Listen to learn: Four ways listening can help you get the most out of your externship

Listen Like a Lawyer is grateful to welcome this guest post by Kendall L. Kerew, Co-Director of Georgia State University College of Law’s Externship Program.


An externship (a field placement for academic credit) can be a great opportunity for law students to learn outside of the classroom alongside practicing lawyers and judges. If you are a law student beginning an externship this semester, you might want to consider the following ways listening skills can help you gain the most from your experience. If you don’t have an externship this semester, think about how you might be able to incorporate listening skills into your approach to a current or future internship or summer job.

1. Listen to maximize opportunities.

When you begin your externship, you may have a sense of what you want to learn from the experience. While it is important to clarify your own learning goals and expectations, it will add to your experience if you ask your supervising attorney or judge about his or her goals and expectations. What does he or she want to teach you? What experiences does he or she think you shouldn’t miss? What kind of assignments should you expect? What observation opportunities will you have? If you listen carefully to how your supervisor answers these questions, you will have a good idea of whether your goals are realistic and achievable.

2. Listen to increase understanding.

All externs have the shared goal of delivering a quality, useful work product. To get one step closer to achieving this goal, be sure you know what your supervisor wants. Listen to all parts of the assignment to make sure you understand what you are being asked to do and why you are being asked to do it. Ask clarifying questions to determine the scope and application of the assignment. Listen to the answers and ask follow-up questions.

Listening to your supervisor is just as important after you finish the assignment. Be sure to actively seek your supervisor’s assessment. Hear the feedback. Be open-minded and receptive to constructive criticism. You can’t improve without knowing where you went wrong or what you could have done better.

3. Listen to what others have to say.

You will interact with many non-lawyers during your externship. Be sure to listen to what they have to say. The administrative assistants, court personnel, and other interns/externs who support your supervising lawyer or judge can provide invaluable information about office procedures, preferences, and expectations. Listening to non-lawyers can provide you with a different and important perspective about the practice of law.

4. Listen to yourself.

Throughout your externship experience, you will be expected to actively reflect on what you are learning, not only about the law, but also about yourself and the formation of your professional identity. Set aside a few minutes each day to focus on yourself and engage in self-reflection. Ask yourself questions that will help you to figure out what kind of lawyer you want to be. What did you like or dislike about a particular assignment or area of law? What professional or unprofessional lawyering practices did you encounter and how did they make you feel? What lessons did you learn from observing the lawyers and judges around you? How do you want to practice law? Assess your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses, and map out your plan for the future (both immediate and long-term). The work you put into figuring out what kind of lawyer you want to be may prove to be the most important work you do all semester.

Kendall L. Kerew, Co-Director, Georgia State University College of Law Externship Program

The author is grateful to her externship program co-director, Andrea Curcio, for her helpful feedback and unflagging support and to Jennifer Romig for inviting her to write this guest post.