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An Inside Look at Externships
USC Gould School of Law

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Students learn about externships at lunchtime panel

By Steffi Lau

On Nov. 17, around 50 students sacrificed their lunch break to learn about externships. Justices Laurie Zelon and Laurence Rubin, judges at the California Court of Appeal, came to speak to the students about externships and more specifically, the California Court of Appeal externships. They were joined by Danielle Perkel ’12, who participated in the California Court of Appeal externship program last summer.

The summer externship program at the California Court of Appeal offers first and second-year law students a chance to understand the appellate decision-making process. As externs, students examine trial court records, review appellate briefs and writ petitions, conduct research and draft opinions and memoranda. They also participate in a weekly seminar taught by the justices, research attorneys and appellate practitioners on different topics, allowing them to better understand the appellate courts and hone their skills.

Perkel spoke of the benefits of the program.

“It’s a fantastic program,” she said. “Externships in general are great, but the California Court of Appeal program is really special.”

Perkel noted that not only do externs work specifically for their judge like in any other externship, they attend workshops taught by judges and attorneys and take field trips to the lower courts, including the federal court, criminal court and dependency court.

 “Working with your judge is a really fun experience,” she said. “They want you to have a good learning experience so they usually give you the most fun and interesting cases. It’s very exciting to be able to look on Westlaw and see the cases I worked on this summer.”

Perkel said that externs get an inside look at the judicial process that textbooks and lectures can’t provide.

Rubin can attest to the value of the inside perspective, something he knows firsthand from his own experience.

“Danielle really hit it on the head when she said the externship program gives you an inside look. It tends to humanize the process,” he said. “For years, I was scared stiff of going into the court, and I think it held me back a little bit. But after spending some time with other lawyers and seeing that they research the way you do and analyze the way you do, it gives you a basic level of comfort.”

Getting to see cases unfold firsthand can give students a more comprehensive understanding of cases learned in the classroom.

“Not only does it help you once you get out of law school, it gives you a perspective on your remaining time in law school,” Zelon said. “Most of your time in school is spent reading appellate cases. But what happened in those cases? What process did they go through to get here? The externship program puts it all in context and allows you to really understand.”

Rubin echoed Zelon. “The skills you are using are not technical. But these skills develop better if you can see it instead of just hearing it in the classroom,” he said. “If a professor tells you, ‘Judges don’t like you to be too aggressive in your presentation,’ sure, it’s helpful, but it doesn’t mean much if you just hear it in the classroom. It doesn’t mean much if you haven’t experienced it.”

Beyond getting to build on the skills and knowledge learned in school, the externship program also allows students to acquire new skills and knowledge. Perkel recalled being scared when she received a case to work on that was all evidence issues, a class she hadn’t taken yet.

“But they said to me, ‘We know you haven’t taken this class yet, but that’s okay. You know how to research and we can help you.’ So the fact that what you’re doing isn’t just confined to the torts class or the property class you took in your 1L year is great,” she said.

Reading briefs can also improve students’ writing skills.

“Nothing will make you a better, more concise writer than reading a long, badly written brief,” Zelon said.

The externship program also has a social aspect. Zelon spoke of the benefits of getting to interact with judges, attorneys and externs from across the country. She said many of the young attorneys can offer valuable advice to externs – as well as invitations to happy hours.

“The friendships are great, too. You’re working with people from all across the nation. Thursday happy hours were the best,” Perkel said.

Applications are accepted on a rolling basis, starting Dec. 1 and ending Feb. 15.

One student raised his hand and asked what factors judges look for in applications.

“Well, I’m not sure, but it starts with UCLA,” said Rubin, eliciting laughter from the room. Rubin attended UCLA for both undergraduate school and law school and was sporting a UCLA tie.

He advised students to make their applications interesting and personal. Writing samples were important. He said that although they don’t have to be beautifully written, he needs to know that the writers understood the issue and could explain it to another person.

And beyond getting to make new friends, improve writing skills and learn new things, there’s always the obvious reason:

“Having four less units in your 2L year is amazing,” Perkel said.

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