Each summer, students from the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University are placed in a wide array of legal externships that vary, not only in substance, but in location. This year, the nearly 55 students who were enrolled in Adjunct Instructor Rita Sethi’s summer externship distance education course were in placements in Nassau County, Washington D.C., Georgia, Australia, Italy, Ireland and many places in between.
The students’ practice areas also varied, from corporate work and criminal prosecution to nonprofit and policy organizations and judicial clerkships. To bring all these students into a common space, Sethi used technology to create a virtual classroom to conduct the course. By doing so, she enabled students to discuss the challenges they faced in their particular positions and in defining themselves as professionals in the legal community.
“It’s not so much the novelty of the technology as the way that it was used to bridge distance and forge an intimate conversation among myself and the students spread across the world and practicing in completely different areas of the law,” says Sethi.
Through the use of The West Education Network, also known as TWEN (an online educational tool provided by Westlaw), Sethi created a system through which students communicated with her and with one another through social media tools, such as journaling and discussion boards. Students also used the system to receive their assignments for the week.
“Being able to go to work every day at a placement of my choice is an opportunity that is irreplaceable,” says Jane Lebowitz 2L, who worked at the Queens County District Attorney’s Office Special Victim’s Bureau over the summer. “I found the technological aspect of the externship experience to be refreshing in that it enabled me to reflect upon the work I was completing at my placement and in return receive valuable feedback about it from my professor as well as my fellow students. This exchange also provided me with the opportunity to learn and hear about the different areas of the law, as well as the experiences my colleagues were having at their placements, which shed light on the legal profession as a whole.”
Each week, students submitted individual journals on a variety of discussion topics, such as identifying mentors, fostering healthy client relationships, integrating personal and professional identity and examining the roles of lawyers in society.
Brittany Maiolo 3L found the journal exercises to be quite beneficial to her externship at Mental Hygiene Legal Services. “At first, journaling about my experience simply allowed me to gain a third-party perspective,” she says. “But by reading over my own narrative of the week’s events, I began to understand myself and the office dynamics better.”
Students also posted several times a week on discussion boards regarding course readings, and related the topics to their own personal stories and externship experiences. The course materials varied from law journal articles, articles in the New Yorker and The New York Times and video clips of attorney Trevor Potter on The Colbert Report discussing super PACs.
Sethi designed the forum chats to be a cross between a think tank and a support group on becoming and being a lawyer. They also served as a place to pull back from the bustling demands of the workplace, take perspective and connect with the Hofstra Law community, particularly when students were otherwise isolated from their classmates.
“In these forums, students spoke to each other in a way they understand about their immediate world, which is probably different than if they are in a four-walled classroom with a professor at the head,” she says. “They contributed to building the curriculum in a way that isn’t as feasible in a traditional classroom setting.”
Students agree that the online course discussions were fruitful. “Having access to online forums made it easy for people to converse, share ideas and viewpoints with one another as well as give helpful criticism,” notes Jennifer Everett 3L, who worked at Nova Perry, PC, an entertainment law firm in New York City.
Michael Hochfelsen 2L, whose summer externship was with the Nassau County Department of Social Services, adds. “The online discussions were an extremely helpful learning tool and means of sharing information, emotions and opinions instantaneously. In reality, the externship participants were scattered across the globe, so without the use of these tools, it would have been extremely difficult to communicate with each other.”
Now that the externships have concluded, students will soon deliver final presentations on campus about their experiences. The presentations will be converted into podcasts for potential use in future orientation events or for the use of students considering similar externships.
“The technology is all there, just waiting for us to creatively integrate it into our classrooms,” says Sethi.