New Zealand Law Society - Raising the bar on legal internships

Raising the bar on legal internships

Raising the bar on legal internships

As the university halls start to empty out for the summer hundreds of law students and graduates will be heading to firms, public service departments and other organisations to take up an internship.

But what makes for a good experience? And how can employers ensure that young people are getting the most from their placements?

Results from a survey by the Deans of New Zealand’s six law schools provides some useful insights into what makes an internship a productive and useful experience vs one that’s more akin to babysitting. The survey also highlights that some young people are still witnessing and experiencing unprofessional behaviour during an internship.

582 law students responded to the survey, and 321 of these had taken part in an internship. The survey was carried out in March and April 2019 across all New Zealand law schools. It was intended to capture the experience of law students who had engaged in legal internships during their tertiary studies.

“We carried out the survey as part of our joint response to concerns about harassment and bullying in the legal profession that were raised in 2018,” says Professor Ursula Cheer, Dean of Law at Canterbury University School of Law

“The survey is part of our efforts to better support our students.

“The resulting report from the responses gives a good picture of what internships are like for students. It contains many useful suggestions about how internships might be improved, but also identifies what students like and appreciate about internships.”

Almost all (96%) found their internship valuable and most reported a sense of belonging during the internship.

The most common things the students said they gained from the experience were:

  • Learning about different areas of the law.
  • Learning how a law firm operates.
  • Developing the skills required to work in a professional environment.
  • Understanding how law is practically applied and how lawyers think about law in the interests of their clients.
  • Getting a better understanding of the areas of law they want to work in or the type of role they want to pursue following graduation.

Comments from the survey demonstrate that the best organisations provide:

  • A specific person to act as a mentor to the intern who can support them to understand what’s required of them and be available to answer questions.
  • A structured induction programme tailored for interns that provides insights into the organisation as well as clear expectations of what’s required from the intern.
  • A consistent flow of work, meetings and tasks for the intern to complete.
  • Regular feedback as well as explanations about the work that’s being carried out to support the intern to truly learn from their experience.
  • A buddy, such as a young lawyer, to support the intern and help them understand aspects of the work they may not be familiar with.

When it comes to office culture the survey does demonstrate ongoing concerns for young people entering into internships. Whilst more than 80% of those who responded said they never experienced unprofessional behaviour during their internship, 12% said they experienced unprofessional behaviour occasionally and one person reported that happening on a daily basis.

The most common forms of unprofessional behaviour noted by interns were:

  • disrespectful or dismissive behaviour (9.87%)
  • inappropriate or offensive language (9.44%)
  • drunkenness (7.73%)
  • racism (5.58%)
  • sexism (4.29%)
  • bullying (3.86%)
  • sexual harassment (1.29%)

Feedback provided in the survey demonstrates the need for organisations to make it clear to interns how they can raise concerns if they witness or experience inappropriate culture.

There is also a call from some students for employers to be clear about the culture of the office from the start and the kinds of behaviours which are not accepted at that particular workplace. Having a defined reporting mechanism for interns to raise concerns, either through a mentor or supervisor is also important.

The internship survey will be run every two years, with results distributed to the profession, law schools and the media.

The results from 2019 can be view here:

In the deep end; why my internship didn’t work

By anonymous

Speaking to the Deans’ survey, one lawyer who wished to remain anonymous said he’d had a negative internship experience which he “wouldn’t wish on anybody.”

“It wasn’t just the disrespectful, belittling comments as the newest in the office, but also having my work torn apart after being asked to spend extra efforts on it, without any training – I was in essence thrown into the super deep end without mercy.

“I was expected to work long hours, to work when sick and it all took its toll on me – to essentially feel entirely grateful to the partner for the opportunity being given to me.

“The promises of the hands-on experience and being involved with practical work of the firm fell away, and the internship ultimately felt like it wasn’t going to be what was promised. It took it’s toll on my mental health and a swift debilitating diagnosis followed.

“If you needed to escalate the issue, there was no one in the appropriate position to talk to.”

Reporting or acknowledging poor behaviour against those in power naturally carries a sense of risk. And with risk, fear of the consequences on your role in the company, and what it might mean for your future.

Any organisation welcoming interns this summer needs to be cognizant of having a transparent and clear complaints process in place that interns can use without fear of repercussions.

My internship story

Photo of Rhianna Morar
Rhianna Morar

By Rhianna Morar

I’ve done two internships over the course of my studies and I’m preparing to spend this summer at the Law Commission.

Over the summer of 2018 to 2019 I interned at a government department. This was organised through a university partnership. I worked as part of the team putting together some really significant changes that would impact the public sector. A large part of my work was to focus on the Te Tiriti aspects of the bill. This was an incredibly important piece of work and one I was hugely honoured to be involved in. However, at times I did feel quite isolated. I wasn’t feeling very included or supported.

There were only two interns in the organisation that summer and there was no structured programme, dedicated induction or catch-ups focussed on feedback about my work. I struggled with being the only Māori on the team and felt a lot of pressure to deliver to a level I didn’t have experience in – this was my first time working on a Cabinet paper.

I reached out to Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa and spoke to my contacts there about what I was experiencing. They were incredible as they were able to use their relationships to speak to people at the right level and advocate on my behalf.

Last summer I went through the Government Legal Network’s (GLN) internship scheme and secured a place at Crown Law in the Treaty team. I ended up working on the Peter Ellis case which was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I thoroughly enjoyed this internship as the GLN provided a great programme. I was assigned a buddy in my team who was a young lawyer, and to this day we’re still friends. I was able to learn from her and she was able to learn from me as a pākehā lawyer in the Treaty team.

There was a structured induction specifically for interns and GLN held seminars and workshops for all the interns placed through their programme across the public service. Having this structured programme made a real difference.

My advice for an organisation that will have interns this summer is to think about the whole package. Think about who can support the intern, especially if there aren’t many young people. As an intern there’s only so much you can learn on own, you need people you can talk to in confidence so you don’t feel whakamā (shame).

If you’re going into an internship this year then my advice is to back yourself but be prepared to ask for help when you need it. It can be really intimidating coming into an organisation as a law student working with people with years of experience, so it’s easy to feel you’re not good enough because you don’t know what to do. What I’ve found is that those people appreciate when you ask how to do things. It’s better to do that than to not live up to expectation.

Rhianna Morar is a 5th year Victoria University of Wellington Law student

Making the best environment for summer internships, with Buddle Findlay

An internship extends a drawbridge from the working world to future lawyers. Providing an environment for interns that builds this bridge is important. A sense of belonging is the key foundation for ensuring interns feel part of, and can learn from their internship.

“What makes a positive summer clerk experience is when students are provided with an opportunity to add value to the firm,” says Buddle Findlay.

“It’s important to us that we provide an environment where students feel comfortable to participate. Our summer clerks receive on the job experience and we help them to be a part of Buddle Findlay by enabling them to grow, succeed and have fun. We enjoy the curiosity, energy and enthusiasm that students bring to our collaborative firm.”

Part of crossing the bridge into the workplace environment is about demonstrating the value of a legal career by offering hands-on experience.

“Our summer clerk programme provides interns with a practical understanding of the inner workings of a corporate law firm and this helps to connect the theoretical learnings of law with real life application,” says Buddle Findlay.

“The most valuable part of our program is that the students get to know us, and develop connections with experienced professionals in the legal field.”

The team at Buddle Findlay recognise the importance of having a supportive, structured programme for young interns.

“We ensure our summer clerks are provided with a diverse range of experiences during their time at Buddle Findlay to create a smooth transition into the corporate world. Our supervisors are committed to supporting the students’ growth and development. Each summer clerk has a dedicated buddy to support them through their journey.

At Buddle Findlay, we value the importance of collaboration and having a team who are diverse in thought and feel comfortable bringing innovative ideas to the table. Students who have passion, curiosity and drive are in the best position to experience an exceptional summer clerkship.”

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