Co-op 101: How to Succeed

By Mariah ’17

Cooperative Legal Education (or Co-op, for short) is easily one of the most rewarding, challenging, and important parts of your education at NUSL. It’s where you take everything that you have learned in class, put it to use, and expand on it in ways you never realized you didn’t know. No other law school affords you the opportunity to get the real-life work experience that you get here, so be sure to take advantage of it while you can. Read on for some tips on finding co-ops and succeeding at them from the mind of an old and decrepit 3L.

Be sure to start looking early. You’ll be shocked to learn how early you have to start looking for co-ops, especially if you decide to go on the Summer/Winter rotation. Summer co-ops could start interviewing as early as Thanksgiving, and post the jobs on Symplicity (the online portal we use to find co-ops) even earlier than that. Any federal co-op, regardless of what rotation you’re on, is going to have a deadline that seems way ahead of the game, because the security clearance process is so rigorous. Be mindful of what you think you might want to do and keep an eye open for anything that seems interesting to you. It’s overwhelming as a 1L, but you don’t want to get stuck doing something you’re not fully invested in.

Don’t worry about knowing what you want to do right away. There are plenty of law students who come into school unsure of what area of the law they’d like to practice.  Some of them are inspired by classes, some of them have to go searching for interests through co-ops and independent studies. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and in fact it can make school a lot more interesting and you may have a more well-rounded experience. That being said, once you enter your third and fourth co-ops, you should try to have some kind of direction to them. If your résumé shows that you worked in an immigration firm, then moved to commercial real estate, then some labor and employment, and finished it off in the public defender’s office, employers may be confused about what your path is and could question your dedication to whatever it is you are applying for. Try to have some idea of what it is you want to do when you’re halfway through 2L, or at least be sure to have an explanation to why your co-op experiences were so varied.

Improve your research and writing. There is an excellent research and writing class that is a large part of your first year curriculum. However, your professors will tell you that the class gives you the tools that you need to learn in order to be come an effective legal writer, but it is on co-op that you really hone those skills and get to practice them with more frequency. For starters, co-ops with a judge or with a government agency offer excellent research and writing opportunities for students on their first go-around. Be sure to ask your interviewer how much you’ll be able to put those skills to use, and take that into consideration when making a decision.

Keep your résumé updated as you go. It’s easy in a practical sense, but it also keeps all of the work that you did fresh in your mind, and you’ll be able to write a more effective summary of your duties and tasks. Additionally, be mindful of what you put on your résumé.  While I’m sure you had the time of your life as an ice cream scooper the summer between your junior and senior year of high school (that sounds like an amazing job – I’m super jealous), it’s not necessarily something that legal employers are looking for in an intern.  Personally, I have a special interests section on my résumé where I list a few conversation starters about my hobbies and passions.  I’ve been told by interviewers that it’s a great way for employers to get to know me without taking up a lot of space, so it’s definitely something I’d recommend.

Use the resources available to you. And that means all of them. The CCOPA office is full of amazing and wonderful people who’s job it is to help you, and who have been doing this for a long time. Get to know them, share your interests and seek guidance from them not just about co-op, but about job employment, classes, or even extra curricular activities. On top of that, our professors care about each and every one of their students and are always available to talk about anything a student needs. Seriously, they’re fantastic. But, one of the most useful tools you have at your disposal are the people who are going through this with you, the upper level students. They were in your position one or two years ago, they know exactly what it is you’re going through, and they made the same mistakes that you’re bound to as a new law student. Get to know them, use them, love them (they love you, trust me), and most importantly, learn from them.

Take every opportunity you can to learn something new and build relationships. This goes for school and for co-op. Seriously, you’re paying a lot of money to be here, so take advantage of any possible learning moment that you can. This means taking on a task when a professor asks for volunteers, joining SBA or Women’s Law Caucus or the Entertainment Law Society, saying “yes” when your supervisor asks you if you’re interested in working on a particular project, and not being afraid to go to your supervisor or any other attorney in your office and asking if they need anything. Co-ops and school are certainly about learning, but it is just as important to meet and get to know people and to build good, solid relationships with them. This is a shockingly small field we’ve gotten ourselves into, and many people know each other and are available to act as resources for one another. You never know what benefit getting to know someone might have on your future, and it should be just as important to you as learning how to read a statute or interpret a piece of case law.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This can sometimes be the hardest thing for people to remember, but it’s so important. Right now, I’m co-oping with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, and I have to make decisions every single day that affect someone’s life. It’s not easy at all, and eight weeks ago I had no idea what I was doing. I have to ask questions from the ADAs supervising me and even from some of the higher ups, multiple times a day. Asking questions is the best way to learn, and the people you are working with are there to help you. They know you’re a student, and they’re sympathetic to the fact that you’re probably in over your head and are in need of some guidance. Trust me, if you’re worried about seeming incompetent by someone that could be evaluating you for a future job, I can promise you that no one has ever been denied employment by caring so much that you ask too many questions (and if they have, it’s probably not a place you’re truly interested in working for anyway). Showing that you’re fully invested in learning about the job is just as important as showing that you know how to do it, and the only way to do either of those things is to ask questions when you have them.

1L is scary, it’s exciting, it’s stressful, it’s incredible, it’s horrible. You’re about to embark on an amazing journey, and you’ve picked the best place in the world to do it. Don’t worry, you’ll be awesome. And enjoy it while you can, because it goes by so much faster than you can possibly imagine. Good luck!

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