5 focal points for law students for success in their summer internship, plus 5 summer internship tips

Posted on August 12th, 2016 by Mitts Law, LLC

For the past three summers, I have been a legal intern at Mitts Law, LLC, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With my first year of law school now complete, my formal legal training advanced my legal intern work. I have observed, however, there is some disconnect between the demands of the classroom and the demands of real-world legal practice. Here are some topics and strategies to be on the lookout for, plus some tips to keep in mind, in order to make the transition from the law library to the law firm smoother.

1. Find Your Formula for Research

Researching relevant issues and case law is all about precision. The majority of your tasks as a summer legal intern will likely be researching case law to help support legal arguments. Thus, the more efficient you become at this skill, the more valuable you will become to your firm.

Whether you are a "Westlaw" or "Lexis" person, being able to narrow down the search results from multiple hundreds to ten or twenty relevant results makes the writing process "happen" much quicker. This sounds self-evident, but it is easy to get lost in the vast information databases looking for the perfect case. If you are spending as much time researching the cases as you do reading them and crafting a Memo, then it's time to change your formula. If there does not seem to be any relevant cases, find a way that works for you to expand your search while still staying close to the issue. If there are too many cases that come up on your issue, find the best way to narrow down the information overload. There's no one way to go about doing any of this; you have to find one that works best for you. Sometimes it is a process of trial and error. I have found that the sooner you can get the "tries and errors" out of you and find your technique, the smoother the research process will become.

2. Know the Facts; Read the Pleadings Prior to Researching

"Does it really matter where Ms. Palsgraf was standing?" we have all wondered at least once while studying for that Torts final. In your summer internship, no, but what does matter are the facts of the case you have been assigned to work on. Memorizing the facts so you looked at least somewhat competent on a cold call felt like a burden most of the time, but in your internship, they will be crucial to creating the most effective work product.

At its core, a legal argument analogizes facts in your client's case to those of a previous case, demonstrating why your client should win because of the similarity or glaring differences to the precedents. So know what the facts on your side are, so you can be thinking about that argument while you look at case law. Diving into research without knowing the core of your case is like leaving your glasses at home; you'll probably still get through the day, but it makes things a lot clearer to have the factual background in your brain. Reading the pleadings related to the cases you are working on provides the necessary foundation to research more efficiently and to craft more effective legal arguments. As a little bonus, reading the pleadings can also give you insight into the writing style of the associate or partner who assigned you the topic as well.

3. Focus on Persuasive Writing over Objective Writing

Don't disregard objective writing completely; it has its place. But you won't often be asked to write an objective Memo on an area of the law a partner simply finds interesting. More likely, you'll be asked to analyze a legal issue and find precedent that either supports your client's fact pattern or helps refute the other side's argument. So when the persuasive writing portion of your legal writing class rolls around, be sure to focus and make an additional effort to improve this tool in your arsenal.

4. Don't Assume there is an Answer to Every Question

Hearing "It depends" as an answer for everything gets frustrating pretty quickly in law school, but sometimes there are no solid answers to a legal issue. More specifically, there is a chance the legal issue has not been raised in your jurisdiction yet (especially if you are interning in the technology law field). If a couple hours of research do not bear any results, then approach the attorney who assigned you the task and ask, "Hey, I'm really not able to find anything about this in our jurisdiction. Is there another way to approach this issue?" It may be the attorney took a shot in the dark having you research, and not finding anything confirms what he or she already knew. Sometimes, there may not be a concrete, yes-or-no answer to your assignment.

5. Discovery

Discovery is such a key part to any suit, but really goes untouched in law school other than a brief stint in Civil Procedure. Focus on any discovery issue, resolution, and unit while in law school, because it is a major part in the timeline of a lawsuit. Once in your internship, the best thing to do is offer assistance on any discovery work. It may seem tedious, but discovery is something not touched on well in law school yet is a tangible fundamental of practicing law. The biggest disconnect between law school and the real world of law most likely lies here. Focusing on discovery whenever it crops up in law school will help you make the most out of your summer internship.

Here are some additional tips to maximize your opportunity as a summer associate:

1) Keep a Narrow Focus - If a partner asks for a short Memo on the statute of limitations for a contract under seal, for example, do not provide a dissertation on the history of contract law through Old England up to the present day. Keep your focus tight and concentrate on just the issue assigned. In addition, keep your focus to just your jurisdiction (unless specifically told otherwise). While a case from the Texas state courts might have a crazy fact pattern, that won't help you if your internship is in Philadelphia.

2) Understand it is OK to have "Losses" in your Research - You will not be able to provide that ace-in-the-hole legal argument for your assigning attorney every time. It is better to write a short Memo or even give a quick phone call and say, "Our argument is not supported by the case law in our jurisdiction," than to spend hours looking for a wild card case that can go against the precedent, or trying to create something from nothing. Being upfront in a timely manner and finding alternative avenues to solve the problem is better than providing one case that may not help your argument in the long run.

3) Say Yes to Everything - Get the most work from the most people possible. Being a valuable resource for multiple attorneys will go further than being a valuable resource for just one. To make it easier to say yes at all times, be sure to...

4) Walk Around with a Pen and Paper, Always - If a partner runs into you in the hall, and starts asking for your help on an issue involving three statutes, you do not want to run back to your desk only to forget half of what he or she said. Having a pen and paper at all times will allow you to seek out multiple assignments, seem like a more valuable member of the team because you are always prepared, and might even allow you to sneak into a meeting if a partner sees that you look ready to go at all times.

5) Respond to Emails and Set Deadlines Within - This is a big one. It is easy to see an email from an attorney and start diving into their assignment to try to finish it as quickly as possible, without responding to the email. If the attorney does not hear back from you, he or she may think you are unable to help and assign the task to someone else. Communication is key; a simple "Yes, and I'll have that for you by such-and-such" gives the attorney peace of mind their work is being done, and makes you look professional for establishing the deadline (if their assignment did not present you with one). Plus, if the deadline you set is earlier than the one the partner was going to set, you will stand out to them. Creating a deadline will make you look like a seasoned professional in your summer legal internship.

Once your internship is over, make sure to reach out, thank, and keep in contact with the firm that gave you the opportunity to intern with them. As you evolve as an attorney, retaining connections and networking are essential to business development. It is important to not lose the connection from the attorneys who gave you an opportunity.

I would like to thank the attorneys at Mitts Law, LLC for giving me the opportunities to return as a summer legal intern and for the chance to write for the Mitts Law Blog.

David M. Layman
J.D. Candidate Class of 2018
Wake Forest University School of Law