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THE SAN DIEGO CITY ATTORNEY’S OFFICE TAKES A FRESH APPROACH TO INTERNSHIPS BY KENNETH SO

M

ost attorneys have done a legal internship as a law student. The experience they gained provided practical experience to complement law school classes and helped them land their first attorney job. Legal internships can also shape a law student’s developing perspective on the practice of law, as well as his or her individual career path. Although programs vary, they tend to share common characteristics. Typically, an intern is assigned to a smaller, specific section of an organization along with an attorney supervisor in that section. The supervisor usually comes up with the assignments for the intern. If there is more than one intern under the supervisor, the supervisor decides what assignments will be handled by which intern. This method of assignment has unfortunate limitations — for both the interns and the program. In a law firm with broad practice areas, an intern could be specifically assigned to a particular practice group, and would generally only work on matters related to the group or the supervisor to which they were assigned. In some cases, if a legal intern “Jim” were assigned to attorney supervisor “Ashley” in, say, the land use litigation section, Jim may only get to work on land use matters that Ashley was working on. If any other attorneys in Ashley’s firm

32 SAN DIEGO LAWYER May/June 2019

needed intern assistance, those attorneys would typically need to ask Ashley’s permission for Jim to work on their matters because Jim would be considered “Ashley’s intern.” Regardless of who was assigning the project, typically the intern would not have the opportunity to choose between different projects to work on. Being “Ashley’s intern” can prove beneficial, or demoralizing. For example, if supervisor Ashley is too busy to assign projects or not busy enough to have an appropriate project for intern Jim, he may find himself without anything to do or being assigned “busy work” for the sake of having something to do. At the same time, while Jim is doing “busy work” or has nothing to do, there may be other attorneys in Ashley’s firm that could use his assistance. Depending on the rules of that firm, the other attorneys may be barred from using Jim and, even if they could, may not know whether Jim had the ability to take on their projects. In addition, if Jim determined midway through his internship experience that he no longer enjoyed doing land use litigation or perhaps that he wanted to explore his potential interest in, say, commercial real estate transactional work, Jim may have no choice but to continue taking on only land use litigation assignments for the duration of his internship.

To address these potential concerns and to offer law students a broad, practical educational experience, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office (Office) has taken a unique approach to its Civil Division Internship Program (Program). The Program starts from the premise that an intern is not “Ashley’s intern”, but rather assigned to the entire Civil Division, where any of 60 or more civil attorneys may post intern assignments. By taking this approach, the Program allows interns to work with multiple attorneys practicing in a variety of practice areas. Interns are exposed to both litigation and transactional/ advisory-related assignments as part of the same internship. Each intern is assigned an attorney supervisor who acts as a mentor, but is not directly responsible for providing the intern with work assignments. This provides our interns with a collaborative, immersive, customizable and educational experience. Some have even described our Program’s approach as the “Uber-ization” of internship programs. To make the Program work, the Office developed a customized website portal to facilitate interaction between attorneys and interns. The website contains several features, including:

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San Diego Lawyer May//June 2019  

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