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Internships: pluses and minuses (well, mostly pluses)

Internships: pluses and minuses (well, mostly pluses)

Do you really need an internship? In short, yes. Internships and on-the-job training are invaluable in the development of a good paralegal. There are a number of aspects of a paralegal’s job that make this so important.

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Seeing the Big Picture

While in paralegal school, you’ll gain knowledge in legal terminology and learn about forms, filings and research, as well as oral and written communication. It’s much like seeing the pieces of a puzzle without seeing the picture on the box: while the coloring and bits of images on the pieces may lead you to believe that the picture is a landscape, it’s not until you put all the pieces together that you see that the landscape is a palace garden or forest scene. With an internship, coordinated work assignment or on-the-job training, you will begin putting together all of the pieces of your paralegal education, allowing you begin to see the full picture.

A Place to Learn From Mistakes

In addition to working under the supervision of an attorney, your internship or coordinated work experience will be completed under the guidance and counseling of an adviser or instructor who will monitor and assess your progress. This person will give you guidance and feedback that should help smooth the bumps that appear in your path. While you won’t get it all right the first time, this is the place to make mistakes, learn from them, hope they are minimal and pull together the aspects of your education.

It’s like this in most things, but take script supervisors and films as an example. Nearly everyone likes to look for mistakes in films and, although script supervisors aren’t always the cause of a mistake, ultimately they will usually take the blame. For instance, look at the movie “Bull Durham” starring Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins. The two are in an alley behind a bar after going head to head over Susan Sarandon in the bar. Costner taunts Robbins into throwing a baseball at him. The door to the bar behind Costner is closed and Robbins throws the ball right through the glass in the door. Seconds later, another shot shows the rear door open. Things like this happen when the angles of a scene are shot out of sequence. At first, a fledgling script supervisor won’t see how all the angles of the camera come together in a movie, but once it’s in editing mistakes like these are usually glaring and a script supervisor learns fast. But in film, people’s lives don’t hang in the balance as they frequently do with the law.

Your internship is like your first time in editing. It’s where you see the entire judicial system come together and begin to understand the sequencing of events, from when a clients first comes in to gathering information to the formation of a case; you’ll also see who in the office handles each task. You will take what you learned about keeping a calendar for a case and come to the realization that it’s not just a calendar for one case but for numerous cases, and will begin developing your multitasking skills. You’ll also begin to obtain firsthand experience with the court systems and defense and prosecuting attorneys, and get your first real practice in drafting pleadings, arranging for filings, answering pleadings and sitting in on depositions. You will also likely come to the realization that mistakes can be expensive, not just monetarily but also emotionally.

Retired Judge Advocate General (JAG) and Kansas attorney Arthur Davis explained the need for internships and on-the-job learning. He emphasized, “One learns by doing. One learns that the law is real, and affects people on a daily basis. It hits their pocket book. Reading legal tomes is like reading a history book, a bit removed from reality.”

The American Bar Association recommends that paralegal students spend at least three times the number of hours on the job as interns as they would spend in a classroom for the same number of credits. This is indicative of the importance of real-world experience to solidify and expand what has been learned in classrooms and through textbooks.

Learning to Work as Part of a Team

As an intern, you will be working in the field not only to practice basic paralegals skills, but to learn how to work as part of a team. In that light, you should make a concerted effort to develop good interaction skills with your supervisors and the people you work with. This is where your communication skills will pay off. Paralegals often work long hours, so whether you are in the midst of an internship or working full time, cultivating and maintaining good interpersonal relationships is important. As a newbie this is going to be especially important for you. Not only will you be practicing your skills, but you will be developing a portfolio and making your first professional contacts. You may wow them so much that they will want to hire you straight out of school, or you may want to use these people as professional references. Either way, you are taking some of your first steps in networking.

A Firsthand Account from a Working Paralegal

I went straight to a working paralegal for her take on the importance of internships and on-the-job training. Rachel Nealis, a Southern California paralegal was candid in her response and passionate about her job:

  • “One of the most important things to remember about being a paralegal is that you exist entirely in a support role. Your job is to be whatever your attorney needs you to be. You can’t practice law, no matter how well you know it. All you can do is help your attorney be better at what he does. Basically, the whole of your existence is being the support of your attorneys. That being said, there is no book that can teach you how to support your attorney because no two attorneys are the same. So, once you start working as a paralegal, that’s when the next phase of your training begins, when you learn how to be your attorney’s paralegal.”It’s kind of like going to school. Learning gives you a toolbox and then you go on the job with your toolbox and your attorney tells you how he wants you to use the tools. Obviously the more tools you have, the better prepared you are, but it still comes down to a learning curve and knowing how to use them in the way your attorney wants you to. Don’t ever think that you know more than your attorney. That’s a recipe for disaster. You may sometimes, but let him discover that … Just be happy that you were able to help.

    “The hallmark of a great paralegal is when she [or he] can think like her [or his] attorney–when you can put together some research or case files or trial prep, and your attorney tells you that it reads like he wrote it, because you know how he thinks and you work that into the way you think. In a lot of ways a paralegal is like a ghostwriter. If you can learn to think like your attorney and use the tools he wants you to, then you’ll be able to put together a draft … that he can quickly and easily polish into a finished product. Now the best attorneys–the ones who are teachers and mentors and able to share the limelight–may let you keep some of your voice in what you do. If you find yourself in that position, do everything you can to keep it. But always remember your role: you exist to serve your attorney, and when he succeeds, you succeed.

    “The other thing that you won’t ever learn in a classroom is the idiosyncrasies of the court system. Every court, every branch, every judge has its own way of doing things. If you work for an attorney or a firm that practices in a lot of jurisdictions, it will be a challenge to know everything …

    “The best thing to remember in this situation is that a court clerk can be your best friend or best enemy. A court clerk can be the difference between getting your paperwork filed at 4:59 p.m. on the day the statute of limitations expires … or losing your client’s claim.

    “You may get frustrated with court clerks from time to time, especially when it seems like they don’t know the law. But they have a lot of power and when you really need information on what particular rules your judge may be a stickler on, his clerk is going to be the one that knows. If the judge is god, then his clerk sits on the right hand of the throne. Be polite, be kind. Remember that [court clerks] have long, hard days just like you do and then remember to take notes about the little tips and tricks they give you, because they’re gold.”

So, enjoy your internship or your coordinated work experience. This is where it will all come together for you. This is where you will hopefully reach the “Aha!” stage. It’s like when you’ve read something and sort of get it, but know there’s something missing; then, you starting working through the process you’ve read about and suddenly there is enlightenment. What you’ve read or learned makes sense in this new context. As you have these moments, you will become more comfortable in your new role and go on to enjoy the many dimensions of being an indispensable paralegal.

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