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Advice for Federal Government Legal Interns

I have never had an internship outside of the government. At the same time, I submit that interning with the government is a highly diverse and rewarding experience.

During my 1L summer, I interned within the Department of Defense (“DOD”) where I helped to investigate war crimes. During my 2L summer, I split my time between the Counterterrorism Section (“CTS”) of the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Office of the Legal Adviser (“L”) within the Department of State (“DOS”). At CTS, I assisted in ongoing terrorism investigations and prosecutions in various districts around the United States. At L, I worked on diplomatic law and litigation cases and researched oceans, international environmental and scientific treaties to support negotiations on those topics.

Through my DOD, DOJ, and DOS internships, I came away with a few observations that I hope are helpful as you undertake legal internships and pursue a career in the federal government. I don’t profess to know much; after all, I have yet to *work* for the U.S. Government, but these observations have helped me navigate my summers. Perhaps, at this point, I should clarify that views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of the DOD, DOJ, DOS, and/or any other agency of the U.S. Government. You’ll have to get used to that if you start working for the government…

  1. The Equities Are Different

It is critical to know what are the different equities at stake with the legal issue with which you are dealing. For example, if your case involves information possessed by another department, that department has an interest in your case and how your office handles it. At times, especially when there is classified information involved, you may have to defer to another department or agency’s wishes as to how you use that information (or whether you can use it at all). Knowing the actors and implicated interests is critical to your analysis and through spending time within the government, asking questions, and drawing connections, you can figure that out. And, once you figure out where your “cog” is in the machine—and how it works with the other “cogs” and “gears”—the work becomes all the more interesting.

  1. Know What Your Client Needs

This isn’t as true in the litigation context, but if you’re working in an attorney-adviser role like in L or as a Judge Advocate in the U.S. military, simply saying “no” doesn’t make you a good attorney. Rather, as an adviser, if the answer is “no” to the bureau or commander you’re advising, be prepared to give alternative options or routes that can help your client obtain their goal. It is your job to know the law but also how to navigate it. I refer to projects like these as “big thoughts” assignments, where many hours are spent simultaneously learning the law and figuring out how to ensure you’re providing sound legal advice to reach your client’s goals. Often, part of the work is discerning what is “law” and what is “policy” and where to draw the line. After all, your job is not limited simply to providing legal advice, but to supporting the mission of your department or agency.

  1. Understand the Meaning of Service

From day 1, you are representing the needs of the U.S. Government. What that means is that your personal opinion does not control your analysis and your judgment should center on whether this is advancing the goals of the government. There may be times where your personal politics do not align with the work that you’re doing or where you’re not sure how your work fits in the bigger picture, but I hope you can embrace that. This kind of mindset is essential to the practice of law, but given the political nature of government, it can be harder to distance yourself from personal views. But remember the fact that you’re in that position is incredible. Your work, more so than many other sectors, can make incremental change. Challenge Coins2

  1. Don’t Expect to be Catered to, but Expect to be Supported

Water is not free in the government. You’ll have to pay for that and your meals, unlike firm life. If your workplace has a transit subsidy program, and it lets interns use it, that’s the goldmine. But the flip side to not having the material perks is learning from incredible and inspirational attorneys. It is humbling to be in offices full of people who turned down large firm salaries because they were committed to the mission. In every internship I have had, my supervisors and the attorneys with whom I have worked are sharp, kind, and willing to go out of their way to explain even (what is likely to them) the simplest aspects of the law to me. Do not hesitate to ask them out to coffee or join you for lunch. That also goes for your fellow interns—remember that you can learn just as much from them and they’re working in the office likely for similar motivations. Some of my closest friends are folks I interned with, and they have a habit of showing up again down the line.

  1. Be Prepared to Work

Each government office is different and operates at a different pace, especially in the summer. But if you have the internship experiences that I have had, expect to be extremely busy. There have been plenty of days where I stayed much later than expected, came in earlier than required, or skipped lunch. I’m not necessarily recommending that, but the work is worth the extra hours, even if they are unpaid. At the same time, there will be downtime. If you make a point of asking attorneys for work and reminding them now and again that you’d love to help on future assignments (especially in topics you’re interested in), you’ll get a lot sent your way. That’s the best part: you get exposed to a lot of issues that are being discussed real-time in the news. And, perhaps towards the end of your internship—after you’ve proven yourself—you’ll get (almost) full responsibility for an assignment (they’ll still, of course, have to supervise you, and you’ll want that).

  1. Always Say *Yes

*To work. Raise your hand. Ask to be included. Go to the meetings. Offer to help out with a legal assignment: even if you had never done the task before and even if you never learned that law. Your education as an attorney is in your own hands. No matter how intimidating the assignment is, you can do it. Frankly, the supervising attorney wouldn’t ask you to do it if he or she didn’t believe in your ability. In each of my internships, the assignments I grew the most from were either assignments that my supervisor casually mentioned in conversation and I asked to help out or assignments prefaced with the phrase “I don’t know if you have time for this….” If you do a good job, especially at the beginning of your internship, that attorney might very well come back to you for multiple projects. After a few assignments, he or she might then be willing to be your reference or help you land your next internship (the legal circle is small in Government).

  1. On that Note: Say Thank You

The government legal sector is well-connected, and you’ll find that attorneys rotate across departments or agencies to different legal offices. Odds are someone in your office knows someone in another office in which you’d like to intern or eventually start a career. So, remember to create a good reputation, work hard, and make those connections. Say thank you to the attorneys you’ve worked for, try to maintain connections with your former offices, and be a good team player with the other folks, including—but not limited to— the janitorial staff, administrative staff, and interns.

  1. Advocate for Your Next Move

Finally, on a practical note, keep track of your assignments on a running document throughout your internship. In that document, briefly describe the assignment, note which attorney you worked with and the date, and explain your work product. Make sure that you save all your work products and make them accessible to your supervisor(s). Send the internship coordinator or whoever is going to be your reference/recommender the document so that they can use that when they write you a letter or make a call on your behalf. The government uses a lot of interns, and it can be hard for coordinators or attorneys to keep track of which intern did what and when. To get the best reference you can, make sure that they know the quality and quantity of work you did for them and the rest of the office.

It’s an honor and privilege to be able to work for the government in any capacity. I hope you make the most of it and enjoy it as much as I have.


Manal Cheema is a third-year law student from Sharon, Massachusetts. She graduated from Tufts University in 2017 with a B.A. in Political Science. For her 1L summer, Manal did prosecutorial work within the Department of Defense. For her 2L summer, Manal split between the Counterterrorism Section of the Department of Justice and the Office of the Legal Adviser at the Department of State. She was a Membership Co-Chair for LPS in her 2L year. Manal is the President of Virginia Law Women and on Virginia Law Review and Virginia Journal of International Law. She is involved with the Prosecution Clinic. After graduation, Manal will be clerking and then serving as a Navy JAG. Interests:National Security, Military, Government

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