Externship Program Bridges Gap Between Legal Theory and Practice

The Externship on the Federal Government in Washington, D.C., launched last year, was so popular that a new section was added this semester to accommodate student interest.


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New York, Sept. 22, 2011—For a few hours each week this fall, Bridget McDevitt, of the J.D. Class of 2012, will switch from being a Columbia Law School student to a student lawyer, helping immigrants who face possible deportation.
During her off-campus work as an apprentice in the Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law unit, McDevitt will apply the theory she studies and the analytical skills she develops during her time in law school to help address clients’ legal problems.
“As a complement to classroom learning, an externship is a great way to actually experience real-world lawyering first-hand,” said McDevitt, who plans to work as a public defender after she graduates. “I came to law school to ultimately help people, and this [experience] gives me practical tools and opportunities to learn how.”
Students in one of the Law School’s externships work alongside seasoned attorneys specializing in a range of fields. Coveted placements include positions in Washington, D.C., at the United Nations, and at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, as well as opportunities to work for public interest groups focusing on immigration law, domestic violence, community defense, federal prosecution, and arts law, among others.
Ellen Chapnick, dean for Social Justice Initiatives, oversees the externship programs at the Law School and believes this form of experiential learning provides an important bridge between legal theory and the practice of law in the real world. “An externship is an invaluable part of legal education,” said Chapnick. “The experience allows students to apply legal theory and doctrine in field placements, working under the pressure of assisting real clients, and to develop pragmatic lawyering skills prior to graduation.”
In the past, the Law School had offered several different externships, but steps were taken to expand the overall program in 2007. Externship opportunities have nearly doubled over the past five years, and competition for acceptance into the program has increased as well. New externships are added every year.
The most recent addition to the program, the Externship on the Federal Government in Washington, D.C., launched in 2010, was so popular that a new section was added this academic year to accommodate student interest. Externs live in Washington, D.C., for a semester and work 40 hours a week for government agencies such as the Department of Justice, the State Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Participants get a rare opportunity to function alongside government lawyers while still students, drafting policy recommendations, conducting research, analyzing the effects of proposed litigation, and assisting senior attorneys. Students take an intensive government ethics seminar, and they attend a weekly seminar that engages them in a critical examination of the multiple roles lawyers play in federal government.
Along with intensive fieldwork that typically includes client interactions and interviews, legal research and writing, contract negotiations, and more, externs study legal doctrine in small weekly seminars taught by Columbia Law School faculty and leading practitioners. The individual attention from instructors and emphasis on specific areas of the law help to make the program more challenging—and meaningful—for participants.
Judge Robert D. Sack ’63 LL.B., the senior circuit judge at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, said students who participate in the Federal Appellate Court Externship he teaches research cases, help write bench memos, and observe appeals in action.
“Students, in essence, become part-time law clerks,” said Sack. “I give them a chance to become part of the process with respect to resolving an actual appeal before the court.”
Olivia Cassin, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society and co-teacher with Maria Navarro of the Immigration Law externship, said students such as third-year student McDevitt work with clients being threatened with deportation, usually because of criminal charges. They learn how to interview clients, participate in trial preparation and litigation strategy meetings, and assist their supervising attorney in all aspects of client representation, including researching complex legal issues and drafting memoranda of law. Many get a chance to argue cases in immigration court.
“It’s amazing how quickly students get up to speed on a client’s situation, so that they can help determine whether the government is following the law with respect to deportation procedures,” said Cassin. “They have to apply the law to the case; instead of just being passive readers of case law, students become problem solvers.”
For McDevitt, the externship—her second—is a natural progression from the work she did during the summer with the Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense division, and she said that it will help tremendously as she transitions into her career following law school.
“As a defense attorney, it is crucial that you understand the impact a criminal conviction will have on your client’s immigration status, and immigration law is often confusing,” she said. “My hope is that the externship will give me the tools I need to be an effective advocate for my future clients, not only from a criminal justice perspective, but also from an immigration perspective.”
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