Externs! Externs! Read All About Them!

Matt, a man with light brown hair, wears a pale blue shirt, orange tie, and blue jacket.By Matt Pentz 

Externs. What are they? Why should your organization consider being a placement site for them? And, what are things to keep in mind when serving as such a placement site? Keep reading to find out!

What are “externs” (and how do they differ from “interns”)?

The American Bar Association (“ABA”) defines the term as follows: “Externships are non-compensated positions in settings outside a law school, for which students receive academic credit.” The receipt of academic credit seems to be at the core of what makes an extern an extern, so that is what appears to be their defining feature and what sets them apart from traditional interns. As a result, the answer I give when asked how externs differ from interns is that “an extern is an intern that is paid in experience.”

While we are on the subject of definitions, I want to clarify the meanings of the terms “externship program” and “externship placement program” as I use them. “Externship programs” are the programs through which law schools offer law students the opportunity to be externs and the academic credit externs receive. “Externship placement programs” are the programs organizations set up to host externs within their organizations.

What are the benefits of having a placement program?

1. Benefits to externs

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that providing experiential learning is one of the best, if not the best, method by which students of any trade can learn that trade. Local government externship placement programs offer law students accessible opportunities to get real-world experience working for organizations that often cannot offer traditional internships due to budgetary constraints.

Getting any kind of real-world experience practicing any kind of law benefits law students at all stages of their education, and local government practice involves working in a wide range of practice areas, which can benefit just about any extern no matter what career path they take. More importantly, however, local government externships may be the only chance most externs have to experience local government practice prior to graduating.

Gaining such experience can be an immense help to externs who have a potential interest in local government law or who may not be aware such a career is possible, providing these students with otherwise unobtainable information that can help them shape the rest of their professional lives.

2. Benefits to local government practice as a practice area

The strength of any practice area is predicated on the quality and number of attorneys practicing in it. Those attorneys are the ones who pay attention and influence legislation applicable to the area, run the trade groups that support area practitioners and provide the wells of knowledge individual practitioners can turn to when in need of help. The more competent local government practitioners we have practicing alongside us, the wider the resource pool is to support these endeavors.

Placement programs are one of the best chances we have to show law students just how great a gig being a local government attorney can be. This exposure can strengthen the resolve of students already interested in the practice area or serve as an introduction for students who had not previously thought about it. These worthwhile impacts increase the potential for the community of local government practitioners to grow, ultimately benefiting all of its current and future members.

3. Benefits to the legal profession as a whole

These benefits are similar to those above and boil down to the fundamental concept that the more competent, informed and experienced lawyers we have within our ranks, the higher the quality of our work and the more likely it is that society at large holds the profession in high esteem. By hosting externs, we can pass on some of our own experience and provide models that these soon-to-be attorneys can look to when embarking on their own practice.

Also, the work we do as local government attorneys touches on so many practice areas beyond local government-specific topics, giving us a somewhat unique opportunity to provide externs with exposure to more practice areas than many other placement sites. Such exposure gives externs experience in those areas and helps them decide which areas they can see themselves working in for the rest of their careers (or which ones they desperately want to avoid). I personally find the quality of my work to, at least partially, equate to my enthusiasm, so I believe any contribution to guiding externs into practice areas they will enjoy, no matter how small, to be worth the effort. Hosting externs gives us the ability to provide such experience.

4. Benefits to the hosting organization

This benefit is a very practical one: externs can work on those projects you want to do but never have time for due to “the fires” that crop up each day. If you are anything like me, you routinely come across issues or questions — an obscure concept you’ve always wanted to know the history of, a recent state appeals or Supreme Court case that involves a local government issue but not one that is pressing in your jurisdiction, that backburner project you never seem to have time to plug away at — that you would love to dig into but can’t justify spending the time given more pressing matters that need to be attended to.

These types of backburner issues are perfect for externs, who can perform the research, brief the case, or work on the project. An extern will gain invaluable experience and provide you with current, useful work that makes your job easier.

5. Benefits to the professional development of the supervisor

Serving as an Extern Program Coordinator can benefit the supervisor’s professional development in substantial ways. It can provide experience in supervision and project management. More importantly, it offers the supervisor the opportunity to teach about various aspects of local government law and the inner workings of their organization at levels deeper than they normally would when speaking with staff.

I’ve personally found that supervising externs shifts my perspective on the topics being taught, requiring me to distill often complex topics into teachable concepts appropriate for law students. This exercise betters my own understanding of those topics and reveals gaps in that understanding that I can then correct.

How should I structure an extern placement program?

There is a way to structure a placement program so that its content is the day-to-day work you do. In Cary, workdays for the Town Attorneys consist mostly of attending meetings, putting out fires and using whatever time remains in between to work on the numerous assignments or projects we’re involved in.

Our placement program is structured so that the experience of our externs mirrors this day-to-day work we do as municipal attorneys, meaning it’s barely “structured” at all because our own days lack any kind of consistent structure. We include our externs in every meeting we can, leverage their help in troubleshooting and finding solutions when possible and give them assignments to work on when they are not at those meetings or helping us troubleshoot.

Also, a consequence of including our externs in much of our daily activities is that it creates pockets of time — during walks to meetings, after meetings end early, and within short gaps between meetings — where we can talk with the externs about their assignments, questions they may have about things they’ve heard at meetings, local government law, the legal profession in general or any other topic that may come up.

This unstructured program “structure” results in an externship experience that has consistently received high ratings from the students who have externed with us. Common reviews are that the externs appreciate the breadth of issues they are exposed to, the ability to be involved in pertinent and topical matters, the ability to frequently observe our attorneys interacting with staff and outside parties and the amount of time they spend with us.

Where do I go to find externs to host?

Law Schools! The American Bar Association (“ABA”) mandates that all accredited law schools require students to take at least some “experiential courses”[1] as part of their legal education, and extern placements count as an experiential course. So, law schools are incentivized to assist you in administering your placement program and establishing extern programs of their own. They will often have preexisting application processes in place through which they will list your placement site as being available, collect application materials from prospective externs and provide those materials to you for your review.

In addition to their established processes, your organization will become known to the law school’s externship program administrators, and they may reach out to you directly if they have a student who is specifically seeking local government experience or who they think might be a good fit.

It’s also worth mentioning that some law schools also provide site supervisor handbooks or similar resources that provide guidance on how to prepare for and interact with externs, as well as other resources that can help you run a program. I’ve found the schools to be fully cognizant of the perceived burden of hosting externs and to consistently ask for and implement feedback on how they can make their programs work better for Cary as a placement site. This is much appreciated and shows their willingness to support Cary’s placement program. I would be surprised if your nearby law schools would not be similarly inclined to support your externship program.

Having an externship placement program does sound like a worthwhile endeavor, doesn’t it?

I obviously think so! Managing Cary’s externship placement program has been a highlight of my time with Cary, and I firmly believe it produces the numerous benefits listed above. My hope is that you will strongly consider establishing your own program so that you can contribute to and begin reaping these benefits for yourself and your organization.

[1] ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools 2022-2023 Standard 303(a)(3) (AM. BAR ASS’N 2023).

Matt Pentz serves as a Senior Assistant Town Attorney for the Town of Cary, North Carolina. He can be reached at [email protected].