The vast majority of law firm internships are summer programs geared towards law students, typically students approaching their last year of school. Depending on the firm, undergraduate internships may also be available for undergraduate students who are considering law school at some point in the future. There are as many different types of law firm internships as there are law firms. Some allow interns to experience a range of different practice areas, while others are more nuanced, providing expertise in a much more limited range of tasks. Students usually apply to law firm internships based both on their own practice area interests, as well as the overall prestige of the firm.
Law students often view internships as a means to a job at graduation, and many, particularly those at the biggest firms, are structured in just this way. Being selected for an internship at a top firm is usually very competitive. Once hired, however, interns usually spend the summer proving their worth and hoping for a more permanent job offer once the fall semester kicks off again.
Big firm internships all typically share this outward structure, but the substance and day-to-day life of interns can vary significantly depending on the firm and its needs. Interns’ primary function is to help the firm manage its workload, while at the same time learning more about law practice as a profession. Most of the time, interns gain work experience in the firm’s main line of work. Interns in a firm that primarily handles family law matters may learn about the paperwork that goes into divorce proceedings, for instance, while those at a primarily corporate firm may learn about the nuances of business mergers and acquisitions.
Law firm internships in smaller firms are often a bit different. Small firm work is usually less prestigious, and internships often pay a lot less. Many interns in these settings do more hands-on work, however. They are often hired to be direct assistants to attorneys and may get experience going to court, making actual filings, and drafting motion briefs. Large firms usually hire paralegals to perform these duties and use their interns mainly as research support for the partners.
Small firms are also usually some of the only places where college students can get law firm internships. More modestly sized offices will sometimes offer positions for college students interested in learning about the law as a potential career path. Undergraduate summer internships are often more administratively based, with interns doing basic copying, filing, and phone-based work. Most jurisdictions have rules prohibiting anyone but lawyers, paralegals, and law students from handling case files or contributing to litigation material.
Most law firm internships are paid internships, but not all are. Unpaid internships are most common in very small firms, particularly in those with only one or two lawyers. Many college students also work for little or no pay. Students often consider the career development value and resume cache of completing a law firm internship as well worth any monetary loss.