The Externship Program at American University Washington College of Law seeks to provide students with an opportunity to engage in critical reflection about the legal profession, their own future legal careers, and their priorities and values as lawyers, in conjunction with field experiences in nonprofits, government agencies, and other organizations students have chosen as externship placements. Students’ field experiences provide the “text” for critical analysis in supervised externship seminars taught by WCL faculty.
A student’s externship is comprised of two parts: the seminar and the field placement. Externship seminars are designed to provide students with the opportunity to think about the transition from school to work by exploring topics such as the nature of law practice in various externship settings, theories of bureaucracy in relation to the lawyering process, the dynamics and politics of the workplace, legal ethics in theory and practice, how to obtain feedback and supervision, meeting career goals and engaging in career planning.
Most externship seminars have students from diverse placements in the same class but some focus on particular areas of substantive law, such as local government, environmental, and administrative law. The seminars draw on students’ experiences to explore differences between “law on the books” and “law in practice,” along with their substantive law focus.
Recognizing that the tasks students will be called upon to perform will vary enormously depending on the field placements they have chosen, the Externship Program does not seek to dictate which specific legal skills students should learn in their externship settings, other than to require that students be assigned the same types of work entry-level lawyers in the office typically perform.
Instead, all externship students are required to develop a list of their goals (learning outcomes) for the specific placement and to discuss these with their site supervisors in the first few weeks of the semester. These outcomes can include learning substantive and procedural law specific to the field placement, as well as more general legal skills such as legal research and writing, problem solving, communication, and other professional skills. Students review their progress toward these goals during a mid-semester meeting with their supervisor and will be evaluated on these and other goals at the end of the semester in a written evaluation. Throughout the semester, students will be asked to consider their progress, or any barriers to progress in their reflective journals and class discussions. Employers are informed that students must have multiple opportunities for performance and will discuss these opportunities during their initial “goals” discussion. The faculty supervisor stays abreast of the externs’ progress throughout the semester through journals and class discussion and offers substantial guidance. However, the students are ultimately responsible for improving their skills and making the most of the externship experience.
The Externship Program seeks to assist students in finding field placements that will provide rich material for critical reflection. Accordingly, the Externship Program recognizes that the most valuable field experiences students may have are not those in which they encounter nearly ideal working conditions or artificial situations that have been engineered through WCL’s intervention. Instead, the pedagogical goals of WCL’s Supervised Externship Program call for students to observe the realities they are likely to face in practice and to begin to develop strategies for realizing the goals and values within these “real world” settings, with the guidance provided by supervised externship seminars.