7 Signs of a Toxic Internship

7 Signs of a Toxic Internship

Whether you landed a summer gig with a top-tier firm, have found yourself under the wing of an acclaimed judge, or are helping take down the system with your non-profit of choice, an internship is not always what it seems. Internships can be chances of a lifetime, but they can also turn into nightmares. It’s worth knowing how to identify the warning signs of a toxic internship.  

Unfortunately, these signs won’t be advertised anywhere.They won’t be readily noticeable from a quick google search, and you typically can’t ask your interviewers, or even peer contacts, directly about some of these things. Investigation and intuition ought to help, but familiarizing yourself with these warning signs is the most surefire way to avoid bad internship/clerkship experiences (or even transform them into good ones).

1. Micromanagement

Your supervisor will make or break your internship. When beginning a legal career, every single law student and graduate is inexperienced in the field. Even if you’ve worked in a law firm as a paralegal or grew up surrounded by lawyers, you don’t know how to practice law until you’ve practiced law. Hence the need for internships in the first place.  

During your internship, the attorneys supervising you will be able to pass on helpful knowledge, guide your unsteady legal hand, and, hopefully, mentor you into a real attorney.

Some supervisors know how to react and deal with relative inexperience: careful explanation, attentive assistance, and mentorship when needed. On the other hand, some seem to forget they are working with someone who, by definition, is not a lawyer.  

They may chew you out or shame you for mistakes or shortcomings in your work. They may criticize your reasoning just for the sake of criticizing. This is a particularly toxic type of micromanager: one who needs to exercise control over every step of an exercise and who is astounded if one word or sentence is order of out.

The micromanaging supervisor is one of the surest signs of a toxic internship.

Solution: Try to steer clear of this person in the first place! Identify styles when interviewing, ask about the attorney slated to supervise/mentor the internship—but be sure to do so from a perspective of excitement and inquisition, not just vetting.  

Alternatively, especially if you’re already stuck with a dragon-supervisor, ask if you can explore projects in other parts of the organization (read: under other attorneys) to gain a greater breadth of experience. Even the most brutal supervisor will be hard-pressed to deny an unpaid / low-paid intern such an earnest request.

2. Absentee Supervision

On the opposite end of the breathe-down-your-neck scale, you’ll find the absentee supervisor.  This attorney is too busy to be bothered or too checked out to care. While a “chill” boss sounds like a dream, you probably didn’t sign up for an internship to put your feet up.  

You sought and accepted the gig to build up experience relevant to your career path, or to prove yourself to an organization. There is no way to do either of those things if your boss is a “set it and forget it” type.

The absentee supervisor will probably return very few emails, answer very few calls, and give very few… cares when it comes to the intern. This may be a workable approach for the supervisor, but an intern cannot grow without attention and care. You are like a houseplant at this stage, and you’ll never thrive if you are not watered.  

You can only teach yourself so many things about practice, and you absolutely need guidance and feedback. At this stage, an absentee boss may be even worse than a micromanager. At least the micromanager is present enough to chew you out.

The absentee neither notices your errors nor takes the time to teach you how not to make them in the future. Sure signs of this approach are a repeated “great work!” whenever you turn in the loosely assigned project, followed by little else.

Solution: Persistence! The absentee may not be trying to avoid you (that would be another problem altogether). He or she may instead have developed habits that look like laziness but are probably more likely the ever-rare work/life balance that we hear so much about.  

As an intern, you’re probably not looking for balance as much as you are looking for a writing sample. Instead of falling into your absentee supervisor’s groove, try to pull them out of it. Show up at their office with a smile and a polite greeting, and ask whether your work can be improved upon, how you can get more and more interesting work, and whether you can circle back for feedback.  

Even the most distant boss cannot refuse a persistent and polite upstart new attorney; they likely once were one themselves. Keep trying, and you’ll eventually jostle them out of complacency and into the role they signed on to fill.

3. Total Irrelevance

You may have signed up for a clerkship or externship thinking it would be the perfect turn in your twisted path to becoming an attorney. Soon, though, you find the assignments make little sense to you or, worse yet, have nothing to do with the type of law you want to practice or the type of lawyer you hope to become.  

Uh oh! You’re in an irrelevant internship! This is not a total loss, as these experiences are at least a line on the resume and an experience to discuss in a future interview. “I know I would like to do Y because I did not like doing X.”  

Still, an irrelevant working experience in law school can be a pain. It will be hard drumming up excitement, hard actually completing the assigned work (given a lack of passion), and hard finding a reason to continue.  

This is a simple problem, but one that plagues plenty of law school interns, clerks, and externs.  That is because these positions are almost always advertised with the sheen of the organization but without the substance of the work.

Solution: Unfortunately, there really is not a good solution. If an organization simply does not do the work you want to do, then you may be stuck. Leaving the position early is an option, but not exactly a solution. It will be hard to explain away, and probably create more inconvenience than satisfaction. Instead, give the work a chance.

Use an assignment you don't care for as an opportunity to develop some excellent research or writing skills. Use a case assignment that does not float your boat as an opportunity to observe a judge, advocate, or clerk who actually does get a kick out of the work.

In short, even if you find yourself in the wrong place, make the best of it and live to tell the tale. You’ll thank yourself for the persistence when you’re excitedly talking about your breadth of experience in the future.    

4. Redundant Experience

If you have had a number of law school internship or clerkship experiences, you have probably found the areas of interest that most suit you. Perhaps you are a big fan of working for federal judges, or maybe you found a particular business legal clinic a real kick. You may later attempt to replicate that experience by working at what seems like another link in that chain but actually is just déjà vu.

This can be jarring and can feel like a waste of time. “I’ve already written that type of opinion,” you may think, or “I’ve already researched that subject.” The fact is, only you will know whether something is redundant.

Feeling like you are wasting time, especially when law school allows such precious little of it, can be more toxic than many of the other items on this list.

Solution: No two experiences are the same, especially in the law. If your position feels like a do-over of a previous gig, treat it as just that: a chance to try again. If you explored Subject A in a certain way the first time around, perhaps try taking a different approach.

Better yet, expand on your preexisting knowledge by learning it from a new angle; dig to the bottom of the subject and consider even pumping a law review article out of the subject.  Anything is possible with a little bit of expertise. Relabel “redundant” to “retry” and you might just learn something new.

5. Bad Fit and Stigmatization

A more subtle issue with a clerkship or internship is the stigma that experience can carry.  

Perhaps you prefer the plaintiff’s bar to the defense bar, perhaps you are a dedicated environmentalist and working on behalf of corporations is anathema to you. If you take on an internship for an organization that is somehow “wrong” for you, it’ll be immediately evident.  Either the work you’ll be asked to do, the client you’ll be assigned to work for, or the mission of the organization for which you work will emerge as disagreeable or poor fitting.

Needless to say, you probably won’t be seeking these organizations out, but desperation to get experience during or after law school can sometimes override conviction. Alternatively, you may apply under a false impression of what the job or work truly is. This is forgivable, and it happens to the best of us.  

Law school is a busy time, and improper vetting or incomplete understanding of a job is understandable. That said, this work can be toxic both in the short term (just try writing in support of something you totally disagree with), but also in the long term. That is where stigmatization comes in.

Others may not be so understanding of your lapses, including peers and future jobs. If someone considers your accidental gig the “bad guy” or the “other team,” it’s hard to get past that impression. And in the instance of an application, you may never be given a chance to explain it away in the first place.

Solution: These rare experiences should be avoided in the first place, but the same can be said about most of the items on this list. Remember to vet organizations and closely study internship descriptions. That said, if you find yourself in a job opposite your values or goals, the best bet is to be clear about your concerns in a way that is open-minded and inoffensive.  

That may mean telling a supervisor that you disagree with a position you are being asked to take or support, which can make for a hard conversation. Better still, try to determine whether the job itself can be a learning experience; perhaps there is some perspective for you to glean, or perhaps your preferences can be reconsidered given the new information.

If adaptation and growth prove unworkable, the last solution can be to simply leave the position early. That can feel like an absolute insult to an employer that was generous to give you an opportunity, but only you will know whether it’s worth leaving. Just use your best judgment.

6. Grunt Work Only

Some jobs may give their clerks and interns the dregs of tasks around the office. The nightmare scenarios that come to mind—faxing, scanning, and filing—apply here, but so do more subtle legal to-dos. That includes basic document review, contract version comparison, and copy editing.  

Now, do not misread this, all of those things are lawyer work. A practicing lawyer will have to do this work at some point (or most points). But an internship or clerkship is a time to gain substantial, material experience and lessons, not a time to earn a lawyer’s paycheck.  

If you are relegated to the copy room or the doc review dungeon, your supervisors are not doing it right. Instead, they should be cultivating a clerk’s growing understanding of the field by providing them with thoughtful and cutting-edge assignments. If your supervisor wants you to learn “what it’s really like” and sends you into a cubicle to compare two versions of a document to find words that are out of place, you’ve been had.  

You should add value wherever possible, and you should be dispatched for real attorney work, but that work should not consistently be mindless busywork.

Solution:  As with a couple of other items on this list, you can claw your way out of the copy room by merely speaking up for yourself. If you’ve been sent to do administrative tasks, finish them and then march up to your supervising attorney to ask if there are any briefs you can assist with, any trials for which you can help prepare, or any subtle research assignments you can complete. Taking this initiative will show that you recognize that you are being assigned menial work and will encourage your overseers to find a way to employ, and thereby improve, your skills.

7. Time Vortex

Last on this list is the time vortex: the internship gig that will use every waking hour you are willing to give it, and will even ask you to forego some sleep to give it more. Most employers know that the law students they employ have important school work to complete and studies on which to focus—even during summer internships and clerkships.  

Still, some supervisors and their organizations will take their unpaid or low-paid assistants for all they are worth. This starts with over-assigning you work, either because you are that good or because they are that busy. That work spills over as all attorney work does, and leaves the intern wanting to do a good job in limited time to prove herself.  

However, if that limited time would otherwise be spent outlining, completing classwork, or finding permanent post-law school employment, then those extra hours come at a high cost.

The time vortex is nuanced and can feel like a more productive use of time than working on, say, law review or outlining. But this can add up. Before long, extra hours will be put in at the office to show initiative and hopefully draw an offer for permanent employment, but that can lead to slipping grades and missed assignments.

Solution: Self-regulation. An employer will rarely find you to tell you “go home”. Usually, the extra work is rewarded with a compliment or, more often, more work. Stepping up and announcing that you will not be able to work Friday because of a big paper shows initiative in another way: it shows you know how to prioritize.  

Your supervisor and colleagues will recognize that you are a law student with time issues and plenty of balls in the air. Show them you can be accountable by finishing work but then going home to do the real work. This will earn more admiration than a willingness to arrive at dawn and leave at dusk. If self-regulating your schedule draws grimaces, then that might not be the right place for you.

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GenLex Staff
GenLex is an online magazine geared towards encouraging and inspiring the next generation of world-class attorneys. This publication aims to supply young lawyers with early career guidance, insight into the profession, early publishing experience, and an opportunity to network. The GenLex staff is comprised of new and seasoned lawyers as well as others in the legal field.