Externships Promote Lawyering Skills and Professional Identity Formation

While a law student, Bethany Ensley Sherrer (J.D./M.B.A./M.H.A. ’15) participated in an externship with the Georgia Hospital Association. “This externship was invaluable to me,” said Sherrer, legal counsel for the Medical Association of Georgia. “In addition to legal skills, the externship taught professional skills, such as how to manage several projects at once.”

Georgia State Law offers a variety of experiential learning opportunities for students. Externships are one way for students to fulfill the health law certificate’s lawyering skills requirement.

Kendall Kerew, assistant clinical professor, directs the externship program. “Participating in an externship offers law students the opportunity to get into the trenches. Site supervisors teach what can’t be taught in class – the real life practice of law with real clients who have real problems,” Kerew said. “Externships take place in real work environments. Students need to leave the comfort of the law school building to see what legal practice on a day-to-day basis is really like.”

The program has grown to more than 90 Atlanta-area legal placements, including government agencies, nonprofit organizations and judge’s offices, students are able to explore different subject areas of the law and different work environments. There are many health law-specific externship sites including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Georgia Hospital Association, Health Law Unit of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, and Georgia Advocacy Office. However, health law students are not limited to positions in health law as the skills developed in externships are transferrable to other areas of law, said Kerew.

“The focus of my externship with the Public Health Law Program at the CDC was on research and policy, rather than litigation or transactional work. This office provides technical assistance to state and local health departments, which offered me a different experience than client representation,” said Robert Yates (J.D. ’19).

“Students may find their placement is a great fit… or not,” said Kerew. “It is an equal success when a student finds out what they want to do as when they rule out something. The experience contributes to an informed decision.”

In addition to learning practice skills, externships are integral to professional identify formation. Two years ago Kerew launched a one-credit seminar course for students participating in externships. Students in the course use their externship experience, as well as case studies and exercises, as a springboard for discussion and reflection of where they are now and where they want to be as attorneys. Topics include identifying core values, communication, networking and business development, teamwork, problem solving and cultural awareness. Kerew, who was awarded the College of Law’s 2017 David J. Maleski Award for Teaching Excellence, has presented nationally on this innovative course.