Achieving Externship Success: An Empirical Study of the All-Important Law School Externship Experience
Law Review Article
bar passage correlates, law school curriculum, experiential learning
With law school externships more popular than ever, the need for an empirical evaluation of externship success is timely and essential. The promise of getting closer to practice readiness propels many law students to enroll in an externship (also known as field placements). But no study has empirically measured whether and to what extent law students get close to first-year law practice readiness through their externship, and what factors lead to that success. Without such a study, the American Bar Association’s regulation of externships and law schools’ externship design decisions are made without the benefit of critical data. This Article describes the year-long, multi-school Externship Study conducted to concretely measure (1) whether and to what extent externships lead to practice-readiness and (2) which attributes of the law school, the externship placement, or the students themselves are the most important contributors to that success.
In this Article, the authors use statistical models, descriptive summary, and narrative summary to analyze data from hundreds of law students and the lawyers and judges who supervised them in externships. The results reveal a high level of externship success, measured in terms of practice readiness. The contributing factors to that success are noteworthy. The Externship Study shows that neither law school entering credentials (e.g., median entering LSATs of 168, 158 and 153 for the surveyed schools) nor the academic component of the externship (i.e., class and related work in addition to the externship fieldwork – as low as 3.25 hours and as high as 27.5 hours for the surveyed schools) contribute to externship success. Moreover, law school GPA plays a very limited role in externship success. Instead, the most important factor that leads to measurable extern success is the student’s relationship with supervisor, feedback from supervisor, and nature of assignments at the placement. Other contributing factors include the students themselves, who play a critical role in their externship success – namely, their previous professional experience, motivation to work in the real world as well as their attitude toward the externship. These findings warrant attention as a critical first step for data-driven externship policy and program decisions.