The University of Virginia School of Law is dramatically expanding opportunities for students to gain experience in legal practice during their second and third years of law school.
Starting this fall, the redesigned externships program will allow students to earn a semester of credit while working full-time for nonprofit or government employers anywhere in the world, and students will also have the option to work part-time for credit closer to home. Also, in a new option offered by the Law School, “UVA Law in DC,” participating students will take a seminar alongside their externship that focuses on issues of concern to public law practice.
“The externship program is an excellent blend of practical training and intellectual content and will make our students even better prepared for legal practice,” Dean Paul G. Mahoney said.
The new externships program builds upon U.Va.’s numerous hands-on learning experiences that have grown in recent years, including 20 clinics, trial advocacy training and public speaking courses, short courses taught by practicing attorneys and a pro bono program, among others – all of which allow students to put theory into practice and develop the legal skills they will use throughout their careers.
A. Sprightley Ryan, a former inspector general of the Smithsonian Institution who joined the faculty in 2011, will direct the new externships program.
“It’s getting credit for working, in a framework that fosters academic reflection. I would have loved to have done that in law school,” Ryan said. “You’re not only getting solid training, you’re also getting to know people who practice in that area of law. It’s a terrific opportunity to learn not only about the substance of an area, but also how lawyers in that area approach their work.”
The expanded program, which will launch in the fall, includes three types of externships.
• “UVA Law in DC” will allow students to spend a semester working full-time in Washington for the federal government or a D.C.-based nonprofit agency while earning 12 credits, equivalent to a full semester of courses.
As part of UVA Law in DC, participating students will attend a weekly seminar in Washington, taught by Ryan, that will cover topics such as professionalism, legal ethics, problem-solving and governance issues in nonprofit organizations. The students also must complete a substantial research paper and a series of shorter writing assignments.
• In another externship option similar to one currently offered, students will be able to earn a full semester of credit working for government or nonprofit organizations full-time anywhere – locally, nationally or internationally. In this option, the participants must conduct their externship under the supervision of a resident U.Va. law faculty member and write a substantial research paper on a topic relevant to the work experience.
• The third option will allow students to work part-time, primarily in the Charlottesville area or Richmond, for the same number of credits as a typical Law School course.
Third-year law student Bonnie Latreille is taking the third option for a trial run now. For two days each week during her final semester at the Law School, Latreille is working in Washington and Baltimore at the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation, a new federal agency seeking to redesign Medicare and Medicaid to better control costs, while also preserving recipients’ quality of care.
Under the supervision of a licensed attorney, Latreille is reviewing contracts and researching key legal questions as part of a project to design a more efficient system for delivering Medicare assistance to patients with end-stage renal disease.
“The skills I’m learning as my agency drafts new policies will be applicable in almost any field, whether it be another government agency or a private-sector organization that is affected by these policies,” Latreille said. “I think the programs CMMI is implementing are the wave of the future. If nothing else, it’s simply fascinating to watch the whole thing in action.”
The new externships program was designed through a process that involved student input, the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center and the Law School’s curriculum committee, chaired by law professor David Martin.
“Our externship reforms will give many more students the chance to obtain on-the-ground exposure to the world of law practice,” Martin said. “We also expect participants to draw deeply on those experiences in shaping and enriching their studies right here in Charlottesville. The whole Law School community should benefit.”
Martin, who himself has extensive experience in the federal sector, most recently as principal deputy general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security, noted that the UVA Law in DC program will build on the Law School’s connections to the government policy community in Washington. The program “will give our students a rigorous – and we hope exciting – opportunity to learn about that community.”
“Students will be able to explore their policy interests and refine their legal skills,” he said. “Some will doubtless find a long-term vocation in the process.”
All three of the new externship options will require the student to keep regular journal entries reflecting on their experience and weekly detailed timesheets, in addition to the writing and assigned reading components.
“There will be a strong academic component to all three types of externships,” Ryan said.
The revamped externships, she added, will supplement students’ academic learning and help them grow as professionals, explore specific areas of legal practice, learn to work under supervision, receive feedback, develop interpersonal and professional skills, and define their career goals.
“We think it’s important for the students to develop as professionals, to have the opportunity to work,” Ryan said.
Assistant Dean for Public Service Annie Kim said the program will allow students to “get more than two bites at the apple to gain truly substantive work experience during law school.”
“For students who are interested in multiple areas of public service or who want to structure a job search that includes both firms and public service, the chance to do a school-year externship opens up many new options,” Kim said. “It’s also wonderful for students who want to establish work experience in different areas of the country. I think all students who take advantage of the externship program will benefit in the job market and make huge gains in their own professional development.”
Latreille interned at the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation over the summer after her second year of law school. And she intends to return there to work full-time after graduation this spring, making for a seamless evolution out of law school and into her career.
“Learning the programs and projects now will make the transition that much easier,” she said. “[Plus], the ability to see the policy side firsthand gives me insight into the thought process and workings of the federal government.”
Latreille said she expects the overhauled externships program will prove popular with her fellow law students.
“So many U.Va. law students already have connections in or a desire to be in D.C., and there’s really no better way to take advantage of that while simultaneously being in law school,” she said. “I really love the work I get to do here, so there was no hesitation when the school asked if I wanted to help ‘pilot’ this program. I imagine it would be the same for many other students.”