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Externships transform classroom lessons into career skills

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

“Externships can play a pivotal role in helping students shape their careers and personal development, and inform the personal and professional characteristics that add up to what it means to be a lawyer,” says Prof. Laura Riley, director of Experiential Learning.


Gould’s Office of Experiential Learning positions students to apply classroom lessons to real-world situations, facing ethical questions, managing client interactions and shaping career paths.

By Leslie Ridgeway

Zachary Shen, JD/MBA 2022

While some college students are spending their summers at the club, Zachary Shen (JD/MBA 2022) is spending his in an externship with the Clubs and Theaters division of events promoter and venue operator Live Nation, where he’s reviewing and drafting contracts, conducting legal research and refining his communication skills.

“This externship has provided a window into the multitude of risk, compliance, regulatory and business issues that in-house attorneys need to solve every day,” says Shen. “I hope to learn from these experiences so that I may effectively utilize my knowledge when I advise other businesses in the future or start my own company.”

Putting Theory into Practice

That’s the type of experience that Professor Laura Riley, director of Experiential Learning at USC Gould, is hoping for when a student signs up for an externship. Riley, who assumed leadership of the office in 2018, aims to help students put the doctrine and theory they learned in the classroom into practice in real-world situations, facing ethical questions and managing client interactions that help them formulate their career paths. Choosing an externship is a process determined both by the student and Riley’s office, which uses student goals as a guide in identifying the best placement for them.

 Prof. Laura Riley, director of Experiential Learning at Gould

“We brainstorm with students about their interests, professional goals and the type of exposure they’d like to have, and try to find the right employer to match with their interests,” she said. “We have a list of approved placements to help them get started. They might also find a placement on their own, and we vet whether it’s appropriate.”

If acquiring valuable practical experience wasn’t enough, students also earn academic credit for participating in summer or semester-long placements as they complete the academic portion of the externship course, Riley says.

“To graduate, students must take six units of experiential learning, and externships qualify for that requirement,” she says. “Externships are not specifically required of our students, but they offer a way to understand the practice areas that are the best fit for them, or not the best fit. Law school is the best time to try that out.”

Students are allowed to apply for externships after their first year. Placement categories include government agencies (criminal and civil), legal nonprofits, entertainment companies and in-house counsel opportunities.

Courtney Mendoza (JD 2020) did an externship last spring with the Department of Justice’s Office in the Civil Division working for the Health Quality Enforcement (HQE) section, which revokes or suspends medical licenses on behalf of the Medical Boards of California. This summer she’s participating in an externship with the National Health Law Program (NHeLP). Both externships gave her more experience with research, legal writing and legal research skills, as well as opportunities to sit in on administrative hearings and participate in national policy advocates meetings and stakeholder meetings.

 Courtney Mendoza, JD 2020

The externships have helped her define the office culture where she can thrive, as well as the type of legal work she wants to do, she says.

“Working at the HQE section made me realize that I prefer more client contact and a more collaborative office culture,” Mendoza says. “Working at NHeLP, I've found that it has the collaborative office culture I like, and policy work is an area where I feel like I can advocate for the public on a larger scale than I would with one-on-one direct legal services.”

A Powerful Experience

When Riley conducts check-ins with students over the course of their externships, she finds many, like Mendoza, come away with a stronger sense of the impact they can have as practitioners of law, as well as an understanding of how their work affects them personally.

“They are struck by the power that the court has in both impacting an individual life and the law,” she says. “They are researching issues that a judge reviews that become law. That is a pretty humbling experience. Some students also become aware of how important it is to have tools to manage the way their work affects them, and to understand the role of their wellbeing in that work.”

Participating organizations provide the proving ground for students eager to put what they’ve learned in the classroom into practice – which is much appreciated by the organizations.

“Hosting USC law students at my organization is a classic win-win situation,” says Dwight Stirling (JD 2000), founder and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Law and Military Policy, which is supervising an extern this semester. “As a nonprofit think tank, the Center for Law and Military Policy provides students the chance to tackle complex structural issues while honing their understanding of how policy change happens. At the same time, we gain access to students’ creative and high-powered problem solving skills, a force multiplier for the center. And that our work is focused on improving the lives of service members imparts a sense of purpose to everyone involved.” 

Developing relationships with outside organizations that might accept USC Gould externs is an ongoing effort. Riley is working with the Gould Career Services Office on scheduling a career fair to help establish and maintain relationships with organizations. Currently, USC Gould students are participating in externships in Southern California, the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., New York City, Oregon, Washington and Texas.

Riley hopes students will see her office as the place where they can turn dreams of a career in law into a reality.

“Externships can play a pivotal role in helping students shape their careers and personal development, and inform the personal and professional characteristics that add up to what it means to be a lawyer,” she said. 

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