School’s nationwide externship program helps students gain experience

Whether it’s grades and classes or recommendations and referrals, employers consider a broad palette of qualities in the curriculum vitae of new law school graduates. But what stands out the most? It’s experience, according to recent trends. And a Florida Coastal School of Law program is helping local students sharpen their edge in this area.

Coastal Law’s summer externship program began in January 2010, serving about 30 Coastal Law students. But the program has caught traction this year with a more varied docket of for-credit, no-pay job choices. Positions are available for students in public service organizations, government groups, pro bono groups, Legal Aid offices and public defenders offices nationwide.

“The number-one thing employers are looking for when they hire a student is prior work experience in the area they hope to hire someone — we know it’s important,” said Terri Davlantes, Vice Dean and Professor of Law at Coastal Law. She has been building up the school’s summer externship program, talking to organizations and forging relationships with public service entities for more than a year. She has also been talking to students about places they could feasibly live rent free during the summer, in hopes of making summer externship opportunities less costly. “We believe summer externships give students not only that critical legal work experience, but it predisposes them to professionalism.”

This year, more students took advantage of summer externship programs around the country. The externships ranged from experiences at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work in a disability office.

To participate, students are able to peruse opportunities on the school’s employment website. The externships are posted alongside jobs that are available for pay. Employers, who supervise the students for credit, select students best suited for the experience. Professor Lynn McDowell, Director of Clinical Programs at Coastal Law, is coordinating the work.

The work is not a requirement for graduation, but Coastal Law administrators suggest each student have 400 hours of legal work experience while they are in school. Students may also achieve the 400 hours through the five legal clinics offered at Coastal Law during the summer.

“We want to make sure students get indoctrinated in that belief that they are serving the underserved,” Davlantes said. “This helps students be much more marketable and more appreciative of the need to serve.”

Organizers hope to grow the program this year, targeting areas where students may want to return after graduation.