From Extern to Associate: How a Law Firm Built its Team with American University Washington College of Law Students

There are some unusual sights around the Law Offices of Gary M. Gilbert & Associates. Start with the animal slippers that staffers wear around the office, a dress code assigned by firm management.

If you look a bit closer, however, you'll see something even more unique - a firm that is almost entirely staffed by graduates from a single law school - American University Washington College of Law.

Back in 2003, Gary Gilbert was a freshly retired chief administrative judge of Baltimore City. He was looking for an associate to handle some pro bono work at his practice, which specializes in public and private sector employment law.

Gilbert remembered his friend Avis Sanders, director of American University Washington College of Law's Externship Program. Gilbert and Sanders had served together on a number of legal committees in the Washington area whose roles were to overhaul civil rights. Sanders knew that Gilbert's firm could provide unique work experience to law students because of the nature of the coursework it took on.

"Gary has a real commitment to helping people who otherwise wouldn't get representation," Sanders said.

"Avis was aware of my passion for civil rights, and my desire to surround myself with young lawyers who shared that passion," Gilbert says. "The emphasis American University Washington College of Law has on public interest law was a very good fit."

"Show up on Monday, and Wear a Suit."

Sanders began connecting Gilbert with students. When he started recruiting, Gilbert figured he might pick up a case here or there, and maybe write a few books on legal employment, something he had done previously in his career.

But the cases continued to come in, and Gilbert continued bringing in summer externs from the law school. If they liked the work and he liked their work ethic, they'd stay on during the fall and spring as paid interns. Finally, if it was a mutual fit, they would be hired as associates at the firm.

Gilbert had stumbled onto a hiring process that was working, and had similar models in other professions.

"We have our farm system here, like minor league baseball," says Kevin Owen, one of Gilbert's first externs in 2003 and a current firm associate.

Owen entered law school interested in criminal law, but took a class in employment law at the suggestion of Professor Susan Carle. One day he received a call from the editor of the American University Law Review, saying that they knew someone who needed a law clerk. He called Gary.

"He said to me 'show up on Monday and wear a suit," Owen says.

Gilbert gave him some background documents on a case, and told him to draft a discovery document, because they needed to serve them the next day. It was, as Owen put it, "trial by fire", and it's an approach the firm still takes with externs today.

"Ours is more clinical than the traditional approach," Gilbert says. "Here we use litigation teams, composed of lawyers, paralegals, and law clerks. There is a constant flurry of conversation on the cases, the law clerks are intimately involved, and you're expected to voice your opinion from the day you walk in the door."

Deryn Sumner '07 was one of the firm's first externs, starting in the summer of 2005. While a student, Sumner was looking for experience at a small firm, and stopped into the Externship Program offices to talk with Sanders. About 20 minutes later she received a phone call from Gilbert and quickly found herself immersed in casework.

"I feel very lucky to have gotten that much experience before being a lawyer," Sumner says. "As a first year associate I already had a few years under my belt. I remember speaking to classmates who also had externships, and I already had so much more real world experience. We got to take a first stab at everything."

Stocking the Farm System

Externs at Gilbert's firm are immediately plunged into the day-to-day work of an attorney - meeting with clients, writing summary judgments, interviewing witnesses.

"The folks that work with us get real hands-on experience," Gilbert says. "They learn lessons that lawyers don't learn for years - here they've had the experience of working intimately with clients, and how important it is for clients to be informed and involved."

The firm represents employees and employers in claims of discrimination race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, or disability—and related matters such as reasonable accommodation, disability retirement, family medical leave, workers' compensation, and whistleblower retaliation.

Law students from a few dozen other schools have worked at Gilbert's firm before, but the level of preparation that externs from American University Washington College of Law had when they arrived was deeper than he had previously seen, Gilbert said.

"The emphasis on public interest at the school clearly attracts law students committed to changing the world," Gilbert says. "It was a very good fit early on, and became our primary place to look for legal talent."

When Owen started, he and Gilbert would do most of their hearing preparation in Gilbert's kitchen. Now, the firm has 15 lawyers and 25 support staff in their offices in Silver Spring, Md., and a one-attorney office in Portland, Ore.

Thirteen of those lawyers are graduates of American University Washington College of Law. The firm currently has three first year law students working as interns.

I found the externship program useful in getting out and looking for work," Owen says. "It's the primary resource for us stocking our farm system. Since most of our associates started out at AU Washington College of Law, we've really tried to stay with AU hiring."

The firm's connection to campus remains strong. Gilbert himself is a donor to the law school and recently spent time with Dean Claudio Grossman as he visited the firm's offices, where the two discussed the relationship between public interest law and private practice.

"Gary Gilbert's firm has been a dynamic source of work for our students and recent graduates for some time," said Claudio Grossman, dean of American University Washington College of Law. "We're proud of this association and will continue to foster a relationship that has been mutually beneficial for years to come."

Sumner said that associates stay updated on campus happenings through the firm's law clerks. Current students at the firm include Marisa Cabrera '11, Rosalind Herendeen '11, and Khalilah Licorish '11. The firm just finished interviewing students for summer clerking positions, who asked associates for advice on professors.

"The non-AU people are jokingly called the black sheep of the firm," Owen says.