FAQs About Teaching Externship Seminars


All of the administrative requirements for the Externship Seminars are provided to faculty each semester in the "Start of Semester Memo" distributed approximately one month prior to the commencement of the semester and the "End of Semester Memo" distributed approximately one month before the conclusion of the semester.


Teaching Externship Seminars FAQ

1) What exactly is an externship seminar?

Externship seminars are weekly classes required of all students enrolled in field placements.  Most students externing enroll in the graded two-credit seminar.  There is also a one credit Advanced Supervision Seminar for students who have externed before and a one credit option in the summer; both of which are pass/fail.

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. 

2) Discussing the nitty gritty of work life. 

You can use some of your class time to discuss a wide variety of matters related to the students' 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 which issues to raise (perhaps based on common journal entries) or you can have students formulate and bring their own agendas.  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).  Another very useful reading is the chapter in Learning From Practice (3rd Ed) on "Observation and Journals."  We recommend assigning this to students so they understand why we ask them to spend time in reflective journaling.  All students should be assigned regular journals.  They can focus on open-ended reflection or respond to specific prompts from the professor.   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 confidentiality for specific journal entries). There is a grading rubric which you can use to discuss assessment with students. LINK.

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 (there is a textbook, Learning from Practice, 3rd Ed, which can be assigned by the chapter or by the book; and faculty generally add additional reading assignments);

(c) a variety of assignments required by the ABA Standards including a form memorializing a Goals Meeting with the Attorney Supervisor, a mid-semester self-assessment;

(d) a final paper, or combination of smaller papers.  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: a weekly two - three page journals (10 -12 over the course of the semester); a 10 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 shorter final paper, and several two-page "reaction" papers to the readings.

5) How much reading should I assign each week?

A typical reading load for a 2-credit externship seminar at WCL is about 30 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?

There is an Externship textbook entitled Learning From Practice, 3rd Ed. which is assigned by many externship faculty.  We provide a copy to all Externship faculty. You can assign the entire book or you can assign specific chapters (available at $7.00 per chapter). 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 post them on MyWCL, 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 readings from past externship seminars at WCL, which you can consult for further ideas.

7) What should my syllabus look like?

There is no set format for an externship seminar syllabus. 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 help 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.

A syllabus must include (or link to) your "Learning Outcomes" for the class and the methods of assessment.  While the WCL Externship Faculty, as a group, created a list of six Learning Outcomes for all externship seminars,  you should feel free to edit them or create your own Learning Outcomes as well.

You should also include the assessment methods specific to your class.  It is important for students to have 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 and post them on line via MyWCL. If you do not have access to MyWCL, the Externship Office or FASS can assist you with posting your readings.

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.

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.  Faculty should address confidentiality during the first class. First year students have not taken Ethics yet, and may not know about attorney/client privilege or the Rules of Professional Conduct.  The Ethics chapters in Learning From Practice may be useful.

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 are 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) What if a student works for my office or with a close friend or colleague?

It would be best to avoid this situation.  If you notice that this situation exists before the start of the semester, contact the Externship Office as we may request the student to change classes.  Students need to be frank and honest in their discussions of their externships and this might easily stifle their ability to discuss issues that arise within the placement.  If classes have already started, you should still contact the Externship Office so we can discuss the issue with the student, and let her know that she can communicate with the Externship Office if issues arise.

Similarly, if you determine that there is a conflict between your own work and that of a student you should let the Externship Program staff know immediately as we will try to move the student to another class if possible.


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 information on Learning Outcomes and Methods of Assessment in 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?

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 can access your evaluations through MyWCL after grades have been submitted.

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.

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 mentioned above. The Externship Program provides many resources to help students find externship placements, including an electronic database,  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 2 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 130 hours/semester 2 field credit
15 hrs./week 195 hours/semester 3 field credits
20 hrs./week 260 hours/semester 4 field credits

Students must enroll in a minimum of one credit for their work in the field placement.  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 3 to 6 if they are taking the two-credit seminar.

The field placement must be approximately contemporaneous with the seminar.  Students must begin their externship by the first day of second week of class in the summer and by the first day of the third week of class in the fall and spring (at the very latest). Students who believe they may not be able to begin on time must contact the Externship Office.

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?

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, except for out-of-pocket expenses.

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 class discussions will keep you well apprised of the issues students are facing at their field placements.   Particularly useful is the required Journal Cover Page, which has students describe three things they learned and three assignments they worked on.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 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 of work hours required to obtain the field credits they wish to earn. (The employer should sign off on the time log or send an email).  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 online 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.

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. Students may only be supervised by full time faculty or adjunct faculty with an office in the building. 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. Materials submitted through MyWCL Dropbox are retained by the school and you do not need to take any other action.

Course Requirements

What parts of the externship seminar are required?

While we encourage faculty to select the individual topics on which they want to focus in their seminars, there are some requirements for all seminars. These are described in greater detail below.

a)         Learning Outcomes and Assessment Methods (in syllabus):  The Externship Faculty have developed five general “learning outcomes” that seem to be common to all externship seminars. You may include these in your syllabus or you are welcome to edit them to suit your needs and/or add additional outcomes.  These general learning outcomes are on the Externship Program website.   LINK:  Learning Outcomes and Assessment.  Assessment methods include any parts of the class which are evaluated/graded, such as journals, participation, papers, presentations, and other assignments.  Assessment can occur throughout the semester (formative) as well as at the conclusion of the class (summative).

b)           Goals Meeting/Goals Form: An important aspect of the Externship Seminar is to assist students in identifying their short and long term goals – whether it be for their externship, their careers or their lives.  Within two weeks of starting their externships, students must meet with their attorney supervisors to discuss their goals (learning outcomes) for the field placement and their supervisor’s expectations.  In addition, the supervisor must provide a list of anticipated assignments specific to this student.  Students must fill out the Goal Form prior to the meeting and discuss it with their supervisor.  Note – faculty may still want students to draft a full goals memorandum that goes beyond the form to reflect on their own short and long term goals and/or write a journal entry related to this discussion.  Using the form does not preclude a reflective Goals Memorandum.

c)            Mid-Semester Student Self-Evaluation/Attorney Assessment: At the mid-semester point of the semester, students must draft an assessment of their own performance/progress and discuss this self-evaluation with their supervisors, who must also provide an evaluation of the students’ progress toward meeting their goals.   This form permits them to share their self-assessment with their supervisor mid-semester so they can receive feedback while there is still time for self-correction.

There is an excellent article by Liz Ford, Towards a Clinical Pedagogy of Externship, in which she identifies language that students can use to assess their proficiency in various skills.  You will want to discuss self-assessment with the students prior to this meeting.  I have attached the article, and a summary of the article which include great little charts with helpful language.

d)            Journal and Journal Cover Page: All faculty should assign approximately 10 reflective journals over the course of the fall and spring semesters’ and assign eight over the course of the summer semester.  They should be 2-3 pages each.  The reflective journals are open-ended or focus on specific prompts provided by the professor. 

Students must also fill out a weekly journal cover page regarding specific work assignments, opportunities for performance, and time spent in supervision.  It is very important to review the cover page each week as it will provide immediate insight if a student is not being given substantive legal work or does not receive sufficient supervision, etc.  It assures compliance with the ABA Standards.  We recommend assigning the chapter on Journals and Reflection from Learning from Practice during the first week of class as it does an excellent job of explaining the importance of written reflection to the learning process. Faculty should strategize with the student if there are any issues that need to be addressed or contact the Externship Program if the requirements are not met after such strategies have been implemented. See Journal Cover Page, attached.