Avoiding the intern churn ‘n burn

Tips, hints and shared thoughts on internship programs

When I hear horror stories in regards to internships and work experience students, I’m filled with both disappointment and determination. Disappointment that businesses would treat students so appalling and that the students have missed out on a great opportunity and determination to continue the great work we are doing with our internship program at McLaughlin & Associates lawyers.

While some businesses, both in law and other sectors, may have a churn them out approach to internships which ends up with intern burn out, not everyone is like that and an internship can be a very rewarding experience for both intern and employer.

Our program has been running successfully for many years and I’d like to share my experiences, tips and hints for law students considering an internship, to assist interns to select the right firm for them and ensure a rewarding outcome.

Understanding Internships

The first issue is really to understand what an internship really is, how each firm defines their internship and then align your aspirations with those specifications.

Most students will qualify for their Law Degree without ever having stepped foot inside a legal office.  It is not the student’s fault, though it is extraordinary (and disheartening) that you have the situation of law graduates pouring out of universities, never having been inside a law office, at least as a practitioner.

In my generation, you would serve what was called “articles of clerkship” which was basically an apprenticeship for lawyers.  You started at the very bottom of the rung when it came to the hierarchy of the work place and over time during your ‘apprenticeship’, worked your way up so that upon graduation you had at least two years of experience working in a legal office.

The purpose of an internship program today is to give law students, at least some of that same apprenticeship experience, by working in a law firm for a set period.

Getting an Internship

Of course the first step is actually getting accepted into an internship program with a law firm.

As I explain to students during our induction process, they are one of thousands of students graduating each year with a Law Degree looking for a job. To prospective employers, they basically all present in fairly much the same way.

They have all gone to school, tick, gone to a university, tick, graduated with a Law Degree, tick.

They have all worked part time at a fast food chain, dress shop or retail outlet or the like, and they all love sport and cooking.

Apart from their GPA, there is nothing to differentiate them from the pack. I note that a good GPA does not of itself mean you are going to make a good lawyer or be a good fit for a legal office.

So an internship is a great way to achieve a level of work experience and real case knowledge to differentiate you from the rest of your graduating class.

Internships are valuable and viewed positively by most potential employers so it is worthwhile to have an internship on your resume when applying for your first law firm job.

To get that internship, I advise doing your research to find a firm with a program that is a good fit with your aspirations, has a structured program with a clear pathway to an outcome and has verifiable testimonials or results which you can assess.

You need to approach an application for an internship with the same detail and diligence that you would for a job application. Highlight what it is that makes you special and worth the while of the firm to have you as an intern.

What to Expect

At McLaughlin & Associates Lawyers, we describe our internship program as boot camp for law students!  Basically a crash course in learning how to fit in and work within a team environment in a legal office.

The opportunity our interns are given is to be able to stick their head up above the crowd and be recognised by future employers as someone who has used their initiative and sacrificed their time to try and get ahead of the field and gain some valuable experience.

We can’t speak on behalf of the entire law fraternity but the aim of our program is to have interns move onto full-time paid employment.  That is our end goal and how we judge the success of the program.

We have situations where students, whilst undertaking their internship will be offered full-time jobs and have to leave our legal internship midstream.  That is cause for great celebration because it means our program is working and achieving its goal.

You also need to be aware of your obligations as an intern as most firms operate internship programs essentially as an altruistic service, not as an income-generating, profit-making exercise.

In our case, we do not get subsidised, we do not receive any grants or government handouts.

We run internship programs because we want to and in turn, we expect our interns to value and respect the opportunity they have been given.

We believe in giving back to our community and we believe it is our duty, our responsibility to help the next generation of lawyers who are embarking on their career.

I hope these thoughts will assist you avoid the intern churn ‘n burn and that you achieve the outcome you are seeking.

By John McLaughlin
Principal, McLaughlin & Associates Lawyers