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It is a disheartening fact that many law students, by the time they reach the midpoint of their legal education, have lost sight of the personal goals that motivated them to enter the profession in the first place. These things include, if law school applicant files are to be believed, the desire to assist others and the need to improve society through one’s individual efforts, gifts, and skills. Unfortunately, the rigor and routine of the first year of law school emphasize impersonal, dispassionate analysis over passionate advocacy. How can you ensure that you graduate and enter practice with both intellectual discipline and personal ideals intact? Take advantage of your law school’s externship program. Whether it is called an externship, a field placement, or an off-site clinic, all law schools offer the opportunity to receive academic credit for a hands-on learning experience out of the classroom. You may have the choice of working in state or federal trial and appellate courts, or for various governmental or public interest agencies, such as district attorneys’ offices, public defenders’ offices, the Internal Revenue Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, county attorneys’ or city attorneys’ offices, Catholic charities, the NAACP, Gulf Coast Legal Foundation, various volunteer lawyers’ programs, school districts, and Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts. The opportunities are almost limitless, and many schools allow you to customize your experience by finding other placements that mirror your area of interest. Your best source of information about externship placements is the director or coordinator of your school’s program. Schedule an appointment to discuss your individual goals, listen to their suggestions for potential placements, and then ask for the names of other students who have completed externships there. Don’t wait until registration to do this, because the decision that you make about your externship can have long-term consequences. TANGIBLE BENEFITS Most students who enroll in externships, clinics, or field placements do so to explore particular career interests, to improve their prospects for employment in a specific field, and to build a professional network. If you have completed your school’s course in wills and trusts, for example, and think that probate practice might be the place for you, go talk to your externship coordinator to see if placements are available in the probate court. Most judges and their staffs are extremely welcoming to student externs, and are happy to supervise your work at the court. Under their guidance, you will apply your classroom knowledge to the real world of probate practice, learn how the court operates on a daily basis, and meet many people, including practitioners, who may assist you in your future career. Many governmental and public interest agencies also welcome student externs and can provide even more hands-on experiences. If you have completed 60 hours of coursework, you may be eligible for a third-year Bar card. This allows you to appear in court in the company of your supervising attorney and hone your advocacy skills. The tangible benefits of externships and field placements are many. You may meet your future employer, discover an area of practice that suits your interests perfectly, or acquire a new set of advocacy skills. The intangible benefits are equally important. Through your experience at your placement, you will gain confidence and self-awareness, commodities that the traditional law school curriculum does not promote. You will learn how practicing attorneys balance their personal and professional lives and how they discharge their professional obligations to the legal system, to their clients, and to society. You will encounter and resolve ethical dilemmas that weren’t dreamed of in your professional responsibility class. You will rediscover your personal motivations and rekindle your desire to be a lawyer. Elizabeth Dennis is assistant dean and director of off-site clinics at South Texas College of Law in Houston. In 1999, she received the Frank Newton Award for Pro Bono Service, given by the State Bar of Texas to the South Texas College of Law clinical faculty.

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