t the end of the first year of law school many students are left with an overwhelming — yet unsatisfied — desire to understand “the big picture.” While first year classes give an introduction into what law students may encounter as to the law, rarely do these classes acquaint them with the practicalities of a legal career. I also was in that boat. I craved to understand the world of law, but my knowledge was limited to the theoretical applications in my 1L casebooks.
My journey began in January of that first year when I submitted my application for the Colorado Pledge to Diversity Summer Clerkship program sponsored by the Colorado Pledge to Diversity. The Colorado Pledge to Diversity is a nonprofit organization that promotes diversity and inclusion by exposing under-represented minorities who are 1L students to opportunities within the legal profession. The members are signatories to the Pledge to Diversity, and include law firms, corporate legal departments, and non-profit organizations. As signatories, these law firms and legal departments pledge to promote diversity and inclusion in the legal profession through the Summer Clerkship program. The Summer Clerkship program’s primary purpose is to educate diverse law students on the expectations of law firms and corporate legal departments for the summer. This seemed like a perfect introduction to “the big picture” that I was searching for.
It was early February when I learned that I had passed the first round, which consisted of an application process and an interview before representatives of the Pledge to Diversity. In the second round, individual interviews were held with the specific potential employers that had an interest in me based on my application. Finally, after these interviews, the committee began creating matches. Along with many other students, I anxiously awaited my results to see if I had been matched.
In mid-March, I learned that I was paired with not one, but two employers for a two-part joint internship: Xcel Energy and Gordon & Rees, LLP. There was no end to my happiness and relief. Happiness that I had been paired, and relief that I had secured my first summer clerkship. With no experience to formulate expectations on, my only knowledge about the clerkship was based on what I learned during the interview process. Hence, on my first day as a summer clerk, instead of expectations of what I would do, I brought with me questions that I hoped would bring me closer to “the big picture.”
Working at Xcel Energy and Gordon & Rees taught me more than I could have ever contemplated. During my internship, I worked with multiple attorneys and each attorney was more than willing to help me when I came across a road block in my search for the answer to a legal question. However, first and foremost, I learned that it was okay to fear what I did not know. They taught me that fear is natural and even the most experienced attorneys fear what they do not know. However, this fear should not hold us back, but encourage us to move forward. Hence, while I was expected to give my hundred percent to researching and answering legal questions, I was not expected to be perfect. The attorneys expected and in fact encouraged me to ask questions when I did not know what to do. The Pledge to Diversity Summer Clerkship program was not about what I knew or did not know, but what I came away with. And while I came in with little knowledge of the differences and similarities in the work, expectations and culture of a corporate in-house department versus a law firm, in the end I walked away with a better understanding of both.
I discovered that in many ways an in-house legal department functions just as a law firm. At both Xcel Energy and Gordon & Rees, the expectations were mostly similar. Each employer had legal questions that needed answers. The only difference was that at Xcel Energy there was only one client, whereas at Gordon & Rees there were many clients. Additionally, on a micro-level, attorneys had different expectations for how they expected me to deliver my work. For instance, while some attorneys preferred a brief emailed memo, others liked a formal IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion) formatted memo. I recall the first memo that I had submitted during the clerkship. The attorney had asked a rather simple legal question, and when I eventually emailed my memo it was an eight-page long analysis that was probably not what the attorney wanted. It was somewhat comical, but this experience taught me a very valuable lesson.
Another key difference was the actual work. Xcel Energy is a public utility company and much of the work I did was associated with legal issues that a utility company would address such as land use, regulatory compliance, as well as other related areas of law. In contrast, at Gordon & Rees, I worked on legal issues in various areas of law such as employment, healthcare and commercial law.
Another slight difference between an in-house legal department and a law firm is their culture. Each setting had its own unique culture. At Xcel Energy, although the work schedule was generally similar to standard office hours, the atmosphere was sophisticated. There was room for small talk, but everyone understood the significance they played in making sure the corporation was “legally compliant.” At Gordon & Rees the biggest difference was the hours. I learned that when trial dates were near even Sundays were work days. In fact, there was no real concept of work hours, because the attorneys had various clients, and their schedules depended on them. Similar to Xcel, Gordon & Rees was also sophisticated, because the attorneys had the responsibility of multiple clients on their shoulders. The biggest and most obvious difference was the hierarchy. At Gordon & Rees attorneys had different titles based on rank and experience; for example, partner, of-counsel, and associate. On the other hand, at Xcel the hierarchy was different; for example, general counsel, assistant general counsel, and senior attorney.
Nevertheless, the overall culture was similar in both environments. Both employers encouraged an open-door policy and face-to-face communication. For a 1L summer associate, this really reduced the fear and stress associated with talking to the attorneys. Finally, Xcel Energy and Gordon & Rees made sure that I not only learned about the various practice areas and legal issues that they encounter, but also gave me the opportunity to observe trials, contract negotiations, mediation and depositions to better understand what attorneys do as part of “the big picture.”
The start of my summer was filled with uncertainties, but both of my employers’ support and my own determination to make this clerkship a fulfilling experience gave me confidence in the future ahead. Now, although I am not by any means an expert, I have found that I often have “aha I know this” moments thanks to my 1L summer clerkship. I have been told that a good teacher will answer many questions, but also spark a curiosity in the student to find answers to new questions. My experience with Xcel Energy and Gordon & Rees was just that. The clerkship gave me understanding regarding the different components within both legal departments and law firms, my first step in understanding the big picture. Now I am eager to answer new unsolved questions regarding the particular areas of law I was fascinated with during the clerkship, such as healthcare, regulatory compliance and employment. I know the differences and similarities between a corporate legal department and law firm, and I have also learned how to work with and under various attorneys. Now I am eager to refine my skills and expand my knowledge in those areas of law that sparked my interest. A new journey begins where an old one ends, and in my new journey I have with me the skills and confidence that I learned from my journey in the 1L Pledge to Diversity Summer Clerkship. The big picture is filling in. D
Satvir Kaur is a 2L at University of Denver Sturm College of Law. To learn more about the Colorado Pledge to Diversity, please go to: coloradopledge.com.