HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR
SUMMER PUBLIC INTEREST INTERNSHIP
If you haven’t already, talk to students who have worked with the organization and
find out what insights and tips they might have. You can use the “Who Worked
Where” binder in OPIA or visit this section of our website:
Research the city you’ll be working in and see if you can identify some contacts that
you’d like to reach out to. The alumni office maintains the HLS alumni directories,
but OPIA can help put you in touch with some people, such as past panelists and
Wasserstein Fellows. Try to find other organizations that you’re interested in and do
a little outreach to meet with the lawyers there, especially if this is a city you think
you’ll return to later.
Revisit the organization and its background, if it’s been a while since you applied.
See if they’ve been in the news, hired new staff, or what cases they might be working
on. Check and bios and photos that are posted online, so you remember who the key
Network - reread the networking chapter in the Job Search Guide. This is about more
than making career connections – your coworkers can share valuable insight into the
field and help develop your interests.
Set Goals – do you want to produce a writing sample? Increase your contacts? Find a
mentor? Work on your language skills? All of the above?
Make sure you’re all set with what you need to do to complete time logs and
evaluations for SPIF. All SPIF questions should go to Student Financial Services, not
Find out what research tools you will have access to or need over the summer.
LexisNexis info. Check in with the library to see what resources you can access
offsite or through other libraries. LexisNexis: Register for summer access by visiting
www.lexisnexis.com/lawschool and logging on with your own Custom ID and
Password. If you do not know your Custom ID or Password, contact
ON THE JOB
Culture & Professionalism
Make sure you’re ready for the first day. Know your commute, and where and with
whom you need to check in when you arrive. You may need to fill out HR and other
administrative forms on your first day, regardless of whether or not you are being
When in doubt, err toward being professional. Public interest employers often have a
more relaxed, informal culture in the office – this is not something that should be
assumed or abused.
Learn your way around the office and pay attention to formal and informal office
protocol. You should know all the little things – where to save files, how the
voicemail works, what to do with incoming mail, etc. Making this a priority will go a
ways toward making you more like part of the staff and less like a visitor.
Along the same lines, know what resources are available to you. This involves both
human resources, like support staff, and technical resources. Don’t plan a project that
goes beyond the scope of what your office can support.
Dress professionally, be punctual. Get a feel for how the attorneys dress in the office.
If you’re uncertain, ask HR or an office manager early on. They don’t assume that
you are going to know all of the nitty gritty, so it’s okay to ask.
Treat everyone in the organization, as well as visitors, with same respect that you
would treat your supervisor. This is especially relevant for support staff! You can’t
underestimate the value of being professional and courteous.
Take your cues from attorneys, not other interns.
This includes avoiding profanity on the job, and abstaining from drinking at business
lunches. Remember to limit alcohol consumption when you are with your coworkers
at evening events, regardless of whether or not the event is official company
Don’t watch the clock. Follow the lead of your coworkers as to when it’s appropriate
to leave for the day. Even if it doesn’t seem like your workload demands it, stay after
hours on occasion – the phones have stopped ringing, people are more available and a
little easier to get to know.
Check in with your supervisor when you leave for the day. If he or she is working
late, update them on your projects and make sure they don’t need anything before
Share credit when appropriate, be upfront about your mistakes, and learn to accept
Ask questions and listen to the answers. Your supervisors expect that you will have
questions about your assignments. Be sure you know what is expected of you before
starting an assignment – take lots of notes! Be sure to listen to the answers! You
shouldn’t have to ask the same thing twice.
Be eager but not annoying – by listening more than talking, you should be able to
best pick up cues on who can handle certain questions. Take advantage of whatever
training guides or other resources you might have to answer questions – larger offices
might have an Intranet that can provide you with all kinds of policies. Figure out
what you can answer yourself about office life. Many times, common sense and
previous experience will lead you to the right answer.
Make yourself known. E-mail is convenient, but there’s a lot to be gained to getting
up from your desk and greeting people face-to-face. If you’re sending something to
someone you don’t know, introduce yourself. Be sure you’re not anonymous.
Be friendly and productive. Part of being productive involves honoring your work
schedule. Think of yourself as a full-time, paid employee and manage your time
accordingly. Don’t be late, take long breaks, or leave early. Don’t assume that you
have a flexible schedule and can come and go as long as your total hours add up. If
you do need to miss work for an unscheduled absence, be prepared to offer a time
when you could make up the hours.
Don’t be negative, and don’t gossip about professional matters with your colleagues.
Don’t waste time online or on email. Also, you can’t be too careful when using office
email! This is just another instance where it pays to stay in a professional mode at all
Very carefully consider your online presence. If you’re concerned, ask someone
impartial to take a look at your blog or networking pages. Make sure you’re taking
advantage of security settings! Don’t blog about work without your supervisor’s
knowledge and permission.
Treat email and IM tools as professional communications. Use correct grammar,
capitalization, and punctuation in emails – they are samples of your work and you
never know whom they’ll be forwarded to.
Never hand anyone a first draft – even if they say that’s all they want. They expect a
lot from you. Take a look at your work and anticipate the next step. Then go ahead
and take it.
Hit a homerun on your first assignment, no matter how small it seems, and you will
be given more and more responsibility. This is very important to remember!
Be organized! Your coworkers might need to access your work when you are out of
the office, and certainly after your internship has ended. Know their preferred
organizational system and stick to it. Don’t assume that your space or files are
Always have a pen and paper with you - take notes, make lists, write down names.
Be prepared to take notes during every conversation with your supervisor. This is
helpful not only for your internship projects, but for your resume and letters of
Don’t walk out of your supervisor’s office without knowing exactly what they want
from you and when it is due. Reiterate what they asked for to make sure that you are
on the same page.
Don’t be afraid of the telephone! This goes for communication inside and outside the
office. Sometimes an email trail is helpful, but a phone call can often be faster and
more effective. Don’t stop working when you can’t find an answer online. Using the
phone also helps make you known to people you might see at meetings or end up
working with throughout your internship.
Get as much face time with your supervisors as possible – even if it’s just making
sure you say good morning. Volunteer to help with big and little things. If you’re in a
small office, it may be an “all hands on deck” environment, and you should help out
with whatever is going on.
Your supervisor is your ally – it is best for all parties if you are happy and
productive. Foster good communication so that they know how you are progressing
and how you can make the most of your experience. Pay attention to how your
supervisor works and what his or her preferences are, and work accordingly. Pay
attention and you’ll know how long you need for approval on projects, when the best
time to drop by is, and so on. Know when you need your supervisor’s assistance to
tackle a problem, and what you can handle alone.
If you can’t really tell who your supervisor is, check in with the person who hired
you. If it’s a particularly sticky situation, call OPIA.
Ask for feedback – even if it’s only available after 5 pm when things are less hectic.
Try to follow up on your work and projects after it has left your hands. If your work
is being changed or not used, make sure to politely find out why.
Don’t accept “fine” for an answer in response to how you are performing. Ask
specific questions – what could I have done differently? How could this be better?
What exactly did I do right/wrong?
Be prepared for evaluation. If you haven’t asked already, find out what evaluation
methods your organization uses. Every meeting that you will be participating in, even
if it seems informal, might be a venue for evaluation. Always be prepared to talk
about your work.
Be prepared to offer your own feedback. Supervisors may or may not ask for official
exit memos, but you should have documentation for all of your work, especially
Meeting your Goals/Shaping your Experience
Expressing annoyance with projects you're less excited about is not likely to
make a good impression, but it can be very easy to influence the work you get by
expressing enthusiasm about particular issues, cases, etc.
If you know what you are looking for up front, address it early on in a meeting
with your boss rather than waiting and hoping that you get the project you’re
hoping for. If you wait, you might not have time to really get into the work that
you were excited about.
Getting a written piece of work produced may take forthrightness, creativity, and extra
hours. It will be worth it. Brainstorm about potential research and writing projects. Talk
to the attorneys and any mentors. Make it known upfront that this is a goal! Make sure
before you leave that the sample is suitable for distribution – everything is properly
Volunteer and be visible. Become the kind of person that attorneys want on their projects.
Accept invitations when possible. A lot of learning will go on away from your desk, so
take the time to attend meetings, conferences, and social events. Remember that your
assigned work comes first!
If you want to work with another individual at the organization, you should first alert
your supervisor. Let them know you are enjoying working with them and their
assignments but want to learn as much as possible about the organizations’ work and are
willing to increase your work load to work with X on Y.
Once you have your supervisors’ permission and/or help, approach another attorney and
say, “I really enjoy my work with So and So, but I’m very interested in your work with X
or your project on X. I feel that I could make time to assist you in addition to my other
work. Is there something that I could help you with?”
If members of the office are working with another organization that you are interested in,
ask to accompany them on a visit or observe a meeting. Ask to accompany lawyers when
they go to court, visit clients, investigate cases, etc. This may mean that you’ll have to
stay later in the office to complete your assignments, but it will be worth it.
Difficult Workplace Situations
If you have a difficult assignment or tough boss: Be patient and be positive. Vent to
your mom, your best friend, your boyfriend, BUT NOT ANYONE AT WORK!
If someone makes an inappropriate comment to you or in your presence, immediately
and politely excuse yourself from the situation. Depending on the context of the
situation and individuals involved, you may be unsure of to whom to turn. Please call
OPIA so we can advise you.
If you are miserable on the job, don’t make any rash decisions. You don’t want to
burn any bridges or tarnish your burgeoning professional reputation. Call OPIA and
we’ll help you find the best solution.
AFTER YOUR SUMMER PLACEMENT
Work to build relationships over the summer that will continue in the future.
Ask your organization to put you on their professional email lists.
Keep tabs on the work of your office – if they win a case or develop a new policy,
send your supervisor or coworkers a note to congratulate them.
You can specifically ask them to be a reference for future positions if you’ve
cultivated a close enough relationship with them.
Don’t wait until you need a reference a year later to contact them.
Be a resource for fellow students. Help them make the most of their public interest