Private law firm internships are often undertaken by law students during vacations. What do interns look for and find most valuable at such internships? How can law firms seeking to invest in future lawyers enhance the experiences of interns?

Adding Value to Law Firm Internships

An empirical study surveyed 52 students from the Singapore Management University (“SMU”) on their internship experiences at law firms. The overall objective was to assess the impact of law firm internships in developing the professional identities of future lawyers. One set of questions pertained to the quality of supervision and the value of the internship experience. The findings, presented at the International Legal Ethics Conference V in Canada in July, give law firms insight on how to add value to internship programmes.
Background of Firms
88.5 per cent of the respondents had interned at local law firms. 44.2 per cent of the internships were in firms with more than 100 lawyers. The internships ranged from two to 10 weeks. 71.1 per cent had done internships of three or four weeks. 65.4 per cent had done civil litigation and 42.3 per cent had done corporate work. The other types of work that six respondents indicated they did were in the areas of shipping and intellectual property. 
Supervision During the Internships
11.5 per cent of the respondents were not assigned any buddies, mentors, supervisors, or the like. Of the remaining respondents in the majority who were assigned specific lawyers, 86.9 per cent were assigned at least one lawyer who had been in legal practice for more than five years. Of those who were assigned lawyers, the average rating for frequency of interactions with the assigned lawyer(s) was 3.65 out of five; the corresponding average for the quality of supervision or guidance was 3.72 out of five. When all respondents (including those who were not assigned particular lawyers) were asked to rate the knowledge of those who were supervising them or who had assigned work to them, the average was 4.35 out of 5. While some additional respondents were included in this rating, the rough correlation of this with the rating for the quality of supervision suggested that knowledge on the part of lawyers did not always translate into excellent supervision.
What was the nature of supervision that was given and that was expected? Supervision often involved apprising the respondents of the facts of the case and the context of the legal issues they were asked to research on. Direct feedback on how to improve on the work done and explaining the fact scenario of the file instead of just assigning a general legal question were desired by those who were not satisfied with their supervision. Detailed feedback and frequent interaction were available to those who were satisfied.
On a related question, 78.8 per cent of the respondents knew that their work was used by their superiors, 3.8 per cent knew that their work was not used, and 17.3 per cent did not know either way. A source of frustration arose from work given in a token manner – for example, when the intern had the impression that the case was already prepared but the lawyer felt obliged to offer work.
Respondents were, however, reluctant to be more pro-active in seeking feedback and greater interaction as lawyers seemed very busy. 
Improving the Quality of Supervision
What steps could be taken to improve the quality of the internship?
First, lawyers could try to assign legal questions in the context of their files. A concern with client confidentiality might have held back some lawyers from giving more file-specific facts. Given that many interns had signed undertakings of confidentiality, perhaps an unwillingness to invest time in teaching interns who were in the firms for a short period of time, or sheer busyness on the part of the lawyers which resulted in deprioritisation of the interaction with the respondents, led to the assignment of general legal questions in some cases.
Second, firms could be intentional about the seating arrangement. While some interns spoke of accessibility due to being seated near their supervising lawyers, those with bad experiences spoke of how they were placed in a corner or on a different floor from their supervising lawyers. One had a bad experience of spending a fair bit of time trying to meet up with, get work from, or get the schedule of Court hearings from the supervising lawyer. Conversely, some respondents seated in the same room as their supervisors had a good experience with their internships as they had the opportunity to observe and listen in on all the conversations of their supervising lawyers, and also felt free to ask questions about the ongoing work of their lawyers. 
Third, firms could vary the work given and ensure that some legal work was given. Legal research was the most commonly assigned type of work (Table 1). A close second was drafting letters, documents, pleadings, and contracts. The third was proofreading. One respondent who was asked to do a lot of proofreading understood this was the nature of work in a corporate role, as there was no major meeting during the time of her internship and her main function was to help to edit documents that were involved in transactions related to mergers and acquisitions. Some respondents also helped out in photocopying and menial errands such as picking up documents and buying food. While some accepted that they were at the lower end of the pecking order, others were not satisfied with being asked to do work such as filing and scanning; with one respondent even saying that an ethical issue was raised about what was proper for internships. Anecdotally, I sensed that when respondents were satisfied with their learning and supervision, they did not mind doing errands, but not if they had nothing else to do during the entire period of the internship. Respondents were generally not prima donnas: the key to the overall satisfaction of the interns lay in giving other sorts of “real work” that interns regarded as an integral part of future legal practice, rather than in not giving them menial errands altogether.
Types of work done Responses
Interviewing clients and witnesses 28.8% {15}1
Drafting letters, documents, pleadings, and contracts 92.3% {48}
Discussing legal strategy 44.2% {23}
Discovery 11.5% {6}
Appearing in Court 46.2% {24}
Legal research 98.1% {51}
Negotiation with opposing parties or counsel 11.5% {6}
Menial errands – picking and delivering documents, buying food, etc 26.9% {14}
Tasks such as Xeroxing etc 38.5% {20}
Proofreading 63.5% {33}
Others 19.2% {10}
Table 1: Types of Work Done2 
Value of Internships
73.1 per cent of the respondents gave the educational value of their internship a rating of four and above out of five. The average rating was 3.87.
Asked to rank the most effective modes of learning, observing and speaking with other lawyers provided about half of the respondents with the best learning experience, while doing research and preparing research notes, attending Court, and attending client meetings were a distant second, third, and fourth, respectively (Table 2). A handful of firms organised informal talks to share experiences of what practice was like in the different departments of the firm, or invited the respondents to attend firm lunches. The learning that respondents valued was not limited to substantive or practical know-how, but included observations about interactions between fellow lawyers, and between lawyers and their clients. Several particularly appreciated attending client meetings or listening in on conversations with clients. They learnt how to steer clients’ conversations back to the relevant issues, how to explain to lay persons the relevant law, and how to discern relevant facts.
Modes  1 (Best learning experience)
Observing and speaking with other lawyers 51.0% {26}
Observing and speaking with other interns 2.0% {1}
Attending Court 13.7% {7}
Attending client meetings 9.8% {5}
Attending firm or practice group meetings 2.0% {1}
Doing research and preparing research notes 15.7% {8}
Doing mundane and necessary tasks (eg putting together documents, transcribing, copying documents, and so on) 5.9% {3}
Table 2: Students’ Rankings of the Most Effective Modes of Learning in the First Place 
A majority thought the most important value out of internships was the mental and emotional preparation for what lay ahead (Table 3). The internships complemented law school education and enabled respondents to better understand what to look out for in their academic courses: the total number of respondents ranking this as the most important or the second most important value of internships was the second highest. 
Value 1 (most important) 2
Mental and emotional preparation for what lies ahead when student graduates 50.0% {26} 30.8% {16}
Complements law school education and student is better able to understand what to look out for in academic courses 15.4% {8} 34.6% {18}
Networking 15.4% {8} 25.0% {13}
Educational value and training 19.2% {10} 9.6% {5}
Table 3: Students’ Rankings, in Top Two Places, of Most Important Value of Internships 
The fact that such an overwhelming majority of respondents found the internship experience valuable ought to be encouraging for law firms, which can surely benefit from the enthusiasm of potential future hires. What the respondents especially appreciated – observing and speaking with lawyers – was also an experience that law firms can give to interns without much tweaking of their daily business. It can come as simply as inviting interns to meetings with clients, practice group meetings, and letting interns share an office where they can listen in on the conversations that lawyers have.
Interns’ Sense of Personal Accountability
More interns felt personally accountable to the firms than to clients (Table 4). Those who felt accountable to clients did so because of several factors: personal interaction with the client, knowledge of how much the client was paying, the belief that the work was not checked thoroughly by supervising lawyers before it was sent to the client, empathy for the client, knowledge of the amount of money at stake for the client in the litigation, or other knowledge that their work mattered in the overall picture. Others differed, suggesting that lawyers in charge of their work had the final responsibility to decide whether or not to use the work done. If the legal profession seeks to inculcate a strong sense of personal accountability as early on as during the internships, it can be done as simply as through the inclusion of interns in meetings with clients or demonstrating to interns that their work matters.
Did you feel personally accountable? To the client To the firm To
Yes 62.0% {31} 78.4% {40} 50.0% {20}
No 38.0% {19} 21.6% {11} 50.0% {20}
Table 4: Sense of Personal Accountability 
Investing in Future Lawyers
Students often do internships to search for a firm with a good fit that they can apply to for work upon graduation, or as a useful means of networking with senior lawyers who might hire them. Oftentimes, too, they are simply interested in learning more about legal practice and their suitability for particular types of law firm work.
Firms, too, may offer internships for a myriad of reasons. On the pragmatic end, some are looking for potential hires and others need additional help during a busy period. On the altruistic end, many probably consider it their duty to invest in future generations of lawyers by starting the process of mentoring early.
Altruistic lawyers can take heart that their efforts are not in vain. They can, and they do, positively impact interns. A legal system built on ideals of justice and fairness is best served by a professional ethos that conveys the same. The impartation of such an ethos begins with the first encounters future lawyers have with the profession. Lawyers who are willing to play their part can bear in mind the words of one intern whenever they doubt if they can make a difference:

I wasn’t looking forward to working as a lawyer ... I wasn’t sure whether I was capable of doing the work. And I didn’t want to be a lawyer because I thought there’re so many bad things associated with being one. But after going through the internship ... I discovered more about the nature of legal work ... (M)ost importantly, I got to meet people who I thought were good role models and they changed my mind about what a lawyer could be. And that made a big difference.

Dr Tan Seow Hon3
    Associate Professor of Law
    Singapore Management University
    E-mail: [email protected]

1       The actual number of respondents is indicated in “{ }”.
2       Some of these are adopted from Lawrence Hellman, "The Effects of Law Office Work on the Formation of Law Students’ Professional Values" 4 Geo J. Legal Ethics537 (1990-1991).
3          This article presents part of the findings of a research project funded by a research grant from the Ministry of Education.