Notice & Comment

Legal Internships in the Administrative State During the Summer of 2020

For a half dozen years or so, I’ve had the privilege of directing my law school’s Washington, DC, summer program. Each summer we place about twenty students (mostly rising 2Ls) in our DC summer program—usually in unpaid internships and most often at federal agencies, on the Hill, and at non-profits. As part of the summer program, I teach a professional responsibility class a couple evenings each week, and the students write a final term paper based on a topic from their internship. More details about the program are here.

In these unprecedented and uncertain times, I have spent dozens of hours more than usual communicating with potential host organizations in DC to brainstorm how to navigate through all of the uncertainty. I been so impressed with the flexibility and creativity that many federal agencies, congressional committees and member offices, and nonprofits have embraced for their internship programs this summer.

I thought I’d highlight in an anonymous fashion some of what we are learning and discussing, with the hope that these ideas will help state and federal administrative agencies, legislative staffs, and nonprofits structure their internship programs this summer. I’m focusing on legal internships that intersect with administrative law and regulatory practice, but all of these ideas have broader applicability to summer internships more generally.

From Later On-Location Start Dates to Earlier Virtual Start Dates

Earlier in March, many organizations were already considering whether to push back start dates into June (or perhaps later). It’s worth underscoring that even a 4-6 week internship can provide a meaningful summer experience for a law student as well as substantial substantive contributions to the host organization. And most law schools do not begin the fall semester until late August, so a July start date would still provide for a meaningful summer experience. But as the length of the potential stay-at-home orders has extended into the summer, many organizations have smartly shifted from later on-location start dates to earlier virtual start dates.

This move online is, of course, not without drawbacks. No doubt an in-person internship experience is better for both the law student and the host organization. But fortunately both law students and organizations are better prepared for this approach today than they would have been in years past. After all, all law students are now learning online and becoming more familiar with Zoom meeting technology and other means of communicating about and working through substantive legal material virtually. Similarly, the bulk of organizations’ employees are telecommuting, so organizations have become more adept at operating virtually.

The remaining ideas all deal with how to structure a virtual internship (or at least a virtual start to an eventual on-location internship) to maximize the summer experience for both the law student and the host organization.

From Quantity to Quality Workloads

Organizations have understandably expressed concern about whether they will have enough substantive work and supervising bandwidth to keep legal interns working full time every day for the whole summer. There is so much uncertainty today to plan out the workflow for this summer.

In these unprecedented times, it should be underscored that full-time internships likely will not be considered the norm, especially during the virtual period of the internship. Law students, like the rest of us, have new and competing demands on their time, including increased childcare obligations, caring for other family members and friends, and so forth. Expectations should be lowered for the intensity and breadth of the work assigned this summer. And this is likely a good thing for organizations when the amount and type of summer workload may be less certain at this time. Organizations should not feel obligated to only bring on a summer intern if they are confident now that they can occupy the intern’s full work week.

Many organizations are thinking creatively about this. They are identifying longer-term projects for interns to work on throughout the summer. They are lowering expectations for interns from a full-time internship to a more flexible part-time one. Some are planning to encourage students to work on their own related research, with the hope of polishing that research into a publishable student note or comment.

Moreover, students with remaining bandwidth should be encouraged to fill that time with other meaningful experiences, such as part-time research assistance for one of their law professors, part-time pro bono engagements in their own community, or other non-legal public service opportunities. This generation of law students are entrepreneurial and creative self-starters. They are well aware of all of the uncertainty in the world right now and have lower expectations due to that. Organizations should be up front about the uncertainty in a full-time substantive workload, and trust that their interns will fill the void with other meaningful experiences.

From Confidential to Nonconfidential Work

Organizations have worried about having their legal interns work on confidential matters remotely. This is an understandable, though sometimes overstated, concern. Some organizations are planning to just engage in more virtual training about the importance of confidentiality and how to use technology in ways that help protect confidentiality. If any organizations would be willing to share those training materials and tips with me, I’d be happy to post them here on the blog. Or we always welcome guest blog posts.

Other organizations, however, are just thinking more creatively about the the assignments they task to legal interns. Some are focusing on longer-term projects that will result in a white paper or public report and do not implicate confidential or otherwise sensitive materials. Some of these projects will involve extensive case coding, state-by-state surveys, and other data collection. Others are planning to carve out research assignments on confidential legal matters that do not implicate the confidential aspects of those matters. For instance, if an agency adjudicator has a tough legal question in a particular case, she could just ask the legal intern to write a memo on the legal question without providing that intern with confidential case-specific facts.

I have been very impressed with the creativity and flexibility many organizations are exploring to restructure the work interns can do remotely.

From In-Person to Online Mentoring and Supervising

Supervising a legal intern is a critical part of the job. It’s likely that even in an on-location internship this summer, much of that supervision will need to shift online due to social-distancing restrictions. Some organizations have already begun planning for how to structure their mentoring and supervising activities online. Some will have weekly Zoom meetings for the interns and the other attorneys in a given department or working group. Some will assign a supervisor who will check in with the intern regularly (daily, a few times a week) by videoconference to track progress, discuss the research, etc. Others are already planning online Zoom brown-bag mentoring and career-development meetings, where they bring in outside speakers to discuss developments in the field.

One key takeaway from these discussions is that in-person supervising and mentoring cannot be replaced solely by email correspondence. To supervise and mentor, these organizations have underscored, it is important to hear and often see the legal interns. Fortunately, technology makes that much easier today than when I was a legal intern some 15 years ago. Indeed, the ease and flexibility of technology may make it easier for more sustained and regular mentoring and supervising virtually than an on-location internship could provide.

Similarly, as many of us are realizing, this time of social distancing can be isolating and counter-productive for the development of ideas and legal analysis. Having a legal intern who you can call or Facetime/Skype at a moment’s notice to talk through the issues and use as a sounding board can be of tremendous value, even more so than in normal times. And having supervised and mentored law student interns for more than a half dozen years now, I can confirm that those sounding-board interactions are often some of the most meaningful professional experiences for the interns as well.

From In-Person to Online Collaboration

One major downside of telecommuting is that it can hurt teamwork and collaboration, especially for those who are not familiar with the technology that helps promote online collaboration. In addition to leveraging that technology better, a few organizations have suggested how they are going to structure their teams differently this summer to increase collaboration. In particular, some are planning to pair interns on the same project so that they are working together daily — reviewing each other’s work, dividing up responsibilities, etc. This forces interns to engage regularly with each other and to pool their resources to improve work product. They teach and learn from each other. They check each other’s work. And they learn to work in a team virtually. This, in turn, relieves some of the pressure of supervising.

From Resource Constraints to Flexibility

Over the years of running my law school’s DC summer program, some of the biggest constraints I have perceived on hiring legal interns are physical: the lack of office space and computers. For many organizations, this summer presents unprecedented flexibility to bring on interns virtually. State and federal administrative adjudicators, for instance, could each have a personal intern to help review cases and research legal issues — something that in a typical summer would be impossible due to space constraints. The same is true of many congressional offices and nonprofits.

I hope organizations will be creative this summer in structuring their internship programs. Legal interns can add so much value to organizations, and the internship experience can be a career-defining one for the interns. This summer is going to be a tough one, for both legal organizations and law students seeking substantial legal experience. If you’re looking to bring on a legal intern for the summer, don’t hesitate to reach out to your local law schools to let them know of the opportunity. I’m also happy to post here on the blog internship opportunities related to administrative law and regulatory practice.

If you have any other ideas, reactions, or best practices, feel free to shoot me an email (or a guest blog post), as I’d love to share them with our larger community. I know many, many agencies, legislative staffs, and non-profits are still sorting through how to structure this summer and are looking for ways to make their internship programs more effective in these social-distancing times.

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