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The importance of gaining practical legal skills

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Internships

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Aristotle

One of the best ways to stand out among your peers is through demonstrated practical ability. As a law school graduate, you will be highly marketable if you can “hit the ground running.” You can fit this description by acquiring as many practical legal skills as possible during school.

By far, participating in a legal internship (externship, clinic, clerkship, etc.) is the most efficient way to gain these skills. However, the extent to which you acquire skills during an internship can vary dramatically. Depending on your workload there could be a lot or a very little amount of time to pick up practical legal skills. To make the most out of your internship, be sure to meet your workplace demands, but also remain focused on investing in your own learning at the same time.

To do this, it is imperative that you understand the science of experiential learning – the process of acquiring new skills through practical experiences. Experiential learning opportunities will be all around you during your internship. Take advantage. The best way to do that is to know the top three types of practical legal skills, these include:

  • Analytical Skills: Knowledge of substantive law and legal procedure, identifying issues, eliminating unrealistic outcomes, evaluating exposure, hedging and minimizing risk, assimilating information from multiple sources, designing strategies for resolution, motivating and coordinating action from multiple parties, interpreting behavior or sets of facts.
  • Research and Writing Skills: Conducting legal research, using legal research software, writing memoranda, letters, emails, articles, summaries of meetings or events, drafting contracts and other documents used in practice, editing/revising documents and citing to legal authority. 
  • Communication Skills: Oral communication, public speaking, client counseling, keen listening skills and issue-spotting, status reporting, developing themes and strategically arranging facts, persuasive writing, negotiating, investigating, relationship-building, client pitches, and marketing.

All practical legal skills are rooted in “tacit knowledge” – the type of knowledge that is difficult to transfer by writing down or verbalizing it. That is why you must experience the practice of law in order to acquire the skills.

Your goal should be to gain tacit knowledge in order to build your practical skill set. To do this, attorneys need to transfer their tacit knowledge to you and the most effective way to do this is through extensive personal contact, regular interaction and trust. In other words, tacit knowledge is transferred through practice.

This is why a legal internship is perhaps one of the only ways to truly acquire practical legal skills during law school. You cannot absorb these skills from a book; they must be transferred from attorneys to you through experience.

Max Rosenthal Maxwell D. Rosenthal is in-house counsel at a large media and entertainment company in New York City. He is also the author of "The Bridge: How to Launch Your Career through a Legal Internship" (Lexis Nexis 2015), which can be found on his website. He also frequently speaks at law schools and bar associations on topics related to career development and legal experiential learning. He can be reached at Max@bridgethebook.com.