Brooklyn Law School’s robust externship program takes students beyond the classroom and empowers them with real-world practice
By Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips and Andrea Strong ’94
Early last year, Ashley Hellberg ’18 made her way through a blinding blizzard to the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) offices in Times Square. The weather was treacherous and the stakes were high: Hellberg and her mentor, AEA’s eastern regional director, were embarking on several long days of negotiations with the League of Resident Theatres. Hellberg recalls that time as one of the most memorable periods of her legal education.
“I saw such passion from both sides,” she says. “I watched actors and stage managers advocate for themselves with help from AEA’s support staff. And I learned invaluable lessons about the theater industry, the union, and labor law.”
Thanks to Brooklyn Law School’s externship program, which is part of the nationally recognized clinical program, Hellberg has completed three externship experiences, receiving critical preparation for a career in the entertainment industry with a focus on union representation. Prior to her externship at the AEA, she worked with Sony Music, where her duties included reviewing music industry agreements and helping write detailed contract summaries. In spring 2018, she spent two days a week with the Dramatists Guild of America working on copyright law issues.
The Value of Externships
Hellberg is one of the nearly 400 Brooklyn Law School students who complete an externship each academic year. In addition to their fieldwork—168 hours are required per semester—externship students are assigned to one of a dozen companion academic seminars that augment the learning experience, providing for a deeper knowledge and understanding of the law. An externship closely mirrors an academic course in that students must complete a series of required written assignments, including a learning plan, time records, reflective essays, drafting assignments, periodic assessments, and a final essay.
“What makes our externships so valuable is that, from the get-go, we treat them as an educational enterprise,” says Jodi Balsam, associate professor of clinical law and director of externship programs. “We want students to become reflective practitioners, and the best practice for doing that is to develop a curriculum of companion seminars. That is a real signature achievement of our program.”
Students at Brooklyn Law School have numerous externship opportunities to choose from in legal practices, judicial offices, and nonprofits—thanks to the close collaboration among Balsam, her fellow faculty members, and the Career Development Center. Fei Zhong, the Law School’s director of employer relations, and Jaime Perrone, associate director of the Public Service Law Center, tirelessly recruit and vet law offices to participate in externship program. The Law School also offers two specialized externship courses: Health Law Practice and Policy, taught by Professor Karen Porter, and Real Estate and Community Development, taught by Professor Debra Bechtel.
At the Heart of Emerging Legal Issues
During the summer of 2017, Amanda Lipari ’18 worked at the Gender Equality Law Center in Brooklyn as part of her Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Law Fellowship. It was a powerful experience for Lipari, who hopes to provide civil legal services for low-income women and people in the LGBT community after graduation. Through the externship program, she continued working for the center during the fall, which put her right at the center of addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. Although the #MeToo wave began with stories about celebrities and high-powered executives, as lower-income workers began to speak out, Lipari, who is especially interested in employment law, was inspired.
“The low-wage workers who chose to come forward and demand a stop to harassment, despite the enormous risk, provided a constant source of motivation,” she says. “While assisting in multi-plaintiff sexual harassment litigation at the Gender Equality Law Center, I had the opportunity to write a policy memorandum critiquing the current federal law standard for sexual harassment and its sometimes erroneous implementation.”
Lipari, who had previously taken the Safe Harbor Project and the Employment Law clinics, also completed an externship for Magistrate Judge James Francis of the Southern District of New York in fall 2016. There she observed numerous settlement conferences, criminal arraignments, oral arguments, and trials. She drafted three opinions related to Social Security disability, settlement enforcement, and a Fair Labor Standards Act default judgment. The experience helped improve her legal writing and research skills, and she gained considerable knowledge of federal civil procedure.
For Matthew Grosbard ’19, externship opportunities delivered the in-depth understanding of New York civil procedure that he was looking for, especially his first externship at the New York State Kings County Supreme Court with Judge Donald S. Kurtz ’82.
“The Civil Procedure course that most first-year law students take across the United States mostly deals with the federal rules of civil procedure,” Grosbard explains. “But most graduates from New York law schools will practice within state courts and therefore must be familiar with New York civil procedure. My externship with Judge Kurtz gave me the practical experience necessary to be prepared for New York–based civil litigation.”
Grosbard also was placed at the New York County District Attorney’s Office, where he supported ADAs in investigations and hearings, doing everything from conducting witness interviews to drafting subpoenas.
“I had a front-row seat to the real-life application of rules of evidence and trial advocacy,” he says.
The History of Hands-On Learning
The first law school clinics and externships were developed in the 1960s, but the real push toward hands-on learning took root in the 1980s and 1990s, when critics of legal education from both the academic and practice realms stressed the importance of stepping outside the Socratic method. Around the same time, the American Bar Association started regulating these kinds of programs. The ABA realized that law students needed to learn not just so-called hard skills, like negotiation and contract writing, but also soft skills, such as empathy, attention to detail, and professionalism.
Responding to these trends and the movement to refashion legal education along the lines of medical school, which strongly emphasizes clinical work in addition to classroom work, the ABA revised its rules regarding experiential learning in 2016. The new standards required six experiential credits for graduation, defined as law clinics, externships, or simulation courses.
Recently named by the National Jurist as “one of the best law schools in the nation for practical training,” Brooklyn Law School has been at the forefront of experiential learning since long before the ABA requirements were issued. Starting in the late 1970s, under the direction of Professors Gary Schultz and the late John Ronayne, students were doing externships in criminal and civil practice. In the early 1980s, a more formal program was developed with the support of faculty including Professors Michael Gerber and Stacy Caplow offering “three streams” of experiential learning—civil, criminal, and judicial—with courses that complemented students’ practice work. In 2014, the Law School instituted a requirement for “live practice experience” (either an externship or a clinic) for all students.
Balsam, who previously taught in the lawyering program at New York University School of Law and the legal practice program at New York Law School, joined Brooklyn Law School four years ago to lead the externship program. Her objectives as director are to nurture and develop the Law School’s externship programs, cultivate more opportunities for students, improve the training for supervising attorneys, and enrich the program’s companion seminars. Balsam is also active in the legal academic community, serving as cochair of the Externship Committee of the Clinical Legal Education Association and an active member of the Externship Committee of the Association of American Law Schools.
“We have always been committed to experiential learning for our students,” Balsam says, “and my role is to continue to grow that pedagogy and tradition.”
Helping a student develop as a professional is something we owe to our profession. — Robin Kaver ’91, Nielsen
Preparing Students for the Future
Under Balsam’s direction, the externship program has introduced a two-tier system of companion seminars to ensure that students are not sent into the real world of lawyering without solid academic support. These on-campus seminars are taught by a member of the faculty and help students process and learn from their fieldwork experiences.
“There’s nothing like being thrust into the world of practice, which is not student-centered,” says Balsam. “It’s chaotic and functions around the life of the law and clients. Externships can show students what kind of professional experiences they like, and what may not be the right fit for them. They give students invaluable skills beyond what they learn in the classroom, like resilience, adaptability, and how to manage strategic interactions in an unpredictable setting. But it’s also important to discuss those experiences in a classroom setting.”
All first-time externship students enroll in Learning from Practice, a foundational seminar that covers active observation, analytic reflection, and self-evaluation. The seminar also includes professional competencies such as communication skills, making presentations, networking, and ethics. During their second or third externship, students can take a more tailored seminar aligned with the type of work they are doing, such as entertainment law, government practice, transactions, or litigation.
“Students learn how to do a client intake and how to cross- examine a witness,” Balsam explains. “They also get a sense of the ethical, behavioral, and cultural values that lawyers need to understand and cultivate.”
New seminars, such as Tech Tools for Law Practice, that reflect changes in legal practice are frequently added to the curriculum. Through demonstrations, guest speakers, and practical exercises, students in that particular seminar learn about the theoretical and practical underpinnings of evolving technologies for law practice management, cloud computing, virtual lawyering, and more.
Externships can be a road map for postgraduate employment.
“We’ve hired many externs from the Law School,” says Barry Hochhauser ’89, a deputy director in the Office of Fraud Protection and Market Intelligence at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). For an extern, “it’s a helpful way to learn what it’s like to be a lawyer and it’s an invaluable way to network and find your way in your career.”
Balsam agrees. “One of the advantages our students have is that many of these offices prefer to hire someone who has externed there,” she says, explaining that while an externship is not intended as a means of getting a job after graduation, the experience does give students a leg up, along with a professional network. As a result, employment opportunities do often result from externships.
“Externships expand students’ social and professional networks, which are critical to landing their first jobs out of law school,” says Zhong, director of employer relations. “Most employers prefer and tend to hire someone they know, and it’s usually through a previous work experience or a recommendation from a mutual contact. Externships expose students to these key contacts in the relevant industry who can make the recommendations and become mentors and/or potential employers. More important, these network contacts are valuable not just in the beginning but throughout the entire duration of the graduate’s career.”
Mentor Attorney Development
The externship experience, by its very definition, is a learning opportunity that takes place outside the four walls of the Law School. The value of an externship, therefore, depends heavily on the quality of the attorneys supervising the students. For this reason, every supervising externship attorney is considered a “mentor attorney” and is given support and training to ensure that students have meaningful educational experiences while working in their placement.
“These attorneys are basically volunteer teachers, and we need to support them in that,” says Balsam.
Mentor attorneys, many of whom are graduates of the Law School, are required to deliver meaningful practical learning experiences that foster a broad range of lawyering skills and give students a greater understanding of professional roles and responsibilities.
The Law School supports the mentor attorneys in myriad ways, with roundtable discussions, a comprehensive handbook, and regular communication from the Law School throughout the semester. In addition, a consortium of New York law school externship program directors came together three years ago to address a growing need for training programs for the attorneys supervising externship students. The consortium decided to take this a step further and provide a CLE program focused on information and skills relevant to attorneys who supervise junior people, whether they are students or junior lawyers. Last year, the program took place at Brooklyn Law School, attracting 150 attendees. “It reinforced that Brooklyn is, more than ever, integrated into the practice community,” says Balsam.
Mentor attorneys find the experience incredibly rewarding. When Robin Kaver ’91 joined the Nielsen Company in 2011 as associate general counsel, she asked the general counsel if she could take on externs from the Law School. “We had commercial transaction lawyers, privacy lawyers, and a number of other subject matter specialists and I felt this would make a great place for students to learn,” she says. Kaver’s supervisor was in favor of the idea, but only if Kaver ran the program. Since then, Kaver has brought on externs from the Law School consistently during the academic year, and she hired Jessica Jiang ’14 and Julia Mehlman ’16 straight from law school, something the company had never done before.
Today, Kaver, who externed at the Brooklyn D.A.’s office while a law student, is also an adjunct faculty member at the Law School teaching the Externship Seminar on Corporate Counsel. Kaver’s externs learn how to draft contracts and licenses, how to negotiate with adversaries, and how to “second chair” meetings. She also is quick to note that the mentor commitment is real, and she will continue to offer students a place at Nielsen because of the impact an externship can have on a student’s career.
“It is so important to the students,” she says. “It helps them understand what the work is really like and [helps them] make an informed decision about a career path, and it also gives them incredible substantive experience.”
Kaver hopes that other alumni will consider taking on externs. “I think that helping a student develop as a professional is something we owe to our profession. Someone has to teach and look backward and help bring up the next generation,” she says.
The sentiment is shared among other alumni who are mentor attorneys.
“I am a strong believer in the externship program,” says FINRA’s Hochhauser, who has been a mentor attorney since the early 1990s and is also a member of the externship seminar faculty. He explains that his commitment to the program comes from his own experience; while at the Law School, he was an extern for four semesters at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), and he was hired by the NYSE after graduation. Like Kaver, Hochhauser began taking on externs, in his case first at the NYSE and then at FINRA.
“It has been a great way for me to keep in touch with what is going on at the Law School,” Hochhauser says. “It also helps me give back to the students all of the skills that I was able to gain when I was an extern. When students are here with us, they’re not only learning securities laws but also the importance of professionalism. It’s the best way to educate a complete lawyer.”