April 21, 2022
You have successfully navigated the summer job search, and you begin your internship full of excitement and optimism. But what if, in the middle of your summer, you’re not having the experience you’d hoped for? Perhaps you’re not getting enough work, or enough supervision. Or, maybe you’re getting too much work, or are confused about how to approach a project, or are feeling overwhelmed.
The first thing to understand is that you’re not the only one! These are surprisingly common experiences among law students. Many law students have not had a lot of professional experience. You may be straight through from college, or perhaps you’re the first person in your family to have attended college or law school and feel like you’re navigating an unfamiliar environment. Even students who have some professional pre-HLS experience can have challenges navigating the expectations and idiosyncrasies of the summer legal internship experience.
Below are some suggestions for navigating some common summer internship challenges students face. You’ll notice that the solution to just about every challenge is to communicate with your supervisor or the intern coordinator and make a clear request for what you need.
Remember that OPIA advisers are also available for Zoom meetings all summer and can strategize with you if your summer internship isn’t turning out as you had envisioned. We are happy to provide suggestions and feedback on how to communicate effectively and professionally with your supervisor or intern coordinator.
Situation 1: You’re not getting enough work, and you’re bored.
Reach out to your supervisor, intern coordinator, or whoever oversees work assignments and make a clear request for work. Try emailing something like this, modified as necessary to reflect your own voice (or, if you prefer, reach out in person or via Zoom):
“Dear Jesse, I’ve finished [your prior assignment], and I’m eager to dig into the next. Can you let me know how I can be most helpful to the office? While I’m most excited to work on XX, I would be more than glad to pitch in wherever needed.”
Situation 2: You’re getting a good amount of work, but little to no feedback on completed tasks, so you can’t tell how you’re doing, and worry that you’re not hitting the mark.
Communicate with your supervisor and make a clear request for feedback. Try emailing something like this:
“Dear Sasha, I really enjoyed working on [the completed assignment], and hope it was what you needed. I’d love to be able to apply any constructive criticism you may have as I start my next assignment. Do you have a few minutes in the next couple of days to talk over [the completed assignment] and any ways you think I could have done better?”
Situation 3: You’re working on a complicated assignment with little input from above, and you don’t have a good sense of whether you’re heading in the right direction.
Before getting too far down one road only to discover your supervisor was expecting something different, make a clear request for guidance. Try emailing something like this:
“Dear Alejandra, I’m making good progress on [the assignment], but before I invest any more time into it, I want to be sure that I’m on track with what you need. Do you have 15 minutes next week for me to run a few questions by you?” [and either include them in the email or suggest a time to talk them through.]
Situation 4: When you accepted the internship, the organization said you would be able to shadow senior lawyers at client meetings and court appearances. The summer is halfway over and neither of these things has materialized.
Communicate with your supervisor and make a clear request for opportunity. Let them know that you are eager to learn more about XX and ask if you’d be able to join them when they do YY next week. If there are specific opportunities you know are forthcoming, be specific in your request. Try this:
“Dear Devika, I am excited to learn more about motion practice and I see that you have a hearing next week for the motion to dismiss on the Taylor case. Would you be open to my joining you in court that morning to observe?”
Situation 5: You’re getting too much work or are getting overlapping and conflicting demands from multiple supervisors, and you are afraid you are going to end up dropping balls—or you’ve dropped one already but are afraid to let anyone know.
Reach out to someone who manages intern assignments to let them know that you could use some help prioritizing your work. If no singular coordinator exists, you can jointly email the attorneys who have assigned work to you. Try something like this:
“Dear Madison, I’m juggling a few assignments right now, and I’m concerned I may not have time, within the deadlines I’ve been given, to do full justice to each. I could use some help prioritizing what is on my plate to make sure I don’t drop any balls.”
Or, something like this:
“Dear Dylan, Avery and Chris, I’m enjoying working on each of the assignments you’ve given me. However, given the deadline on each assignment, I’m a bit concerned that I may not have the bandwidth to complete them all successfully in that timeframe. Could you confer and let me know how you would like me to prioritize, or if there is any flexibility regarding deadlines? I think I would just need an extra day or two to make it work. Thanks very much in advance!”
Situation 6: You’ve completed and turned in an assignment, and you later realize (or your supervisor points out) that you’ve gotten something wrong or overlooked something important.
Making mistakes is never fun, but it is entirely human, and everyone has done it. Your best bet is to take accountability, apologize, and take steps to make it right. You can try:
“Dear Ari, I have just realized that I XX’d when I should have YY’d [or, alternatively, “I really appreciate your pointing out what I misunderstood on the ZZ assignment.”] I’m sorry to have missed the boat on this. I will have a corrected draft to you by the close of business today; I will also call Other Staff Person to let them know that a corrected version will be coming shortly. Let me know if there is anything else you need me to do on this matter. You can be sure I will be more careful in the future, and this won’t happen again.”
Internships, just like doing anything for the first time, can be stressful and overwhelming, and you may feel like a fish out of water at first. Know and remember that you belong! Make sure you’re being kind to yourself and developing healthy self-care habits in tandem with developing your legal skills. These habits are essential to a successful, sustainable career. If you need some additional support, Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Services are open all summer, and OPIA advisers are available to talk through feelings around imposter syndrome, bringing your full identity to work, or anything else that might be alive in your mind.