How to land the perfect intern
By Gabrielle Braud
Two years into law school, Emily Umhoefer couldn’t decide on which type of law she wanted practice. Looking for clarity, she turned to an internship, landing a highly coveted position as a judicial intern at the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.
Working in the chambers of Judge Shelly Dick, Umhoefer says the internship provided much needed direction, invaluable experience and a new appreciation for all aspects of her field.
“I got way more out of it than I expected to,” says Umhoefer, who has since decided on a career in criminal law. “It brought the legal education experience out of the book in a real way.”
As Umhoefer’s experience shows, an internship can play a critical role in a student’s professional development. And if managed correctly, employers can also reap big benefits from bringing on an intern.
“It’s very time consuming, but if done correctly, the company’s reputation in the community grows and benefits from it,” says Helene Wall, a human resources consultant with Postlethwaite & Netterville. In addition to managing her own intern, Wall regularly guides clients through developing internship programs and can even help them land the perfect intern.
“I want to make sure on the front end there is a clear understanding of the objective for bringing in an intern,” Wall says. “Have you decided that an employee is not the right route, and what is more attractive to you about the internship?”
In Wall’s experience, companies will cite various motives for bringing on an intern.
Maybe it’s to temporarily staff up for a big project without hiring full-time employees. For some, it’s about recruiting new employees. And for others, it’s about paying it forward.
“Often times, I’ll have clients tell me, ‘I had a great mentor starting out, and I think the intern program is a great chance for me to help educate some of these young people coming out of college,’” Wall explains. “So they like it from a cultural perspective, and that’s when it can really be beneficial for both parties.”
The first step to creating a strong internship program is defining objectives, both for what the company wants to get from an intern and what they want to provide them. According to Wall, the biggest tangible benefit for an employer is the ability to recruit from an already identified candidate pool. The second—albeit less palpable—advantage is the ability to promote the company’s culture as a professional environment that values learning.
The latter is the value that Dick derives from her internship program at the Middle District of Louisiana court.
“It is a small office and it is a very cerebral environment,” says the judge, “so it is very important that we get people that will fit in well.”
Dick focuses on allowing her interns to gain a holistic view of their future profession and, thus, a deeper appreciation for it. “I’m looking to allow people to come into an environment and learn from it in a very unstructured way,” she explains. “It is really more about the experience and them having the opportunity to observe a creature in its natural habitat, so to speak.”
While the value of osmosis cannot be overstated in an intern relationship, Lisa Bonfanti says outlining tasks and expectations is often the best way to ensure success for both parties.
“With a formal intern program, having an agenda with tasks and possibly even an itinerary for the duration of the internship will help it to be not only successful for the organization, but also for the student who is looking to gain as much exposure and experience as they can,” says Bonfanti, president of the Greater Baton Rouge Society of Human Resource Management and the director of human resources for the Middle District of Louisiana court.
Overseeing both paid and unpaid internships, as well as gratuitous services, Bonfanti has seen first-hand how to keep interns motivated and on track.
“For prospective employers of interns, make sure that you’re not just having an intern come in to do clerical grunt work,” she says. “It is important, especially for gratuitous services, that you expose that student to great experiences and things they can really use to benefit their educational experience.”
IT’S ABOUT TIME
In order for students to get the most out of the position, Bonfanti says the bare minimum for an internship should be 30 days and the maximum should be a year.
Wall finds that employing interns in cycles that coincide with graduate level semesters is often the most productive for both parties, but adds the length can vary depending on the employer’s intention to fully employ or only provide training and experience.
“You want to give other students the valuable experience that you offer,” Bonfanti says, adding the most common length for an internship is three months or a semester.
Additionally, Bonfanti recommends limiting students’ time in an unpaid internship so they are not obligated to work without compensation for an extended period of time. Wall often cautions employers about unpaid internships.
“I haven’t seen one yet where someone is going to bring on an intern and not closely regulate what they do to where they could be considered an unpaid position,” Wall says.
On the other hand, if an internship is a requirement for their course curriculum, Wall says in those situations “it makes total sense” to offer course credit instead of pay.
“You just have to be careful that you understand when it is appropriate and when it is not,” she says.
Umhoefer received class credit for her internship at the Middle District of Louisiana court. “At the district office, they are very conscientious of the fact that you are unpaid and juggling law school,” she says, adding the court employees went out of their way to make sure it was a learning experience for her.
Employers who want their interns to have an experience like Umhoefer’s must be prepared to put in the extra time it takes to create a worthwhile internship for themselves and the student, Wall says. Much like when hiring an employee, brining on an intern is an investment of time and resources.
“Whoever is managing the intern—whether it’s at the corporate level or the individual manager—if that person has not bought into the fact that they are going to spend a good deal more time in a mentoring role, then I always have my doubts as to whether it is going to work,” she says. “That to me is most important part of the relationship.”
Article originally appeared on the Baton Rouge Business Report.