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Law and public policy internships: How to ensure entry into a graduate programme or landing your first job in the legal profession

6 min read
· Posted on
November 20, 2020
by Yvonne Jooste
Photo by Grammarco Boscara @lawsplash.com

When considering whether to further your law studies or apply for your first position in the legal profession, it becomes important to be able to demonstrate to a future employer or legal educational institution your knowledge of the law, practical skills and general capacity to operate in a legal environment.

A legal internship provides the opportunity to increase your knowledge in substantive areas of law, to gain exposure to a real work environment, and to provide much-needed support to an organisation.

The main benefits of an internship in law can be surmised as follows:

An internship provides the opportunity to practically apply legal theory

In law school, you are taught the fundamental concepts of substantive law. When it comes to practice, however, the key is learning how to apply those concepts and principles to real-life situations. It is one thing to learn about a legal principle in the classroom but an entirely other to apply it. This is where a legal internship can become invaluable as it provides for the opportunity to gain tacit knowledge. Practical legal skills are rooted in tacit knowledge, the type of knowledge gained through experience only. During a law internship, your goal should be to gain tacit knowledge so as the build your practical skillset. This is done by observing legal professionals, through extensive personal contact, regular interaction, and trust.

An internship in law might be one of the only ways in which to acquire practical skills before your first career opportunity. It will also ultimately help you to get a better and deeper understanding of the law and legal sphere.

A legal internship can assist in gaining practical skills that can give you an edge in the job market

Closely related to the practical application of legal theory, an internship can help you to better your research, writing and drafting skills. These skills are essential in legal practice and can serve as a great resume-booster. Demonstrated practical skills, such as sound judgment and strong interpersonal skills can make a law school graduate marketable to employers or legal educational institutions. 

A professional internship in law can also exemplify your dedication to learning as much as possible about the subject and practice. This is the type of dedication that will go a long way in making a good and lasting first impression, whether on a firm, educational institution or prospective professional law employers.

Further, the legal field is competitive, so the more experience you have and the earlier you gain it, the better.

court stairs law and public policy internships in cape town
Photo by Sebastian Pichler@lawsplash.com

Another benefit of interning is networking. An internship in law will allow you to come in contact with other legal interns and practising professionals with whom you share a common interest. In this way, law internships are also a good place for students to network with legal professionals, because they have the opportunity to meet people that might be able to help them find jobs in the future.

Importantly, you might also be able to meet a legal mentor – a person that can help you, guide you and assist in drawing up your professional roadmap. In the legal field where you have to meet daily challenges, find appropriate solutions and uphold the rule of law, a mentor (normally a seasoned law professional) can give you the confidence to overcome and navigate the daily challenges.

What is more, if you are doing an international internship placement, such as on our professional law internship programme, you will be able to meet people from different countries that have different ideologies, perceptions and approaches to justice. This enables you to deepen and expand your sense of justice and contribute to your legal sensibilities in a way that few other experiences can.

A legal internship can help you in choosing your area of interest or specialisation

An internship will provide you with first-hand experience of the operations of different areas of law. You might find that a specific area of law that you had your heart set on, is not necessarily for you. It is possible that experience in another area of the law might excite you. A legal internship is a good opportunity to explore and discover the various possible areas of interest available to you. 

You will also quickly realise what is needed in a specific area of legal specialisation and whether your personality, likes and dislikes, and skills are attuned to one area or another. This is where it becomes important to also carefully consider why you are taking on an internship. What would you like to discover or find out? What specific questions do you need to ask? What areas do you feel you need to develop?

When you go into an internship with a series of goals, you will be able to quickly feel out where you belong and where you would like to be. The law offers many areas of specialisation, such as family law, criminal law, corporate law, environmental law etc. Being exposed to a new area of law might completely change your perspective and career goals. It can also help you decide between entering the job market or pursuing further study. 

(Also check out this helpful article on other ways in which to gain legal experience.)

An internship can help you decide what role you would like to fulfil in the legal environment

A law internship can help you gain insight into the day to day tasks and responsibilities of different legal professionals. One of the unique features of a legal education is that it offers multiple different career paths. Developments in the law and technology have also created new legal career opportunities. Although this is wonderful, it can leave one confused. An internship can, therefore, help you to discover what role you want to fulfil in the legal field. As the legal field becomes more complex and legal employment opportunities proliferate, an internship can be invaluable in helping you navigate the legal terrain.

Photo by Wesley Tingey@lawsplash.com

You will be able to decide between core legal careers, such as lawyers, attorneys, or paralegals; and other possibilities, such as legal education, legal consulting or legal and administrative support in a corporate or governmental setting. You will also be able to decide which postgraduate programme you should apply for.

By observing professionals, you can see for yourself whether you want to engage in that type of work or not. Being a lawyer, for example, can be difficult mentally – when dealing with family law or criminal cases. 

By experiencing the real environment and seeing how certain situations should be handled, you can gain insight into whether a certain role is for you or not. 

(Have a look at this helpful article that discusses different legal career possibilities.)

An internship can also allow you with the opportunity to get to really know yourself. This is essential when considering a graduate programme or a career in law. People who pride themselves on their logic, efficiency and objectivity usually make good litigation attorneys or lawyers. Others, who like to think about the law and justice in a deeper and more critical way, will make good legal academics, and people who love research and pride themselves on their writing skills can easily work in the legislature, drafting public policy.


Employers look for workers with experience and one of the best ways for legal students to prepare for their future is to take advantage of an internship. A legal internship can present a concrete way to stand out amongst your peers through demonstrated practical ability. It can also demonstrate your dedication to know more about the law to a legal educational institution in order to ensure your place in a postgraduate programme. 

Want to find out more?

Have a look at our law and public policy internship opportunities in Cape Town and also be sure to check out our Cape Town based human rights internships too.

What should you do next?

Easy - there's only one thing for it - download this free 37-page PDF guide we wrote just for you. It'll give you an overview of everything you need to know and do to have a rewarding and unforgettable learning experience abroad.

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