We realised that you could digitally recreate a day in the life of an employee through these courses, but it was only as we started to build those courses that we realised they had tremendous value for companies.
In a socially distant world, more law firms are rolling out virtual internships as a way to attract top talent and reach students from diverse communities.
An internship used to be pretty simple – a few weeks of making coffees, running errands, picking up laundry and, if you were lucky, an offer of some paid work at the end of it all.
These days, while real-life internships haven’t yet disappeared completely, change is afoot as many law firms shift internships online and replace real-life errand-running with online modules aimed at giving students an authentic glimpse of life, and work, inside a firm.
Virtual internships designed for students
InsideSherpa co-founder Tom Brunskill is behind much of the recent growth in virtual internships across the Australian legal profession.
Brunskill, a former lawyer at King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) in Sydney, started the virtual work experience company in 2017 and says it has had around 150,000 students enrol via its platform in online internships with firms such as Pinsent Masons, Linklaters, White & Case, MinterEllison and KWM.
The ex M&A lawyer puts the rapid uptake from students down to his Sydney-headquartered company helping to solve what can be a daunting and complex problem for undergraduates.
“At our essence, what we’re trying to do is help students understand what career they should pursue,” he tells LSJ.
“I went to law school myself and had no idea what I was getting into when I went into law and realised there was a big gap between the law curriculum and what it was actually like to work in a law firm.
“We realised that you could digitally recreate a day in the life of an employee through these courses, but it was only as we started to build those courses that we realised they had tremendous value for companies. That’s how we monetise the product.”
Free for students to use, law firms pay an annual subscription fee, which Brunskill says varies, to have their virtual internship programs hosted on the InsideSherpa platform.
Unlike real-life internships, which can last for weeks or even months, virtual internships are typically much shorter and can be completed by students in a matter of hours. What’s more, they can complete modules at their own pace and from wherever they want as long as they have an internet connection, which assists students juggling multiple work commitments.
Typically, virtual internships are pitched at undergraduates in their first or second year of university and constructed as a series of modules that seek to give them a taste of the work young lawyers do on a daily basis. This can range from completing tasks related to drafting documents, communicating with clients, dispute resolution, due diligence and business development.
Brunskill says the tasks are part of “demystifying what it’s like to work in a private law firm”.
“There’s such a disconnect between what you learn in law school and what you do in private practice, and I think that resonates with so many firms,” he says. “They bring in all these starry-eyed students who think they’re walking into one thing and then realise it’s an entirely different thing to what they expected. These programs are a super powerful way to say, ‘Hey, this is the work we do, these are the clients we work with, and these are the types of tasks and projects you’ll be working on’.”
Similar work across online placements
Raymond Chu*, 21, is one of the many law undergraduates who has tried out a virtual internship to “see what firms have to offer”. The University of Sydney student, in his final year of a combined commerce/law degree, has in fact done online placements at KWM, MinterEllison and Corrs Chambers Westgarth, which he says gave him a “decent understanding” of the types of tasks he could expect to do on a regular basis as a graduate lawyer.
“It was good to see the nature of the work they do … it showed that the sort of work you’d be doing would be fairly similar across all firms,” he tells LSJ.
Chu, who’s set to start as a graduate lawyer with another international law firm at the start of 2021, says it was also beneficial to be able to go at his own pace and complete the virtual placements around other commitments, like work and assignments.
However, when it comes to getting a sense of what it’s like to work at one firm versus another, in his opinion there’s no substitute for real-life exposure.
“If you want to know what’d really be a better fit for you, you’d have to be going to networking events and actually meeting people. That’s the way to get that insight into what the individual firms are like,” he says.
The rapid take-up of virtual internships by undergrads like Chu should perhaps come as little surprise given the immense popularity of real-life unpaid work experience in Australia. Australia’s only nationally-representative study of internships, ‘Unpaid Work Experience in Australia: Prevalence, Nature and Impact’, released in 2016, found 58 per cent of Australians aged 18-29 and 26 per cent of those aged 30-64 had participated in at least one internship in the last five years.
Today’s virtual internships also align with how Australians have always tended to seek out work experience, with 47 per cent of prospective interns organising placements themselves, while 39 per cent have it set up by their university, school, TAFE or training provider, according to the data from the federal Attorney-General’s department.
A goal behind this program is to make sure that everybody had access to what commercial law is, and is able to experience what a graduate might do.
Law firms going virtual to reach rural talent
Pinsent Masons partner Sadie Andrew says a big reason the firm launched a virtual internship was so students outside major cities could get a taste of law firm life.
The London-headquartered firm launched its virtual internship in Australia late last year and has so far had hundreds of students from across 27 universities complete the program. According to Andrew, the firm’s Sydney head, the program comprises three modules centred on setting up a company, contracts, and dispute resolution.
“It’s a great tool for us to reach a pool of potential graduates that we wouldn’t necessarily reach just going the traditional way to the bigger universities,” Andrew tells LSJ.
“As with a lot of the big firms, you tend to have people who are aware of you at the universities in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Whereas this is giving us an ability to reach some of the more rural parts of Australia and see the talent that’s out there.”
In that sense, Andrew says going online with internships is enabling the firm to access a pool of potential graduates that it otherwise would be unlikely to have contact with, pointing in particular to the program’s ability to unearth talent among economically diverse and Indigenous communities in the bush.
At KWM, national manager of graduate resourcing strategy and learning Sam Garner says the international firm is also using online internships to cast its recruitment net wider.
According to Garner, KWM, which launched its virtual program for students in 2018, has now had more than 2,300 students complete its program aimed at high school students and undergraduates in their first or second year of tertiary study.
If you really asked a young person, ‘What are you truly looking to learn in an internship?’ they’d say they want mentoring, client engagement, to make an impact, and to develop their professional skills.
“We were very conscious that there were 48 law schools across Australia, and we can only physically go to 15 to 20 of those. So the regional universities just didn’t have access (to us),” Garner tells LSJ.
“A goal behind this program is to make sure that everybody had access to what commercial law is, and is able to experience what a graduate might do.”
While the local numbers were pleasing, Garner was surprised that undergraduates from abroad – in places as far-flung as Belfast, Lagos and Chicago – also completed the course. Such unexpected global take-up, she says, led to the firm to rejig the course for a global audience.
The new KWM internship, set to be launched this year, has input from partners in Hong Kong, London, Sydney and China, which Garner says “mirrors the real work that we do”, providing prospective grads worldwide a glimpse into the global firm.
“The new program reflects that we are a global firm and students globally are using it,” she explains.
The rush by such big-name law firms to embrace virtual internships as a talent attraction tool, both at home and overseas, should perhaps come as little surprise as top-tier firms remain locked in a battle to get the most promising young minds through their doors. While virtual internships, viewed as marketing tools, are helping to address this challenge, MinterEllison Head of Talent Resourcing Solutions Rachael Martin says online work experience programs can also assist firms with retaining promising lawyers.
That’s because, says Martin, a big plus of virtual work experience, which the firm has been running since 2018, is that it’s an easy way for students to get a sense of what type of law they may want to practise when they graduate.
She points to online exposure to areas like transactions, litigation and superannuation, which can lead to “accelerated careers” when students move into the firm after graduation.
“The more you really understand the practical reality of being in, say, a transactional group day in day out, the more you understand whether that’s the kind of law you want to practise,” Martin tells LSJ.
“You can’t do that in a university presentation.”
It’s a great tool for us to reach a pool of potential graduates that we wouldn’t necessarily reach just going the traditional way to the bigger universities.
Online work experience just a piece of the puzzle
Louise Watts, founder of personal career development firm Transition Hub, is more circumspect when it comes to the rush to shift internships onto the internet.
Watts, whose Sydney-based company specialises in preparing job-hunters for the future of work, says undergraduates want more from placements than just technical know-how.
“The generation coming into the workforce is looking for connection, community impact, opportunity, and all of those things that actually contribute to someone’s mental health,” she tells LSJ.
“So, if we’re looking at how someone becomes a well-rounded individual who can really contribute and build a career, it’s certainly not all going to be found online.”
In particular, she points to the “one-way” nature of many virtual internships where superiors tell students what to do but students have limited ability to communicate back.
“The contribution back is emailing, dropping in project notes, adding to a document,” she says.
“It will fall short of anything that will take them into the relationship they’ll need to get into that firm in the future.”
In Watts’ assessment, virtual internships, while overall a positive thing for students, “are just one piece of the puzzle” when it comes to preparing them for a future of legal work. Indeed, she urges firms to provide promising students with opportunities such as “in-person mentoring” after they finish online modules as part of virtual work experience.
“I think what we all need is a blend of the online opportunities and the in-person development,” she says.
“If you really asked a young person, ‘What are you truly looking to learn in an internship?’ they’d say they want mentoring, client engagement, to make an impact, and to develop their professional skills.”