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On the first day of her summer internship with the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Fund Inc., Michelle Walker witnessed a legal skirmish between environmentalists, the state and big business. She attended an administrative hearing on a permit challenge against Georgia Power and the director of the state environmental protection agency. It wasn’t a typical first day, but then, this was no typical summer legal internship. Walker knew she wanted a plaintiffs-side environmental practice going into law school, and she wanted practical experience during summer vacation. But she didn’t know at first where to get it. At a law firm? A public interest group? A government agency? An Atlantan who’s a rising 2L at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vt., Walker accepted an internship with Riverkeeper, an independent environmental advocacy organization dedicated solely to protecting the Chattahoochee River. Walker, like many other law students, has chosen an alternative to the typical law firm summer programs. Only 55 percent to 65 percent of 1999 law school graduates work for law firms, according to the National Association for Law Placement’s “Employment Trends for Recent Graduates, 1985 to 1999.” Often the path to careers outside of law firms begins in school, with alternative summer jobs. Though students may gain more hands-on experience, they’ll likely give up pay to get it. The median salary for summer associates at law firms with 51 to 100 lawyers is about $1,300 a week. At bigger firms, the weekly pay may range from $1,700 to $2,000, according to NALP’s 2000 Associate Salary Survey. At public interest jobs, students may make that in an entire summer. For example, Walker earns $10 an hour. She says friends in other public interest postings work for free. Some law school groups offer fellowships. For example, Georgia State University’s Public Interest Law Association awarded individual grants of $2,100 for full-time public interest work this summer. The range of experiences may make the lack of pay worthwhile. Students may work in government agencies or public-interest organizations or serve as research assistants for law faculty. Or they could work on political campaigns, for trade associations, labor unions, or any number of businesses, such as public accounting firms, banking and finance. The State Tax Consulting group at PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, has two law student summer interns. Their job is primarily to research state tax laws, but they may do other nonlegal research and writing, according to Southeast Region Partner-in-Charge Steve Wilkerson. “Our work compared to law firms is broader in terms of its business applications. We’re working collaboratively with companies to solve problems, and that’s not necessarily legal in nature,” he says. For PricewaterhouseCoopers, candidates are interested in tax work, and usually have an accounting or finance background, says Wilkerson. The group’s narrow focus attracts people interested in state tax work, but not other legal practices. Wilkerson says pay for legal interns varies depending on the person’s experience, class standing and location and is generally less than the $1,300 a week NALP says is median pay at midsize firms. GOVERNOR’S PROGRAM The Georgia Governor’s Intern Program placed 80 law students in jobs with state agencies, judges, the attorney general’s office, the governor’s office and the secretary of state’s office. Additionally, it placed students in public interest jobs with indigent defense programs, legal aid to the homeless, and a Hispanic law center, according to Ryan Tucker, the program’s director. Most are rising 2Ls, but some are 3Ls who want to work in a particular agency after graduation, he says. Some want to run for office one day, some just want legal experience, and some want to change the world. “Even if headed for a firm one day, this provides a unique legal work experience for a student who is between their first and second year,” he says. “There aren’t a whole lot of real clerkship opportunities for people who have just finished their first year.” The Georgia Governor’s Intern Program lasts 10 to 12 weeks and pays $3,000. Students don’t work in the program for the money, says Tucker, adding he has lost candidates to unpaid internships. Beth Kirch, director of legal career services at the University of Georgia, says a strong interest in one particular practice area usually drives students into these summer jobs outside of law firms. IT’S CRIMINAL Another example of alternative summer intern work outside of law offices is criminal law, says Kirch. Most larger firms with summer programs offer little in criminal practice, she says. So students interested in criminal law often work for a district attorney or a public defender’s office. They also work for independent groups such as Georgia Justice Project, which provides criminal defense and long-term rehabilitation to indigent clients. Douglas Ammar, GJP executive director, says the program has six law school students interning this summer who will interview clients, track down police reports and warrants, work with court personnel to determine case status, and interview witnesses, among other tasks. They also participate in social service activities. For example, as part of its rehabilitation program, GJP operates a landscaping company to provide jobs for former clients when they get out of jail. Law students spend a day working with the crew, and go on a social outing with them, such as bowling or playing pool. Interns also coordinate picnics and help with monthly dinners for clients, according to Ammar. “What we’re trying to do for our clients is develop community and long-term relations that will help our clients change their lives,” he says. “What we’re doing is very unique.” A unique approach that includes, but is not limited to, legal work attracts summer interns, says Ammar. Most of GJP’s interns are interested in criminal work, although some work there just to get experience, he says. The positions are unpaid, although students often get funding from their schools or other programs but some just work for free, according to Ammar. “Folks come for lots of reasons, but more and more they come because they have a substantive interest in the kind of work we’re doing,” he says. Tara Wilson, a New Jersey resident and rising 2L at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Va., says she is interested in criminal law, and wanted practical experience from her summer job. “My fear of a big law firm is you’re stuck in the corner as a clerk or running errands, delivering subpoenas. I wanted to be doing as much as I could,” she says. Though she has written and delivered subpoenas in this job, she’s also drafted several motions, attended preliminary hearings and accompanied attorneys on discussions with prosecutors. She’s been to jails to interview potential clients and worked at developing theories of cases. The first trial she helped with — a vehicular homicide case — went to court just a couple of weeks after she arrived on the job. She talked to detectives and investigators, helped draft an opening statement and closing argument, and prepared witnesses. “I was really hoping to get to do a lot. I’ve only been here two weeks, and I’ve already done a lot,” she says. She also enjoys the social, nonlegal aspects of the job, such as attending a client’s high school graduation, she says. “I was looking at the job from a legal standpoint, but there’s so much more to it. Every day I’m seeing how much more there is to legal representation — that you can really make a difference,” says Wilson. Next summer Wilson says she may work for a prosecutor, but she is leaning toward defense and might try a public defender’s office instead. Riverkeeper’s Walker says she looked at law firms in Vermont and in her hometown of Atlanta, but found firms take few first-year students, favoring those with more legal education. “A lot of first-years end up doing alternative jobs their first summer and law firm ones their second summer,” she says. The work may be similar, however. Michelle Fried, Riverkeeper’s general counsel and Walker’s supervisor, says Walker primarily will do legal research and perhaps write letters. In the past, students also have drafted complaints and pleadings. But Riverkeeper offers a field component that most private law firms don’t have. Part of Fried’s job is responding to citizen complaints. To investigate them, she visits construction sites, landfills and alleged spill areas, often taking students with her. Walker sees another benefit that private firm life may not offer. “Working here gives me the opportunity to make contacts in the environmental field in Atlanta, which I did not have before I went to law school,” she says, explaining that Riverkeeper legal staff often interact with government agencies, private firms and other nonprofits. Alternative internships are a great way to “get a lot of experience really fast,” says Walker, but added that her school’s career services office recommends spending at least part of a summer in a law firm. Walker says she may do that next summer, just to get the experience and have a better idea of where she wants to work after graduation. NEXT SUMMER? Working in a public interest or other alternative summer job does not preclude students from landing a job at a firm, either next summer or after graduation, says UGA’s Kirch. “If they’re doing the substantial legal work that can transfer skills to private practice, that’s still a viable commodity,” she says. However, a lot depends on grades, the legal market, and whether a firm already has filled its permanent slots with former summer associates. Fried says working at Riverkeeper hasn’t hindered her students from getting jobs at firms. One former intern went to work for King & Spalding this summer. Another is in Washington at a plaintiffs’ environmental law firm. The main difference between working for Riverkeeper and a law firm, according to Fried: “They get a lot more hands-on work — I feel like the students for Riverkeeper get real-world work.” ACLU WORK Gerald Weber, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, also says that students who take public interest summer jobs are given a great deal of responsibility and some weighty projects. For example, one of his interns is working on a suit filed by the ACLU of Georgia in federal district court on behalf of nine Seminole County middle and high school students who were forbidden from wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Confederate flag to school. The law student, Walker Stroud, a rising 2L at the University of Georgia School of Law, is drafting affidavits and talking to clients. She’ll help Weber prepare for a hearing in June. The ACLU’s summer interns work closely with and evaluate potential clients. They do initial factual investigations, initial legal research, and make recommendations to the legal committee. “So much of public interest is a lot of juggling, so the law students learn how to juggle in short order,” says Weber, whose program usually hosts six full-time law students. “To have the students in here 40 hours, they get a richer experience — I tell our law students that they are our other attorneys and they are doing work we would be doing if they weren’t around.” Like so much public interest work, funding is tight. ACLU jobs are unpaid, but students often get fellowships to fund summer public interest jobs. Stroud says civil rights law motivated her to go to law school and she thought working for the ACLU would be a good way to see what it’s like to be a civil rights litigator. She already has worked in the private, for-profit sector — as a paralegal at a large New York law firm. That experience convinced her she didn’t want big-firm life. “That was a great experience and I’m glad I got to see how a large law firm like that operates,” she says. “But I think I learned that it wasn’t really as interesting to me or as motivating to me as public interest work. That’s why I put my energies more into looking for a public interest job this year.”

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