A Closer Look — AUWCL's Externship Program
July 25, 2019
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Each year, between 300 and 350 students participate in American University’s Washington College of Law’s Externship Program, garnering real world experience under the supervision of practicing attorneys in the Washington, D.C., area. Unlike externships at many other law schools, AUWCL’s program incorporates a strong pedagogical component, according to Externship Director Avis Sanders.
“We make sure certain requirements are met, so students are getting a substantive legal experience,” said Sanders, who has directed the program since 2002. She also orchestrates AUWCL’s Externship Fair, which routinely garners 160 employers from various nonprofits, local courts, and government agencies—making it the largest single-school externship fair in the country. About 30 percent of employers who attend are alumni.
“Our students have a very good reputation, so when they extern, very often those employers will come back to us and want to oversee other students in the future,” Sanders said. “What they tell me is that AUWCL students come in with a good attitude, they work hard, they want to be helpful, and they get the job done.”
Each externship includes either 10, 15, or 20 hours a week of work per semester, which equates to two, three, or four credits toward AUWCL’s new six-credit experiential skills requirement.
During that time, students are also enrolled in a two-credit externship seminar, where they reflect on their work and discuss their experiences with one another.
“An externship is not just something to put on your resume,” said Sanders. “The point is to learn about legal practice; to acquire skills, to reflect on legal issues, to learn about career paths students might not otherwise consider—there are a lot of aspects to an externship, and the class kind of opens their eyes to these things.”
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
AUWCL’s Externship Program requires that students apply directly to the employer as they would a job position. Historically, externship included not-for-profits, government agencies, and judges, with the only for-profit exception being pro-bono work. Last summer, the program began a corporate council program, allowing students to extern for in-house council for corporations.
During each externship, students must perform legal work, on site, under the supervision of an attorney. Many of these attorneys were once AUWCL students themselves, Sanders said. “It’s key that students are in the same space, and they get to see what they do: how they interact with clients, how they balance their work and other activities, how they manage when something goes wrong.”
The students meet with their attorney advisor at the beginning of the semester to discuss goals and expectations, and once again mid-way through semester following a self-assessment, where the attorney provides feedback and further instruction.
“Generally, our students underestimate themselves and the quality of their work, so the assessment is helpful for the attorneys to let them know where they are performing, and where they can improve,” Sanders said. There have been many occasions, she said, where employers will remember a standout AUWCL extern and urge them to apply for a job opening once they have graduated.
A SUCCESSFUL EXTERNSHIP
Sanders advises students think about their career goals, and determine if a particular externship will help them prepare for those aspirations. There are a number of externships opportunities available in the fall and spring, and she urges students not to accept the first one they are offered out of fear they will not come across another.
“If you have no interest working as a criminal lawyer, but are offered an externship in that field, then ask yourself if the skills you can learn from the externship will assist you in achieving your goal. If neither the practice areas or the skills are relevant to what you want to do, you may want to consider a different opportunity,” Sanders said. “Think about your goals, and consider everything you do in law school as building blocks toward that goal. With an externship, you create a block that can take you in a lot of different directions—just make sure that direction is the one you want to go.”
Learn more about the Externship Program here.