerkships

Post-graduation clerkships are tough to get but professionally rewarding. Many law students are interested, and 2L year is the ideal time to apply.

Most judicial clerk applications require three letters of recommendation and at least two should be written by a law professor. Don’t wait to ask professors to write a letter of recommendation. Try to meet with each professor personally to let them know enough about you to write a great letter.

Here’s more information regarding various types of post-graduation clerkships.

Federal judicial clerkships

As a federal clerk, you’re guaranteed to have a hectic caseload filled with some interesting or well-publicized cases. Furthermore, the judges you’ll work under have stellar reputations, meaning one good reference letter can go far in helping you secure your dream job.

There are a very limited number of federal clerkship positions and it’s a competitive application process. Clerkships with the U.S. Supreme Court are the most prestigious and sought-after clerkship positions.

Non-U.S. citizens are unable to clerk within the U.S. federal courts.

State court clerkships

Although not as prestigious as federal clerkships, state court clerkships offer an amazing experience. There are more positions available, meaning you have a better shot at getting accepted in the state you most desire. They will often also qualify you for post-competition entry bonuses within most big law firms as well.

Some states accept international student clerkship applications.

Specialty and/or international clerkships

Some states and courts hire specialty clerks for specific departments (i.e., tax). These positions are generally extremely limited. If interested, contact your school career planning office early to determine whether any such positions are available.

For dual-citizens or international students, you can also apply for clerkships outside of the United States. Such positions can benefit your career, especially if you’re uncertain whether you’ll want to live and practice law in the U.S. after graduation.

For additional reading on judicial clerkships and how to obtain one, see Debra M. Strauss’s Behind the Bench: The Guide to Judicial Clerkships, 3d available from our partner West Academic.

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