During the Great Recession and its lingering aftermath, many in-house legal departments have been faced with shrinking budgets, hiring freezes and–the worst case scenario–the termination of members of the legal staff. Yet the demands of doing more with less continue.

The establishment of a legal intern program in affiliation with a local law school–during the course of a year, starting with the summer months–can provide some relief as well as additional benefits for both the students and the legal department. Engaging interns can be justified on a budgetary basis since the cost is relatively minimal compared to hiring temporary attorneys, and there is no additional increase to headcount.

How can the legal department derive the most benefit when engaging interns?

Include the interns as part of the legal team. Involve them in your meetings. Seek their views on the legal and factual issues confronting the legal team. They have the ability to offer fresh insights.

Involve them in “client” meetings.

Seek out their views on employing technological solutions to some of the routine work that your department provides or the information that your department needs to stay ahead of the competition. For many of today’s law students, computers and the Internet have always been part of their educational life. That knowledge can be a valuable resource.

Assign each intern to a specific attorney as his or her primary contact. This will give the department a sense of continuity of the intern’s performance.

Assign substantive work to the intern. When properly supervised, an intern in the last year of law school can be performing the same type of work as an attorney in the first year following law school. By the third year of law school, a student is gaining cumulative knowledge. The main difference between a third-year law student and an attorney in the first year of practice is that one has taken (and hopefully passed) the bar exam.

Assign projects that require more research and time than an average in-house counsel can provide. Often, a brief check-in on progress is enough to ascertain that the intern has remained on track.

Capitalize on their enthusiasm for the practice of law, which can have a positive impact on the remainder of the department.

View an intern’s time with your department as one big job interview. You can observe the intern’s work ethic as well as work product. The newly graduated attorney who has been an intern with your department starts her career as if she already had one or two years of experience with the added benefit of knowing how your company operates. The success rate for this attorney will be much higher than someone who has been hired on the basis of interviews only. Hiring from among the intern pool demonstrates a commitment to the intern program that will attract the best potential candidates.

How do the interns benefit?

They gain much needed “hands-on” experience. In an economy where jobs are difficult to find, they have an advantage over other potential candidates.

They gain a legal mentor–someone with whom to discuss their assignments and law school experiences. Face to face meetings are essential for the law
student’s development.

In the right legal department, they develop a passion for the practice of law. The interns gain good practical skills and see how all the pieces of the puzzle that are taught in law school come together.

When exposed to the corporate clients, interns learn the dynamics of attorney-
client interaction.

In establishing an intern program, enlist the support of your human resources department. Other departments, such as marketing and finance, can easily replicate all of the benefits described above.

A legal intern program can be a “win-win” for everyone involved.