Advice before interviewing for small environmental law internship?
January 28, 2008 7:17 PM   Subscribe

LawFilter: I am applying for an internship at a small law practice that focuses on environmental law. What should I do to prep for this beyond the normal job interview routine? Also, how reasonable are the conditions of this internship (details below)?

I have done all the normal job interviewy things: updated resume, lined up references, researched the employer (to the degree that I know what I am looking for) etc etc...

BUT this is my first experience with a job in the law... What else should I do to prep? What questions should I ask to gauge if this will be a good learning experience for me? What conditions or assurances about the position are reasonable for me to request (what is a reasonable wage to expect/negotiate for)? What other things should I consider before going on this interview?

The law practice is very small, only 2 lawyers, but it focuses in the area that I am interested in, Environmental law.

I talked to the main partner and he said that since I have already gotten my undergraduate degree (and I am not currently accepted or enrolled in any law schools) he would hire me as an unpaid intern for the first 3-4 months. If it feels like a good fit for both sides he would consider me for part time/full time work as my schedule allows.

It sounded like very basic office clerical/gofer/runner work to begin, but he said as I "grow into the position" I could eventually do paralegal work, interviewing, research etc.

Is this setup normal? How much experience is such an entry level position likely to give me in law... since I am taking this position partly as a way to gauge if I want to pursue law school? Would this job (assuming it goes well) be good on a law school application or is it too small of a firm?

And perhaps most importantly for me... Would it be presumptuous of me to only accept the unpaid internship on the condition that I am given the same health benefits/group rates as the paid staff (this is a sticking point for personal health reasons)?
posted by DetonatedManiac to Law & Government (21 answers total)
 
unpaid for 3 to 4 months? he is screwing you. you could do better. take it if you want, but keep looking and don't be ashamed to leave on a few days notice from such a crappy place. do not go there for the long term, it is not worth it.
posted by caddis at 7:29 PM on January 28, 2008


Honestly? Without knowing your situation, and given that I could be completely off base? I don't think this is a reasonable idea at all. Working without pay is an alright idea if it's a true internship (say, if you were *in* law school) and it's a good idea if you feel drawn to giving your time to a non-profit, and it's a good idea if it will enable you to obtain more sophisticated experience and exposure to work than you'd be qualified to do for pay. But it *sounds* like you're talking about just working without pay for a couple of lawyers - and I cannot see how that is anything other than exploitation. Why not get a paid position in a law office? Paid positions in law offices evolve into positions of greater responsibility, too. I think you're putting far too much stock into the practice area, and I'm also wondering if you know enough about the type of work that they do (given that "environmental law" is such a broad term).
posted by moxiedoll at 7:33 PM on January 28, 2008


If you want to get into environmental advocacy (legal or otherwise) as your long-term profession, you need to have a resume that shows long-term ongoing commitment to the cause. (I know this because I hire for these positions and I get tons of resumes -- including many from law school graduates -- that go directly in the recycling bin because for all the well-meaning phrases in the cover letter, there is nothing in the person's resume that shows that they have ever actually done anything for the environment. Recycling at home doesn't count.)

An unpaid internship at an environmental law firm would like fine on the resume. It would be helpful. But if it's just clerical work? Pheh, you're wasting your time. Volunteer with the local chapter of the Sierra Club or NRDC or some local brownfields group. Do something that will let you get your hands dirty and force you to work on the nitty grit of some cause. Make a difference. It will look a lot better on your resume. You'll learn more. You may even learn more about the law, depending on what issue you get involved with. Plus, you'll make the world a better place in the process.
posted by alms at 7:43 PM on January 28, 2008


I would amplify the end of moxiedoll's comment: this looks like a bad deal if you're just interested in this job because the practice is in "environmental law." On the other hand, though, if you know that you're specifically interested in the particular kinds of cases the group takes, and it's a specialized practice area where only a few pioneers are working, than the initial, unpaid position starts to look more attractive.
posted by grobstein at 7:49 PM on January 28, 2008


I used to be on my law school's admissions committee, and based on that experience, I can't see this internship as being a positive to help you get into law school. Admittedly, I'm old enough that the whole notion of unpaid internships sounds like a vague ripoff to me, so maybe it's me who's out of date. But I agree with the other posters that there certainly isn't enough apparent benefit to make the exercise worthwhile. And I have also seen lots of law students get stuck in gofer and filing jobs that just never seem to grow into anything more interesting. Further, until you finish your first year of law school, you won't know the first thing about legal research, unless you've learned it somewhere like paralegal school. Legal research is, as we say in the profession, sui generis.

And candidly, for an unpaid internship, I see your chances of getting employer-provided medical benefits as about zero.
posted by missouri_lawyer at 7:59 PM on January 28, 2008


They won't even pay you like $10 an hour? When you have an internship in law school you generally do it for two reasons. 1) you get credit and 2) they have to give you legally substantive work. Also it's only for a semester and part time. So you get in, you get experience, you get it on your resume, and then you get out.

If I were you I would not work more than 10 hours a week for free. You don't have to specify between part time and full time on your resume and there is no reason for you to kill yourself for free. I also wouldn't be willing to be a secretary for free. If its for free you should be doing legal work of some kind so you are actually learning more than how to use the photocopier. But really you should be getting paid something. You should be able to get a job as an assistant or a secretary as a law firm somewhere and you'll get paid a lot better and chances are if you play your cards right (as in take initiative and take on extra work) you'll get as much experience if not more.

Unfortunately, unpaid internships have become all the rage lately and lot of young people are getting totally ripped off while universities charge them for credit they don't have to provide anything for and employers get free labor. They do have their place, but this isn't a life altering opportunity. This will help you a little later in your career, but not a ton and I'm guessing if you try you can get something similar but paid. And by the way employers and schools are far more impressed by paid jobs than unpaid internships (I mean who wouldn't take on a free employee?).
posted by whoaali at 8:25 PM on January 28, 2008


If your biggest goal right now is getting into law school, focus on the LSAT. A high score on the LSAT will open way, way more doors for you that where you worked...or even whether or not you've actually set foot inside a law firm.

Law school is all about reading and writing and analysis, so while yes, there may be some use to spending a bit of time around lawyers learning how a small practice works, that use is limited, so you have to weigh the best use of your time here. If you're not getting paid for your time, why not use that time to more directly benefit your goals? Study for the LSAT. Or if you want to get a feel for the type of legal analysis you'll learn to do, pick up one of Aspen's Examples and Explanations series in a subject area that sounds interesting to you and work through some of the problems. But don't work for free. Your time is too valuable to be exploited for someone else's material gain, so if you want to give your time away, find a law-related volunteer organization, like a CASA program or one of the orgs alms mentioned above, that will actually look good on your resume and give you some experience that is far more useful to achieving your goals.

Unless these lawyers do most of their work for an environmental advocacy group (and I doubt they do, as there's probably not much money in that for them), I'm betting their clients are corporate entities. Maybe they do a lot of RCRA and CERCLA compliance work for landfill operations. Most of environmental law work is about compliance...advising entities about how to get rid of their waste without breaking the law, and defending those entities when they do get in trouble and figuring out how to efficiently get them back into compliance. You may particularly enjoy it if you have a strong background in science or engineering, but even that knowledge really only comes into play once you've actually reached the underlying substantive issues. It's really all about reading, analyzing, and writing about the major pieces of environmental law regulation: Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, RCRA, CRCLA, etc. You'll spend a lot of time with Title 40 of the CFR. If you're really interested in environmental law, check out Lewis and Clark's Environmental Law program.

Or better yet, unless you're really passionate about a particular area of practice, don't worry about it right now; there's plenty of time to decide after your first year of law school. Worry about the LSAT. Then worry about which law school your LSAT can get you into. Then worry about doing well at law school. Then worry about getting a summer associate job. Then worry about passing the bar. Then worry about finding a job. Somewhere in there, you'll fall into an area of practice. There's lots of worrying to do about starting a legal career, just make sure you do all the worrying in the right order.
posted by Dr. Zira at 8:25 PM on January 28, 2008


he would hire me as an unpaid intern for the first 3-4 months

I agree: he is screwing you. I'm a lawyer, and I wouldn't dream of asking someone to work in my office without paying them.

(Actually, when I read your question, I caught myself thinking, "wow, could I get away with that? Do people actually work for three or four months for free? Where do I find those chumps?")
posted by jayder at 9:04 PM on January 28, 2008


When you sign on to do an unpaid internship, it's to either get experience for personal reasons(in this case to see if you like this field enough to pursue it or not) or to network(have people write recommendations for you, meet people for when you pass your bar to come back, or work as a part time associate during law school).

If you've just received your undergrad, the work they'll have you do is non-legal. They need someone who's innocent enough to do their paper work, filing, copying, and to get you to deliver coffee and stuff. If they have secretaries, that'd be one thing, but if it's a two men shop, then they're doing things themselves and they're looking for someone to use.

These experiences, regardless of what others tell you, don't really help in the end. It's a lot easier to get a non-paid job than a paid job at a law firm. It'd be better to go through a temp agency and specify that you want to work at a law firm to see if you can get a job. Ofcourse this won't get you medical benefits either, but if they're not paying you for the internship, I highly doubt they'll agree to medical coverage.

If you want to, work for a prosecutor for free. You'll meet more people, you have a better chance of interacting with a judge or two. I'd say worry about deciding what you want to do through reading, copying papers is not going to help you decide that. Now, being exposed to the type of work will help you decide if you want to pursue that area or not, but that's something you can do after you go to law school like someone said above.

Good luck!
posted by icollectpurses at 10:37 PM on January 28, 2008


A lot of people do free internships but they're usually getting a lot of training in return. I'd make your points of negotiation the type of work you'll be doing and the amount of time they'll be able to spend pointing you in the right direction as you learn the next thing. Your goal should be to do stuff that will give you a leg up on getting your first real legal internship (where they really may appreciate your having some experience with mundane practical aspects of law).

They're small, which is good, but they're a firm, which makes me agree that you should double check what kind of environmental law they're doing and find out who their clients are.
posted by salvia at 12:14 AM on January 29, 2008


When I worked as a legal secretary at a Big Law Firm, they had a hefty group of legal assistants, who were, like me, right out of college and wondering if they wanted to go to law school. They were doing approximately what it sounds like you would be doing "if things work out," but they were paid right off the bat, and considering how much overtime they put in, they darn well deserved it. I have friends who are doing this at other firms, too-- only qualification an undergraduate degree. We did hire unpaid interns for a while, but they were in law school, it was a big-name firm, and they were doing researchy-type things for a couple of hours a week. This internship doesn't sound like a great idea to me-- a great idea from their perspective, yes, but not from yours.

I second those people who said that going through a temp agency might be a good idea; if you can find one that specializes in law jobs, they will have a bunch of stuff just like this, some of it temp to perm, all of it paid, and some temp agencies offer health benefits. To be honest, I think the major benefit of administrative jobs in the law is not that it gives you valuable experience (although sometimes it can), but that it lets you clarify whether or not you actually want to go to law school.
posted by posadnitsa at 4:50 AM on January 29, 2008


Agreed, you're getting hosed.

I'm in law school, did the sort of work you're describing with some more substantive stuff thrown in for $10 an hour during a few of my college summers. It was a good experience, and helped me realize that I did want to go to law school. That said, I feel like I helped the firm's bottom line by at least $10/hr by streamlining things. You'll probably do the same, and you're getting hosed if they don't want to pay you.

I think you have better odds of getting paid than getting bennies.

Also, as mentioned above, the thing that will help you the most when applying to law school is the best LSAT score you can get. Keep taking practice tests until your score planes off. It makes all the difference in the world for a host of reasons.
posted by craven_morhead at 5:14 AM on January 29, 2008


Not a good idea. It's one thing to job shadow at your request for a week; it's another to perform clerical work (a job that they would normally pay someone to do) for three months. Seems to me he has to pay you at least minimum wage if he is allowing you to do work he would otherwise pay for. Plus overtime.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:27 AM on January 29, 2008


You should check whether or not the offer seems to be illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Internships are classified as trainee situations under the FLSA, and the FLSA gives 6 criteria for unpaid trainee situations. Among them are a requirement that the employer not have unpaid trainees doing work that they would otherwise have to hire paid employees to do and a requirement that the employer derive no immediate benefit from the activities of the trainees. This offer seems fishy to me. IANAL.
posted by decathecting at 8:21 AM on January 29, 2008


Also, another thing if you really want to get some experience in environmental law and don't mind not getting paid, consider volunteering for a legal environmental non profit. You can probably find one fairly prestigious that will look good on your resume and I'm guessing you'll be more likely to get more substantive and more interesting work. Also, as I said before, there is no need to work a 40 hour week for free.

One other thing, working in an environmental job (paid) that has nothing to do with the law can definitely help you later in your legal career. Having relevant non legal work experience is a big plus to employers who want people who know the industry.
posted by whoaali at 8:43 AM on January 29, 2008


I would say that this employer is trying to get free help.

But, I think it is a good way to gauge whether or not you would like to pursue environmental law. Law is not as exciting as TV makes it.

To my knowledge, a lot of environmental law involves negotiating with the EPA.

I'd ask for pay, but if experience is what you seek, this sounds like a decent opportunity.
posted by reenum at 9:43 AM on January 29, 2008


I worked at a law firm (somewhat larger, about 40 attorneys) who hired all sorts of kids thinking about going to law school. Most were undergraduates, all did clerical work, and all were paid (and got benefits). We also hired law school students as summer interns who got paid for their work. No one was expected to work for free.

None of the rest of the staff could ever convince these kids they didn't want to be lawyers.
posted by lhauser at 10:24 PM on January 29, 2008


With all this "we pay" "they pay" stuff going around, I want to highlight a point made above -- lots of summer internships for environmental law students are unpaid. Environmental law is one of those horribly-skewed fields where there are bajillions of graduates every year competing for a couple dozen legal spots (if that many - not a lot of job openings, and many fewer will accept new graduates) at environmental nonprofits.
posted by salvia at 2:34 AM on January 31, 2008


As a final note... I did the interview today.

I was mistaken about the non-pay part, he only wants a 3-4 WEEK period, part time, of "internship"/training. Basically as a chance for both of us to "make sure its a good fit" after which he will hire me full time (albeit at a low wage to start).

He said as I learn more about the practice and can do more useful things I will get commensurate pay raises and also bonuses for successful cases that I help out on. He is also offering the same Health "benefits" he offers the rest of the staff, which is a 50% pitch in to whatever individual plan I get.

On balance it seems reasonable, notwithstanding some of the negative comments posted here (which I appreciated since they gave me much needed context and made me seriously re-evaluate the offer).

In the end, it is something to do for 9-12 months, while I study for the LSAT, that is law related and gives me the context to make a decision if Law is really the right choice for me in the long run. As a bonus it gives also gives me a letter of recommendation from a lawyer, something I don't currently have, and potentially contacts in the local environmental non-profits which he works for.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 8:13 PM on January 31, 2008


I think it sounds reasonable and to be honest getting any health benefits from this type of gig is pretty good, just make sure they don't try to stretch out that 3 to 4 weeks... Nonetheless, it sounds fair and like a good opportunity if this is what you are really interested in.
posted by whoaali at 9:19 PM on January 31, 2008


I agree, the gig sounds reasonable. Good luck, and lemme know if you have any more questions about law school/etc. when you get that far.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:43 PM on February 2, 2008


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