FAQ About Teaching Externship Seminars

Externship Seminars


  1. What exactly is an externship seminar?

  2. What should I do with students in my individual/small group meetings?

  3. What is the reason for requiring journals and what should I do with students' journal entries once I get them?

  4. What other types of assignments should I give my externship seminar students?

  5. How much reading should I assign each week?

  6. What kinds of reading materials should I assign?

  7. What should my syllabus look like?

  8. How should I go about preparing my course materials?

  9. How should I conduct my seminar classes?

  10. How should I handle the confidentiality strictures of the rules of professional ethics in discussions with students about their field experiences?

  11. How should I handle potential conflict-of-interest issues arising out of students' externship placements?

  12. How should I evaluate my students' seminar performance and give them grades?

  13. How will I be evaluated?


Externship Field Placements

  1. What kinds of externship placements may my students work in?

  2. How will my students find externship placements?

  3. How many credits will my students receive for their field work?

  4. What are the rules about students receiving payment from their field placements for work done in connection with an externship placement for which they are also receiving academic credit?

  5. How should I monitor what students are doing in their externship placements?

  6. What should I do if a student reports a really serious problem?

  7. What about students who appear to be having serious personal problems?

  8. How should I give students academic credit for their field work?


Miscellaneous

  1. What should I do if students ask me to sponsor them for an individually supervised externship?

  2. What should I do with my paperwork at the end of the semester?




Answers

1) What exactly is an externship seminar?

Externship seminars are graded, 3-credit seminars. Most students in externship seminars are earning field credits for their unpaid work in externship placements.

Externship seminars differ from traditional seminars in several respects. Unlike traditional seminars, externship seminars are intended to promote reflective learning from experience as a main focus or in conjunction with learning from assigned texts and other secondary materials. Externship seminars therefore employ some pedagogical methods different from those in traditional seminars. One of these is the use of journals and other reflective writing to promote students' learning from their field experiences, as explained further in question 3 below. Another important way in which externship seminars differ from traditional seminars is in the requirement that students attend individual or small-group supervision meetings with their seminar professors outside of class. These meetings serve as a forum for faculty to give students close attention and guidance in connection with their field experiences. Because of the added time demands of these meetings, externship seminars meet for only 2 instead of 3 hours per week as ordinarily required for 3-credit courses.

2) What should I do with students in my individual/small group meetings?

You can use your supervision meetings with students to discuss a wide variety of matters related to their externship experiences, including: problems and successes in their placements; goal planning and assessment; short and long-term career aspirations; clarification of values, priorities, goals, and office environment preferences; improving workplace skills such as obtaining and giving good feedback and surviving office politics; and pursuing insights gained by participant observation into the structure and sociology of the legal profession, law in practice, the operation of bureaucracies and hierarchies, and so on. You can decide on the agenda for your student supervision meetings or have students formulate and bring to these meetings their own agendas. Many of us have found this later approach to be the most fruitful, consistent with a general aspiration to offer nondirective guidance to students in order to encourage their development of independent reflective learning skills. A wonderful introduction to this model of student supervision is Ann Shalleck's article, entitled "Clinical Contexts: Theory and Practice in Law and Supervision," 21 NYU Rev. L. & Soc. Change 109 (1993-94). Although the article is written in the context of in-house clinic supervision, its basic thrust can easily be adapted to the externship context.

3) What is the reason for requiring journals and what should I do with students' journal entries once I get them?

The pedagogy underlying use of journal writing assignments as a means of promoting reflective learning has been explored with great thoroughness and insight by Sandy Ogilvy at Catholic University in "The Use of Journals in Legal Education: A Tool for Reflection," 3 Clinical L. Rev. 55-107 (1996) Almost all professors teaching externship seminars at WCL require students to submit informal journals, every week or so, reflecting on their field placement experiences. Professors read and give students feedback on their journal entries -- some by handing back written comments to students, others by using students' journal entries as a focus for supervision meetings. Common themes that surface in a number of journals can also provide material for classroom discussion. (Some professors treat students' journal entries as confidential while others discuss journals in class (never with the field placement) allowing students to request that confidentiality for specific journal entries).

4) What other types of assignments should I give my externship seminar students?

Externship seminars typically require students to engage in a combination of:

a) weekly journals or other projects aimed at encouraging students to critically evaluate their field experiences;

(b) reading assignments related to the main theme of the course, which can provide the basis, along with students' field experiences, for classroom discussion; and

(c) other assignments such as a class presentation, final paper, or combination of such projects. The final paper can be a reflective paper, a paper related to the themes of the externship seminar, or, in some seminars, a traditional research paper, possibly related to work the student was doing in the field.

(d) Many externship seminars also assign students responsibility for one or more class presentations.

Externship seminar professors should strive to strike a balance between assigning the work that would allow students to get the most out of the externship program and being sensitive that externship students are coping with the requirements of several other classes and the added time demands of their field work. A reasonable workload might include: weekly one- to two-page journals; a 20-page final paper; and a 20-30 minute class presentation. Alternatively, a reasonable workload might reduce the length of some of these assignments but require more of them, such as weekly journals, two 10-minute presentations, a 10-page final paper, and several two-page "reaction" papers to the readings.

Even when you have assigned a reasonable work load along the lines described above, you may find that some students complain at the beginning of the semester because the requirements of externship seminars are different from traditional classes which require only one final exam. You can remind students that their journal entries need not be works of polished prose and their seminar projects can build from the work they have put into their field experiences. You may also find it helpful to remind students that you are giving them opportunities to pursue areas of special personal and professional interest to them. By the end of the semester, students tend to be very enthusiastic about the personal payoff they have received from the work they put into their externship seminar.

5) How much reading should I assign each week?

A typical reading load for a 3-credit externship seminar at WCL is about 40 pages a week. Professors often find that assigning more than this amount of reading decreases the chances that students will come to class prepared (students sometimes don't even start the reading if it appears to be too long to finish).

6) What kinds of reading materials should I assign?

Your choice of reading materials is limited only by your creativity and judgment about what you think students will find most engaging and useful. You can put together your own reading materials and have them photocopied in WCL's duplicating center, or you can assign books or other texts that the AU bookstore can order for you. The Externship Program maintains a collection of syllabi and reading lists from past externship seminars at WCL and elsewhere, which you can consult for further ideas.

7) What should my syllabus look like?

There is no set format for an externship seminar syllabus, and some experienced professors teach with no syllabus at all. Students often find a syllabus helpful, however, in several respects. First, the syllabus can give students an overview of what to expect from your course as well as helping to reveal its structure and central theme. It can remind students of what their reading assignments are and when project deadlines are approaching. Finally, a syllabus can serve a very important function in clarifying the course requirements and defining the standards you will apply in evaluating students' work. Even if you do not choose to use a syllabus, we strongly recommend that you give students some form of written notice of the course requirements and standards you intend to use in evaluating their work, to avoid potential misunderstandings or confusion later in the semester.

8) How should I go about preparing my course materials?

You should gather whatever materials you would like to include on your reading list, compile them in order with a table of contents, and then submit them, along with your syllabus, to the Office of Administrative Support Services (Room 467) for duplication, or you can post them on-line via MyWCL.

The deadline for submitting your course materials is generally at least two months before the semester begins. If you have not received a mailing notifying you of the course materials deadline, you should phone Ms. Gates at 274-4122 to ensure that you meet the deadline so that your course materials will be ready at the beginning of the semester.

If you spot reading materials that look interesting on other externship seminar syllabi, you can probably obtain a copy of them in the Externship Program office. We maintain a library of course materials from prior externship seminars.

9) How should I conduct my seminar classes?

There is no set format for externship seminar classes. Their small size lends itself to a discussion-based format and allows room for experimenting with other teaching techniques such as field trips, round table discussions, class projects, and turning over the responsibility for planning and leading classes to the students themselves. Most professors teaching externship seminars try to integrate some discussion of assigned readings with discussion of students' field placement experiences. Reviewing the sample syllabi may give you further ideas as you are planning your classes.

Class "hours" at WCL are 50 minutes long. Thus, in teaching the standard two-hour externship seminar, you should try to schedule a ten-minute break near the hour mark and adjourn class at ten minutes to the hour. Scheduling breaks and ending on time will be particularly appreciated by students taking classes in the evening, especially if you plan to hold your supervision meetings with students before and after class.

10) How should I handle the confidentiality strictures of the rules of professional ethics in discussions with students about their field experiences?

The issue of how to handle ethics rules prohibiting disclosure of confidential information students may learn in their externship placements is a tricky one. Unlike WCL's in-house clinics, the participants in externship seminars include students from a wide variety of placements, who cannot regard themselves as one "law firm" in which clients' secrets can be shared without violating professional confidentiality rules. Externship seminar faculty therefore generally try to ensure that students discuss their field experiences within the limits imposed by the confidentiality rules of the jurisdiction in which the student's legal work is being conducted. Some professors devote all or part of a class at the beginning of the semester to this issue.

Helping students learn to operate within the rules of the profession is obviously an important objective of externship seminars and many of us find legal ethics matters a rich source of material for seminar discussions. Many of us have also found that being overly cautious about the possibility that a student may make a minor slip in sharing information about his or her field experiences can unduly chill worthwhile discussions. We therefore encourage students to remain conscious of confidentiality concerns and to try their hardest to avoid disclosing confidential information when talking about their field experiences, but also emphasize that our seminar provides a forum for learning, which we realize sometimes occurs through the making of mistakes.

In some cases, however, such as when students are working on particularly sensitive matters or criminal investigations, or where students' placements mean that significant consequences could flow from accidental disclosure of confidential information (such as when students are working on opposite sides of the same case), it may be best to avoid much in-depth discussion of students' field placements. These are matters that will call upon your experienced discretion, and thus will give you opportunities to model your own professional judgment for your students.

11) How should I handle potential conflict-of-interest issues arising out of students' externship placements?

As just noted, it is likely that you will on occasion come across potential or actual conflicts of interest arising among students' diverse field placements (or between your students' and your own work, for that matter). This is precisely one of the reasons why "real world" ethics considerations should infuse your externship seminar, and why externship seminars, unlike in-house clinics, cannot use the "one law firm" model for classroom discussion of matters in which students are involved. As in the case of confidentiality considerations, you will have to use professional judgment in handling such matters. Raising them for class consideration can also provide wonderful teaching opportunities.

12) How should I evaluate my students' seminar performance and give them grades?

The grade you will give students for their participation in the externship program will have two parts. You will give each student one to three ungraded (pass/fail) credits for completion of the requisite hours of field work (as discussed further in question 16 below) and three graded credits for completion of the requirements of your externship seminar. The grades you may award are A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C, D and F.

Since the goals of externship seminars are somewhat different from those of traditional classes, it may seem somewhat difficult to decide on final grades. There is no grading curve at WCL (though median grades for seminars tend to fall between an "A-" and "B+"). You are free to give students the grades you feel they deserve after applying the evaluation criteria you laid out for students at the beginning of the semester (see question 7 above). You may feel yourself (and students may perceive you) as being on more solid ground in deciding on grades if you break students' final grades into several components, each with a specified weight. What components to include in the balance varies from professor to professor. Many professors teaching externship seminars grade on class attendance, preparation, and participation; some do not. Most professors give either pass/fail or "check," "check plus," and "fail" grades for student journals. Other components of students' final grades can be drawn from their class presentations, final papers, and other projects assigned during the course of the semester. You should have made clear to students what you will be looking for in these assignments:

  • Is reflection important?
  • Are you looking for creativity, analysis, traditional research, advocacy, or some combination of these?
  • Is a tight structure important or is the goal to be more loose and exploratory?
  • Will you grade on blue booking?

Again, because externship seminars are designed to encourage a learning process somewhat different from that in traditional classes, you may encounter some grade anxiety from students at the beginning of the semester. You can assure them (if true) that you intend to give respectable grades to students who have shown genuine hard effort in completing the course requirements. Students will often find this very reassuring and work hard for a good final grade.

Once you have finalized students' grades, you should not revisit them on a student's urging, except to correct a mathematical or similar factual error (such as overlooking an assignment that was turned in). Faculty members have the final say over students' grades, but students are entitled to an oral or written explanation of their grade if they request it.

13) How will I be evaluated?

The Washington College of Law prides itself on its supportive and respectful culture towards students, and takes students' evaluation of faculty teaching very seriously. WCL thus asks students to fill out course evaluations for all of their classes. You will be asked to distribute these evaluations near the end of the semester (you may choose the date and timing), and to allow approximately 15 minutes of class time for students to complete the questionnaires. A student volunteer will deliver these forms directly to the dean's office, where they will be tabulated and copied. You will receive your copies of these evaluations after you have handed in your final grades.

Student evaluations are sometimes extremely helpful, and sometimes less so. Take them for what they are worth. If you would like further feedback on your evaluations once you have reviewed them, you can contact one of the Associate Deans for Academic Affairs at 202.274.4010.

Externship Field Placements

14) What kinds of externship placements may my students work in?

The only restrictions we place on where students may work for academic field credits are:

1) the placement must be in the not-for-profit sector, i.e., a government agency (local, state or federal), a nonprofit organization, or a pro bono project within a law firm (otherwise they are not permitted to work for private law firms);

2) students must receive a commitment from the organization to assign them projects or parts of projects comparable to the types of assignments a beginning lawyer in the organization would receive. (This commitment is secured through the externship contract signed by the student and placement supervisor as part of the registration process at the beginning of the semester.); they must be engaged in substantive legal work

3) someone who holds an attorney position within the organization must assume responsibility for being the student's official "field supervisor" (though day-to-day assignments may be handled by others).

4) students must work on site; they may not work remotely.

15) How will my students find externship placements?

Our academic-year externship program allows students to search out and secure the externship placements that are best for them, within the limits just mentioned above. The Externship Program provides many resources to help students find externship placements, including several electronic databases, numerous binders containing current externship opportunity announcements, and individual counseling by the Externship Director. Thus, you will not be responsible for finding externship placements for your students, though you should feel free to provide them counseling and assistance to the extent you wish and are able to do so.

16) How many credits will my students receive for their field work?

As noted above, students will receive 3 graded credits for successfully completing the requirements for the externship seminar. In addition, students will receive field credits for unpaid work in their externship placement, according to the following formula:

10 hrs./week 140 hours/semester 1 field credit
15 hrs./week 210 hours/semester 2 field credits
20 hrs./week 280 hours/semester 3 field credits

Thus, the total number of credits students will receive for taking part in the externship program while working in an unpaid position will range from 4 to 6. Students may complete their field work hours on whatever schedule they agree to with their field supervisors.

17) What are the rules about students receiving payment from their employers for work done in connection with an externship placement for which they are also receiving academic credit?

Under the ABA standards that govern the running of externship programs in accredited U.S. law schools, students may not receive monetary compensation from a field placement for work done in connection with a program for which they are receiving academic credit. These rules provide that students may receive small stipends to cover certain out-of-pocket expenses, but these provisions have been narrowly construed. In order to comply with the ABA standards, we do not allow students to work some hours for pay and some hours for academic credit during the same time period at the offices of one organization.

Of course, students often are receiving some kind of financial support in order to attend law school -- from WCL and/or from outside scholarship sources. This kind of funding tied to field experience from a source other than the field placement may or may not affect students' eligibility for academic credit, depending on the specific circumstances. Students with questions should be referred to the Externship Director.

18) How should I monitor what students are doing in their externship placements?

You will find that the combination of reading students' journals and holding regular supervision meetings with them (see Qs 2 & 3 above) will keep you well apprised of the issues students are facing at their field placements. Although many of us have found that our first instinct on learning that a student has encountered a problem at the workplace is to pick up the phone and call the student's field supervisor in order to find out what is really going on and attempt to negotiate a solution, the pedagogy of WCL's externship program counsels against this approach. Instead, our philosophy is to guide students in figuring out their own solutions to the workplace problems they will soon face on their own.

19) What should I do if a student reports a really serious problem?

Although really serious workplace problems occur infrequently in the externship program, they do sometimes arise. If a student you are supervising encounters such a problem, you and the student should jointly decide how to handle it (keeping in mind that in some situations leaving the placement altogether may present the best option). You should immediately report any serious problem to the Externship Director (202-274-4072). We also are, of course, available to talk over less pressing matters involving externship supervision or anything else that comes up over the course of the semester.

20) What about students who appear to be having serious personal problems?

The supervision component of teaching externship seminars often creates a close relationship between you and your students, and you may sometimes find that a student has confided in you about a serious personal problem that you feel ill equipped to handle. If this happens, you should feel free to refer the student to the Associate Dean of Students. You may also wish to notify the Dean of Students if a student in your seminar appears to be failing your course.

21) How should I give students academic credit for their field work?

At the end of the semester, you should require students to obtain certification from their field placement supervisors that they have completed the number work hours required to obtain the field credits they wish to earn. (Such certification can be in any written form, such as a letter or e-mail.) You should also request an evaluation from the supervisor (you will receive additional information about this from Program staff). Finally, the students must fill out an on*line evaluation of the field placement. You should complete the space on the form you will receive from the registrar for each student that indicates that he or she has satisfied the requirements for receiving ungraded externship field credit.

Miscellaneous

22) What should I do if students ask me to sponsor them for an individually supervised externship?

The individual supervision model for obtaining academic credit for externships at WCL is gradually fading away as the externship seminar program has grown larger, but students still may occasionally negotiate individual supervision arrangements where a faculty member's special expertise in a particular field makes this alternative especially appropriate. You should feel no obligation whatsoever to agree to supervise an individual student's externship on top of your other teaching duties. Students who approach you seeking to do an individually supervised externship can be referred to the Externship Office for further assistance.

23) What should I do with my paperwork at the end of the semester?

We ask you to please not throw away your paperwork documenting your externship supervision because the ABA Accreditation Committee has requested that we retain these documents for review at our next accreditation site inspection. We maintain off-site storage files for paperwork related to externship supervision and you should simply drop off at the Externship Program offices any files you do not wish to retain.

If you have suggestions for additions and improvements to this page, please contact us at 202-274-4200 or externship@wcl.american.edu.