Legal Internships Without the Law Firm

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In a tumultuous legal industry, it’s proven increasingly important to stay on top of new employment trends. One that’s starting to make a buzz around law schools is the increasing number of technology companies, such as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, that have been hiring on law students as summer interns in their legal departments.

One of the interesting features of these jobs is they typically are not a route to employment straight out of law school. Instead, they’re designed to get law students some familiarity with a subset of the legal industry often called “in-house counsel.” Now, this may require a short debriefing. Most big companies seek outside counsel when they have a serious legal dispute. Say, for example, Microsoft gets sued by another company or individual. They’ll likely lawyer-up with any of a number of prominent firms. Sometimes they’ll be top firms from the vaunted Vault 100 list – a classic “V10” firm, like Cravath, or Skadden, etc (names you’ll hear far too often and invest far too much time in when you get to lawschool). Other times, they’ll seek a smaller firm, sometimes a boutique that specializes in the particular subset of the law over which they’re being sued.

But for more day to day questions, many companies turn to their in-house counsel. This may be to ask about whether a certain general business strategy is permissible, or to check that a deal in the works has all its i’s dotted and t’s crossed. Another big benefit of in-house counsel is having attorneys that you know are in your corner – professional legal advice from folks with whom you’ll never have to haggle over enormous partner fee rates (often pushing $1,000 an hour plus these days) or seemingly unnecessary hours of associate work. Instead, Microsoft’s counsel is working for Microsoft, and their interests should, in theory, be perfectly aligned.

And that’s where some legal interns are finding themselves: working in the company’s headquarters, navigating a Fortune 500 entity through the legal terrain. The pay? Many of these gigs are unpaid, which is pretty common among 1L summer jobs. Some, however, pay stipends, travel expenses, etc.

The route most common for folks on this path is to work in-house during their 1L year, and then at a firm (as is customary) the summer of their 2L year. At interviews for 2L jobs, experience in-house can be a powerful boost: not only does it indicate exposure to a wide range of legal challenges, but it also demonstrates that you’ve worked in the law from the client’s perspective. As clients’ demands and their willingness to pay in the traditional manner shift, the empathy developed working in their corner is increasingly valuable. This has proven so much the case that Skadden has a summer program in which those few 1Ls working at the firm transition to the offices of one of their clients for the second half of the summer. The goals are much the same: see what things look like on the other side of that long, expensive bill. See just what the clients want from you, and understand their concerns and objectives.

As Cisco general counsel Mark Chandler told Law.com, his company benefits from law school interns by getting “smart people doing good work for us on important projects.” The interns also benefit by gaining experience and learning what clients want from outside counsel, he said.

Will this become the predominant route for elite law students? It seems likely – many students today spend their 1L year in the public sector, often working for government or else for public interest firms like the ACLU or other NGOs. But as the legal market tightens, students may see this as an opportunity to gain more marketable skills over the summer. It’s an interesting time to observe this nexus of pedagogy and employment, and we may well be witnessing its future.

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