An Internship During a Pandemic: Lessons Learned from My Summer with Post & Schell
Summer internships are a pivotal experience for many law students, are integral in giving law students the opportunity to get first-hand experience in the legal profession and can help define one’s career path. Securing a position can be an arduous task for law students under normal circumstances and was made impossible for many in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic as firms cut or severely curtailed their summer programs.
My recent summer internship with Post & Schell offered some expected experience and insight into the daily work of a lawyer, the business of running a law firm, and growth in my knowledge and skills. It also offered some unexpected insight into the importance of commitment and resiliency thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Challenges and Lessons for a Rising Second-Year Law Student
Independent of the pandemic, my first year of law school was challenging. Moving to a new city, adapting to the Socratic teaching method, and creating new meaningful friendships was at times overwhelming and difficult. These challenges were intensified when my first-semester academic performance did not go as planned. Instead of pitying myself, I recalled my favorite quote by Iron Mike Tyson, “[e]verybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.;” I became more dedicated in my studies. I went back to the drawing board and analyzed what worked for me, what did not, and lessons from what my peers were doing. I also began reaching out to and networking with Harrisburg, Pennsylvania area attorneys, casting a wide net when applying for positions for the summer. This paid off when I received an offer from Post & Schell, through the CAMP 1L program.
Then everything changed when the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality in our own backyard. Schools and businesses began to close, and many law firms and other legal agencies began canceling their summer programs. I, like many of my peers, began to wonder what would happen with my position. I had not received any updates from Post & Schell and decided to reach out hoping for the best but prepared for the worst.
Internships in a Pandemic
I was relieved when Post & Schell informed me that they were committed to moving forward with their summer internship program, albeit with some pandemic-specific modifications.
My summer internship began with me working from home. My first day included a virtual meeting with the lawyers coordinating the firm’s summer intern program, Cindy Haines, Carolyn Kendall, and Jessica Rogers, followed by a training session on the firm’s computer and document management systems.
I also jumped right into legal work with my first writing assignment – a simple memo explaining the facts, holding, and rationale of a case. I was eager to do well and demonstrate my skills but was informed that, although my work product was well written, I had missed the call on the assignment by overanalyzing the case. My second assignment, a research project, also did not go as imagined when I was unable to find a supporting case. My concerns about missing the mark in my early work product were allayed when the assigning attorney gave me a valuable insight by saying, “that’s what an internship is partially for.”
The insight was essential – I realized the purpose of the internship was not to be perfect or be able to find an answer to every question – it was for me to work hard, learn what law school does not teach students, and acquire the skills of an attorney through trial and error, and through feedback from practicing lawyers. Understanding this aspect of the summer experience was crucial as challenges still arose. Eventually, I was able to learn lessons from my mistakes, rather than dwell on them. It also made me resolute to simply continue trying – sometimes several times – until I was able to deliver a suitable work product to an assigning attorney. The result was improvement in my research and writing skills through a continuous process of learning and feedback. As my comfort level increased, I was able to complete tasks faster and more efficiently.
As the summer progressed, I was able to work at the firm’s Harrisburg office. Even while maintaining proper COVID-19 protocols, this was still a beneficial and enjoyable aspect of the internship.
I was able to interact with attorney and non-attorney personnel who came into the office and connect with them on a more personal level. This allowed me to get sporadic in-office assignments and the opportunity to get live feedback from assigning attorneys.
Additionally, I felt welcome to stop in and learn about the life decisions that guided these attorneys’ current career paths. This gave me valuable insight into different options that may be available to me as I begin my own practice. I also was able to simply learn about the people who work in that office and hear about their broken air conditioners, their dogs and family members, their son’s wrestling background, and their kids’ difficulties in finding summer jobs. The fact that the firm’s kitchen area was constantly stocked with assorted teas and coffees didn’t hurt as well.
The Commitment and Resiliency of the Legal Profession
An important lesson I took away from my summer internship at Post & Schell, particularly during the pandemic, was the importance of being able to adapt. Seeing the resiliency and commitment the attorneys had when advocating for their clients and keeping the legal process running even under challenging circumstances showed me how legal professionals are adjusting to the “new normal.”
This was clearly shown through the way Post & Schell conducted its internship program as well. The lawyers coordinating the program worked to schedule daily Zoom calls for me with attorneys from every office and practice group. Additionally, emails were regularly sent to the entire firm to collect assignments and try to include the firm’s interns in Zoom depositions or court proceedings. Along with my fellow summer intern, Ambriana Wade, I was able to attend depositions, networking events, and training sessions because of these efforts. Additionally, I was able to travel to Philadelphia several times to attend an in-person deposition, site inspection, and reception. These experiences exemplified the resiliency of the Post & Schell attorneys, along with the overall legal profession, while allowing me to see the difficulties of the industry in adapting to new methods of conducting business.
Throughout my summer experience, I was able to learn a lot about the legal profession and the business of Post & Schell. In a meeting with the firm’s President & CEO, Jim Johnston, I asked why, with so many other law firms deciding to cancel their summer internship programs, did Post & Schell, as a for-profit business, decide to continue with theirs? He answered that the firm made a commitment to Ambriana and me, and they were not willing to break that commitment to us. This response, and the welcoming attitude of every attorney I was fortunate to interact with, made me genuinely feel welcomed and comfortable while at the firm. Throughout the summer, I realized Post & Schell was an environment that, in my opinion, truly cares about the people who work for the firm. From Zoom calls with attorneys in DC, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New Jersey to daily in-office conversations with attorneys and staff like Cindy Haines, Kerry Maloney, and Liz Smith – I always felt like I was a part of a team and felt welcomed while at the firm.
- Be Flexible – As Mike Tyson said, “[e]verybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Try to plan your work schedule but be mindful that things may come up. Be ready to adapt when such events may arise.
- Learn as Much as Possible – Martial artist, Bruce Lee once said, “[e]mpty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water.” The goal of your first-year summer legal internship is not to impress anyone with what you learned during your 1L year. Your goal should be to learn about the actual practice of law. Be prepared to be uncomfortable or confused but open and willing to learn. Try to absorb as much as possible, through your various research assignments and other opportunities.
- Seize Available Opportunities – If an opportunity arises that interests you, whether it be working with a specific attorney, subject matter, or the opportunity to travel and get hands-on experience, do not be afraid to ask if it is available to you. The worst-case scenario is a potential “no” answer.
- Communication – When working on assignments, keep a regular/open line of communication with the assigning attorney. Provide regular status updates when given an assignment and be clear when discussing an assignment. Additionally, if you have a concern or issue bring it to the attention of the appropriate person sooner rather than later.
- Deadlines – Be mindful of deadlines and try to meet them. If, for some reason, you are unable to meet a deadline, be proactive, and communicate with an assigning attorney, providing a sufficient amount of time before the assignment is due.
- Understanding – If you are confused when an assigning attorney gives you a project, repeat it back to the attorney, break it down into simple terms, and provide your understanding of the assignment. If your understanding is correct, great. If not, it is better to know before you start and either further confuse yourself or are completely wrong.
- Firm Practices – Try to recognize the more inherent aspects and customs of working at a law firm – the things that are not taught in law school. For example, it is customary for lower-level attorneys to send senior attorneys calendar invites when scheduling meetings. Additionally, when provided with an official firm computer, it may be frowned upon to do work on your personal computer. Try to pick up on these practices before you must be informed of them – and when in doubt, ask.
- Be Social – When you are not too busy, try to socialize with other coworkers. You may be able to learn more about them, their practice, or general information about the office. Also, you’ll find many attorneys have a lot to say about the industry, clients, and the practice of law. It may seem like a lot to take in but be an active listener and look for lessons to keep with you.
- Be Courteous and Professional – This should go without saying but be respectful to everyone you meet during your internship. Personalities, backgrounds, and experience differ, no matter where you work. However, you should always treat those around you, especially your coworkers, with the respect you would also want to be given.