In 2017, National Jurist ranked the University of St. Thomas School of Law second among law schools nationwide for practical training. What is practical training, and what role does it play in legal education? As Adam Brown ’06, assistant director of career services and manager of the school’s externship course program, said, “Hands-on experience is pivotal to a law student’s process of discernment. By working alongside legal professionals and participating in meaningful projects outside of the classroom, students gain valuable knowledge about potential practice areas.”
In contrast to traditional legal study, it is an opportunity for students to develop transferable skills in a professional setting.
One of the ways St. Thomas facilitates practical training is through its much-lauded Mentor Externship Program, in which every student is paired with a professional legal mentor every year of law study. Another opportunity for practical training is provided through a variety of semester-long externship courses that take a deeper dive into a specific field or area of practice. Seven externship options allow for greater substantive understanding, more robust skill- and relationship-development, and the opportunity for each student to develop an extended professional narrative consistent with their career goals. Each student spends more than 150 hours completing the externship requirements.
Field placements include opportunities at major corporations and fortune 100 companies as well as nonprofit organizations, government agencies and judicial chambers. Students are also placed at start-up companies or in a wide range of business-, technology- and intellectual property-focused organizations.
“One of the goals of the externship courses is to open doors for students, and provide access to places and experiences that might not otherwise be available,” Brown said. “The partnerships we have with these placements are strong, and they are stewarded very carefully by both the law school and our students.”
In addition to the hands-on training that externship courses provide, students benefit from the supervision of an on-site legal professional and gain access to a network of people working in the field.
In some cases, participation in an externship leads to full-time employment at the field placement. This was true for Molly Sigler ’17, who earned a position to clerk for Judge Francis Connolly on the Minnesota Court of Appeals following her Judicial Externship, and Charlene Sundermann ’18, who was offered full-time summer employment after a two-semester externship at Ecolab.
For students interested in post-graduation judicial clerkships, an externship with a federal or state court judge is a powerful way to stand out from peers. Judge Pamela Alexander, who teaches the Judicial Externship course, works hard to pair students with judges who have similar interests, both personally and professionally. On multiple occasions, her pairings have resulted in post-externship offers for full-time clerkships.
Sigler credits her Judicial Externship for an offer to clerk full time for the Minnesota Court of Appeals after graduation. She applied to the Judicial Externship program interested in a post-graduation clerkship, and thought the externship would be “a perfect opportunity to ‘test’ if [she] should go that route.” If it was a test, she passed it. After externing for Judge Francis Connolly, he offered her a full-time position, allowing her to bypass the formal application process.
“If it weren’t for the Judicial Externship program, I would have had to go through the application and interview process with the court. I would much rather work with someone for a semester to show him or her that I am a good candidate for a job,” she said.
The opportunity to work directly with judges is invaluable for students who seek the opportunity. “Public offices, government agencies and non-profits typically aren’t in a position to hire students,” Brown said. “So externships are sometimes the only way for students to access them.”
Sundermann, a student in the Compliance Externship, recalled meeting with Colleen Dorsey, director of organizational ethics and compliance programs, about a potential placement: “We talked about my experience and scientific background. She also asked me about my skills and interests, and ultimately suggested Ecolab.” Sundermann said it was a great fit, and after completing an externship and advanced externship there, she was offered full-time summer employment. She currently is working in global compliance and developing a tracking mechanism to monitor the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
“Compliance is a completely different gig than traditional legal practice,” she said. “The opportunity I received through the externship to work at Ecolab allowed me to gain first-hand experience in a field I didn’t know about prior to law school, but which I could potentially see myself doing long term.”
Students with a professional desire to pursue public service have a rich opportunity to do so through the Fredrikson & Byron Public Interest Externship. Placements are statewide and include organizations and agencies such as the Duluth City Attorney’s Office, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, The Saint Paul and Ramsey County Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, and the Department of Justice.
Ronnie Santana ’18 spent last spring semester as an extern with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. After working for a large law firm the previous summer, he was interested in learning more about the public sector. The ability to earn credit for the unpaid position made it a feasible option for Santana. He said he made the right decision; his experience solidified his desire to pursue a career as a federal prosecutor.
“The type of work I was exposed to, the caliber of attorneys I was exposed to … that is absolutely what I want to do and who I want to be,” he said.
Santana’s assignments involved work on human trafficking, major drug crimes and child pornography.
“It was really heavy stuff, but it put things in perspective,” he said. Each week, he looked forward to debriefing with other students in his Public Interest Externship course.
“The classroom component helped broaden my perspective of public law,” he said. “During class, we shared our triumphs and our burdens. This really humanized the work that other people were doing, and made me realize that despite adversarial roles, particularly in the criminal justice system, we are all working toward promoting the common good.”
Santana is currently working as a certified student attorney in the Community Prosecution Division at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. He believes part of the reason he was hired was his experience as an extern.
Sometimes, a student may learn through an externship that an area they wanted to pursue simply isn’t a good fit. And it’s better to learn that in law school than with a first employer.
“An externship is a well-rounded way look at what [a student] has professed as a vocation,” Judge Alexander said.
Brown also emphasized the discernment process.
“It is equally meaningful for a student to complete an externship and realize, ‘this is for me,’ or ‘this isn’t a good fit,’” he said.
Each of the externship courses connects students with a substantial field placement similar to the experience of a lawyer or legal professional advising or representing a client, or engaging in other lawyering or compliance roles under direct on-site supervision. A mutual understanding exists between the placement site and the law school that the student’s experience and education are paramount. To this end, the field placement is expected to provide opportunities for performance, feedback and self-evaluation to help students gain practical experiences and develop competencies.
Reflection and Dialogue
While the field placement serves as the fulcrum for the experience, the classroom component helps reinforce the practical application of skills and allows students to learn from each other. In class, students share what they see and do, and a faculty member helps them reflect and integrate that experience into a growing body of knowledge and understanding. Time and engagement then
become professional building blocks.
“We have amazing professors in the program. They are all experts in their fields,” Brown said.
Judge Alexander uses class time to facilitate a necessary conversation around professional competencies and real-life issues. Each semester, she invites a panel of lawyers to discuss their personal experiences, specifically addressing how they manage their time and what is expected of them in their roles. She added, “We have a lot of fun.”
Dorsey, who teaches the Compliance Externship, asks her students to use the field experience as a backdrop to solve an ethical dilemma. In the past, she has helped students create an entire compliance program from scratch for a fictional company. Drawing on her own experience as a practitioner of compliance and ethics in a corporate setting, Dorsey strives to create a substantive classroom experience that prepares students for the real world.
“I just love it,” she said. “The possibilities are endless.”
In the Business Externship, the classroom component emphasizes business and entrepreneurial skills through a wide range of guest speakers, and the personal experiences of professors Dennis Monroe and Norm Linnell. Monroe, a nationally recognized business legal adviser, co-founded the law firm Monroe Moxness Berg. Linnell is retired vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of the Donaldson Company and former president of Books for Africa.
“Students are energized and thrilled that they get the opportunity to build on their legal education and put it to work in the real world,” Linnell said. “They get feedback on their work product and professional advice on how to be a successful member of a business and legal team.”
Monroe and Linnell challenge students to use the classroom portion of the externship to reinforce the experience at their field placements, and as a vehicle to study, analyze and reflect on the role, responsibilities and competencies of a legal professional – both as a trusted adviser and as a member of an organizational team.
Between the field placement and classroom component, externships allow St. Thomas Law students to showcase what they are capable of and expand their professional network.
“The letter of recommendation my supervising attorney wrote on my behalf was incredible. It was the best letter I’ve ever seen. I am so proud to have really shown her what I can do,” Santana said, adding that he intends to stay in touch with several of the attorneys. “They are fantastic mentors.”
Brown continued, “Externships really help students to cultivate lasting professional relationships. The benefits are long term.”
Seven Externship Opportunities
Each term, approximately 50 students participate in one of the externship courses at St. Thomas Law. In addition to the required Mentor Externship Program, current externship courses include:
• Fredrikson & Byron Public Interest
• Misdemeanor Defense
• Advanced Externships