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Externship opportunities hone Penn Law students’ practice skills in government & nonprofit sectors

November 14, 2013

More than two dozen second- and third-year students participating in Penn Law’s Externship Program are working this semester in government agencies and nonprofit organizations from New York, to Philadelphia, to Washington, D.C.

More than two dozen second- and third-year students at the University of Pennsylvania Law School – eager to gain hands-on legal experience – are working this semester in government agencies and nonprofit organizations throughout the Northeast corridor, from New York to Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., taking advantage of opportunities for practical training that are an increasingly important feature of the Law School’s upper-level curriculum.

The students are participating in Penn Law’s expanding Externship Program. The practice settings in which they work range from the White House, the U.S. Justice Department, and State Department in Washington, D.C., to the Philadelphia DA’s office, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, and the Office of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Girmay Zahilay L’14 is spending the fall semester of his 3L year at the White House.

“I am assigned to the Office of White House Counsel, which advises President Obama and White House staff on all legal issues that pertain to the President,” he explained. “Day to day, I conduct research and write memos on various legal issues ranging from policy implementation to federal ethics laws. I also support senior and associate counsels to the President by summarizing Congressional hearings, logging Congressional letters to executive agencies, and providing any administrative help they may need.”

Zahilay, who arranged his placement through the White House Internship Program, also leads the Domestic Policy Professional Interest Group for his internship class, which allows him to organize policy discussions and policy-related events for interns with senior White House staffers.

“I am interested in pursuing careers in business, public policy, and public service,” Zahilay said. “I have been fortunate to learn from and work with some of the most talented attorneys and public servants in the country. I get to watch them take on the country’s biggest issues, while doing whatever I can to support them.”

The Law School’s Externship Program has two components: the Gittis Externship Program and the Ad Hoc Externship Program. Gittis externships are placements pre-approved by the Law School’s Gittis Center for Clinical Legal Studies at Philadelphia government agencies and non-profit organizations. The Ad Hoc Program provides students with an opportunity to propose other placements tailored to their special interests, as Zahilay did.

“The goal of Penn Law’s Externship Program is to supplement traditional classroom study and the experiential study obtained through clinical courses by providing external opportunities for students,” said Louis Rulli, Practice Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs at the Law School. “Through such study, the program enhances the development of a broad range of lawyering skills, advances personal career goals, and enables critical reflection on the legal profession and legal institutions.”

This semester 30 students are enrolled in externships for academic credit – 15 in Gittis Externships and 15 in ad hoc settings.

Melanie Schaschl L’14 is currently working at the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, a civil rights agency that promotes equal opportunity and enforces the commonwealth’s anti-discrimination laws. PHRC is one of approximately a dozen agencies and law firms with which the law school partners on a regular basis. They range from the Federal Appellate Litigation group at the Dechert law firm in Philadelphia, to the PHRC and the Women’s Law Project, two agencies where Schaschl has worked.

“Working at PHRC has been an incredible, hands-on learning experience,” she said. “My supervisors treat me like a staff attorney and trust me to review cases files independently. The externship is very writing-intensive and much of my time at the PHRC is spent drafting memoranda. Assignments require that complicated fact patterns and legal formulas be distilled into simple language accessible to complainants. Practicing these skills on a daily basis has allowed me to hone my legal writing, which will be invaluable when I begin full-time employment at a law firm next fall.”

At the Women’s Law Project, where she worked last semester, Schaschl conducted research and prepared memoranda on a variety of issues affecting the rights and status of women. Assignments ranged from evaluating the merits of a state-created danger case to drafting testimony in support of a Philadelphia City Council resolution on Medicaid eligibility. “Externs were encouraged to contribute their opinions and help determine the Law Project’s stance on emerging issues,” she said. “I appreciated this opportunity to advocate for women’s rights and hope to do so over the course of my career.”

Andrea Gordon L’14 is currently working in at the Office of Legal Adviser within the U.S. Department of State, a placement she arranged herself, with the assistance of professors William Burke-White and Ayodele Gansallo, who wrote letters of recommendation. “Working there permanently has always been a career goal of mine,” Gordon said. “It was actually one of the reasons I came to law school, generally, and specifically to Penn. Penn’s convenient location to New York and D.C., plus the fact that other people had previously externed at State, really drew me in.”

“This has been an incredible opportunity,” she added. “I am making extremely valuable connections, both within the State Department and in other agencies. Those connections, in addition to the research and writing skills and the knowledge about the federal system I am developing, will help me to work effectively in the federal government.”

In addition to the on-the-job supervision they receive, students in externship placements work closely with faculty advisers.

Schaschl, the PHRC extern, is working with Susanna Greenberg, a clinical supervisor and lecturer in the Gittis Center for Clinical Legal Studies. “Professor Greenberg keeps track of my progress and ensures that I am exposed to various types of legal work,” Schaschl said. “Our weekly meetings are a period for reflection. Together we draw parallels to other areas of law, identify overarching themes and discuss lessons learned. Professor Greenberg encourages me to shape my own education experience and seek out interactions and assignments that will promote my development as an aspiring lawyer.”