Briefing Room

3L Tim Hackett (standing) externed at the Ohio Public Defender in the fall of 2014


Externships provide real-world experience for students

December 16, 2014 | Students

Whitney Braunlin ’14 could tell the woman in front of her was on the brink of tears. The preschool the woman ran was in danger of losing its governmental funding and now she was at an administrative hearing to tell her side of the story.

Representing the state was Braunlin, then a 3L at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law working as an extern for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office with a legal intern certificate. She gave her opening statement and then waited for the woman to reply with hers.

“She’s almost crying and then she delivers her opening and speaks directly to me like I’m the state, I’m the opponent here,” Braunlin said. “I just felt the gravity of that responsibility. You don’t get to feel that in a law school class. Exams are high pressure, but actually practicing law and having an impact on people’s rights and privileges was something that I only got from that experience.”

The experience Braunlin describes is not unlike those dozens of students experience each semester at Moritz through the college’s externship program, which places students with a variety of nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, and judges’ offices.

Students earn course credit for performing supervised substantive legal work. That last bit is of central importance to the program, said April Davis ’03, Moritz’s director of student services, until July 2014 who also coordinated the externship program. The students are not making copies or getting coffee, and if they are, Davis addresses the issue immediately.

“We make sure the students have a great deal of responsibility and it’s very time consuming to extern and take a full load of classes,” Davis said.

Externships offer students real-world work experience and an inside look at the challenges and rewards of practice. Sometimes the experience affirms what direction a student may want to take their career, but, just as valuable, it can also show students that their interests might be best served in another field, Davis said.

Moritz offers two different types of externships: a public interest externship and a judicial externship.

Public interest

Though the judicial externship program has been a staple at Moritz for years, the public interest program is new in comparison. It started in 2012.

The program matches students with a government entity or nonprofit organization that is approved as an externship placement by the law school. Students can also find their own placement, as long as it is approved.

During the Fall and Spring semesters, students must work at least 150 hours at the organization, or 50 per credit hour they receive.

Participating organizations have included the Legal Aid Society, Children’s Defense Fund, Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, NAACP, and Ohio Poverty Law Center.

Braunlin completed her public interest externship for the education section of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. Though she had previously completed a judicial externship as well, her experience with the Attorney General’s Office confirmed that she wanted to work in the public sector.

“My goal is to one day to work for the Attorney General full-time. Through the externship, I got to see the office from the inside,” she said. “I learned the different sections and where I might fit in. You can’t do that in a classroom.”

During Braunlin’s time there, she had the opportunity to deliver opening statements and a closing statement in an administrative hearing, question witnesses, and sharpen her writing and research skills.

Because the externship is “very hands on,” as Braunlin described, she, and every public interest extern, has a supervising attorney to give advice along the way.

“Whoever the supervising attorney is works with them all throughout, hears the types of questions that you would ask and then looks at the questions they are planning to ask,” said Mia Yaniko, an assistant attorney general at the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and Braunlin’s supervising attorney. “It’s very interactive with whoever the supervising attorney is because practicing is very different from studying to be a lawyer.”

Judicial externship experience

As someone who was considering a judicial clerkship after graduation, David Twombly ’14 thought a judicial externship would be a good opportunity to polish his legal writing and researching skills and add to his resume.

Twombly, like about 25-35 other students each semester, was paired with a judge and asked to work at least eight hours per week throughout the 14 weeks of the semester.

With Moritz conveniently situated in Ohio’s capital, Ohio State students have a bevy of options to choose from for a judicial externship. United States circuit, district, bankruptcy, and magistrate judges all take externs from Moritz. So do the Ohio Supreme Court justices and the Franklin County Domestic Relations and Juvenile Court judges. Some judges have been working with Moritz students for more than a decade.

Twombly was placed with Judge Algenon Marbley of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, where he worked closely with a team of about seven people to assist the judge as he ruled on cases and wrote opinions.

“I think seeing things from judges perspective is just incredibly helpful for when you step back and get back to the world of most lawyers of making arguments to the courts.” Twombly said. “You have a sense of like ‘Oh I see what a judge would be looking for from me.”

Twombly was particularly struck by how quickly yet carefully judges have to make important decisions.

“Basically he’s making these huge decisions about these people’s lives and he’s got like 10 minutes to do this,” he said. “Just seeing how seriously he takes that responsibility gives you a greater respect for the law.”

Both the judicial and public interest externships have a classroom component as well. Students must submit weekly journal entries, meet for a monthly class, and submit one written example of their work during their time working the externship.

Launching careers

Braunlin and Twombly both credit their externship experiences as factors that separated them from the competition in finding subsequent positions.

Braunlin will be a staff attorney for an appellate court in New York and said she talked heavily about her externship experience during the interview process.

“It definitely helped me get my job for after graduation,” she said.

Twombly, who is clerking for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in North Carolina, had a similar experience.

“One of the questions the judge asked me during our interview was ‘So why do you want to do this instead of a trial court judge?’” he said. “Having the externship experience made it easy to answer that question because I had experienced the differences first-hand.”

Davis, who completed a judicial externship when she was at Moritz, acknowledged that students need many opportunities to succeed and develop skills in a challenging legal market.

Applicable work experience is often what makes the difference.

“Externships are great opportunities for students to get real world experience, which is increasingly important given the profession today and the state of legal market,” Davis said.