'Learning from Doing' in D.C.

February 8, 2018
Externship program opens doors in its third year

There are many reasons why Lindsay Lehmen, L’18, was attracted to Richmond Law – but one factor played a particularly important role. “I was actually one of those prospective students who came to Richmond for the D.C. Externship Program,” said Lehmen. Launched in 2015 to offer students the chance to gain practical experience in federal agencies and nonprofits, the program is now in its third year.

Third-year students accepted to the program live in D.C. for the semester and complete 500 hours of substantive legal work. Since its inception in 2015, the program has grown from four students to 11 students in 2017. “We’ve been pleased to see the significant interest students have in spending a semester working in D.C. as part of their law school experience,” said professor and program director Steve Allred. “At a time when employers are seeking law graduates who are practice-ready, this program offers one way to gain valuable practice experience. It has also led to some great permanent placements of our students, including Honors Attorney positions.”

The latest class of extern placements included Senator Tim Kaine’s office, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the general counsel office for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lehmen’s externship was in the Department of Justice Office of Human Rights and Special Prosecutions. “I interned at the Department of Justice my senior year of undergrad, loved it, and have always been trying to kind of get back there,” said Lehmen. “I love working for justice, I like the issues that it allows you to work on, I like the people, I like the culture.” Lehmen spent most of her time in research and writing for the HRSP, which investigates and prosecutes cases against human rights violators and international criminals.

The D.C. Externship offers not only real-world experience, but academic credit, too. Students meet with Allred once a week for a two-hour seminar. They use their time to explore how their jobs are structured, discuss different management techniques, and hear from guest speakers. The seminar is a helpful complement to the externship in that it allows time for processing and discussion, which is key for students who, as Grayson Orsini, L’18, explained, are “trying to navigate what can be a very intimidating profession.”

Orsini spent his externship at the State Department’s Office for International Claims and Investment Disputes. “I had always been interested in international law,” said Orsini. International law professor Chiara Giorgetti told Orsini about the externship opportunity when he was enrolled in her International Law Practicum. In addition to handling investment claims against the U.S. government, the office also helps represent the United States when it’s before the International Court of Justice. “I’m getting a lot of practical experience in how to be a litigator,” said Orsini.

For Nicole Desbois, L’18, one of the primary benefits of spending an entire semester working in D.C. for the Federal Communications Commission has been the networking opportunities. In her externship, Desbois worked for the Competition Policy Division of the Wireline Competition Bureau – the organization that handled the net neutrality rules, amongst other issues. “You’re surrounded by all these experts in that field,” said Desbois. “You’re on the cutting edge of all these new emerging communication technologies. You get to be there and see how it works … It’s fascinating.” Outside the office, the learning continued. Debois found herself attending different bar association meetings and professional networking events – which provided the opportunity to make some strong D.C. connections with other lawyers in the field.

But when it comes to key take-aways, hands-on experience is the primary benefit for all the students involved. As Lehmen put it, “I’m the type of person who learns from doing.” After each student completed their semester-long externship, it was clear they had learned quite a bit.