By Barry Scholl, editor, S.J. Quinney College of Law
Alexis “Lexi” Jones, a third-year law student at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, has spent part of her time during law school living in Washington, D.C., and interning at the Smithsonian Institution. She recently spoke to @TheU, explaining a journey that took her from working at the Bureau of Land Management in Utah to landing an internship at the Smithsonian’s Office of General Counsel. She also explains why she believes the skills she is developing there will make her a better lawyer when she graduates.
How did you learn about this internship and what in particular interested you about the Smithsonian?
I learned about the internship at the Smithsonian’s Office of General Counsel during my first year of law school. Prior to law school I had worked as a museum aide at the Bureau of Land Management in Utah where I worked with Native American artifacts that had been looted from Utah’s public lands. Because of this preexisting interest in museums and archaeology, I scoured the Internet to see whether there were any opportunities to do a legal internship in the field and I stumbled upon the Smithsonian’s program. The opportunity at the Smithsonian became my dream internship. I was very interested in the internship because it could give me the opportunity to connect my interest in law with my interest in museums in an environment where I could learn from attorneys who have long-term practical experience in the area.
Ultimately, I saw this internship as an incredible opportunity to gain exposure to and knowledge of the field. I never anticipated that I would actually land it, but I decided to do everything I could to give myself the best chance at being selected. I even flew out to Washington, D.C., once to see if I could speak with anyone from the office. Unfortunately, at that point I had no connections and so I was unable to meet anyone. I did however have a great time seeing the Smithsonian museums for the first time.
About two months after my trip to D.C. I was able to speak with someone from the Smithsonian’s Office of General Counsel over the phone. However, it came in an entirely unexpected way. Over the summer I was conducting legal research for my law review write-on note. In conducting my research, I reached out to the BLM thinking my old boss would probably know something about my topic. However, at that point I found out that she had left the BLM to work at the Smithsonian. I contacted her to see if she had any information on this topic and was forwarded to several individuals in the Smithsonian to address my research question. Soon afterwards, I mentioned to my old boss that I was applying to the Smithsonian’s legal counsel internship and was hoping to contact someone from the office. She was able to get me the contact information for one of the attorneys who I was then able to talk to on the phone. That really cemented my interest in the internship and I sent my application in soon afterwards. Throughout this process the Professional Development Office was essential. I barraged them with questions about reaching out to people, phone interviews and resume styles among other things and they were always very helpful. I learned a lot throughout the application process by working with them.
What is the most unexpected thing you have learned at the Smithsonian? What is the most valuable thing you have learned there?
The most unexpected thing I have learned at the Smithsonian is how big the institution really is. My prior conception of the Smithsonian was nothing like how I think of it now. Initially, I thought it was only composed of a few museums. However, through my internship I have learned that it is so much more. There are 19 museums and galleries including two in New York, the National Zoological Park, nine research facilities including ones in Panama and Alaska, an astrophysical observatory, a magazine, research programs and partnerships across the world. Additionally, the Smithsonian has a far broader influence than I realized. The Smithsonian works to rescue, recover and save the cultural heritage of several countries, including that of Haiti, Mali and Iraq.
In connection to the size of the Smithsonian, I also did not anticipate the breadth of legal issues the Smithsonian’s Office of General Counsel handles. Throughout my experience here I have been exposed to a wide range of issues. The OGC handles legal issues from trademarks and copyrights to donations, tax, employment discrimination, information requests, acquisitions, exhibitions, injuries, contracts for everything from buildings and renovations to movies, imports and exports and federal appropriations among others.
Because of this broad range of exposure, I believe the most valuable thing I have learned through my internship is to always be ready to learn. The Smithsonian deals with such a wide array of legal issues that it has taught me to stay on my toes and focus in order to understand new areas of law and issues that come up. It has also taught me to always look for something to be learned. Because law is so complex the issues that come up in a legal office can present perfect opportunities to learn something new about the law with every project.
You mentioned in one report that you are making use of the legal writing, legal research and communications skills that you developed in law school. What new skills are you developing during the internship?
I have had the opportunity to utilize the legal writing, legal research and communications skills that I developed in law school. Those skills are a natural part of legal work and I feel that my internship has only strengthened my abilities in these areas. This is because I’ve had the opportunity to conduct quite a bit of research, write legal memoranda and observe client interactions. At the Smithsonian, the clients of the OGC are the various museums and research institutes that compose the whole institution. Throughout my internship, I have been able to sit in on a lot of interactions between the attorneys and the clients and I feel that these experiences have given me a unique insight into the realm of attorney-client relationships. This is helping me to build my communication skills not only among attorneys, but also with clients.
How do you think the experience of doing an internship at the Smithsonian will better prepare you for practice upon graduation?
My internship at the Smithsonian has exposed me to a very broad array of legal areas. This exposure has been a great opportunity to build a foundation of understanding of those various areas of the law. Because of this internship, upon graduation I will already have the building blocks for understanding many legal issues that come up in my practice. Moreover, although many of the issues that come up in a museum context relate specifically to museums, a lot of the issues relate to a broader context of general practice and will only help facilitate my understanding of law in the future.
Would you recommend similar internships to your fellow students at the College of Law?
I would absolutely recommend a similar internship to other students at the College of Law. I’ve had an incredible experience at the Smithsonian this semester and I feel that it has given me a lot of practical experience that will prepare me for future practice. The College of Law makes it very easy to adjust your schedule to include a clinical course. And if you’re interested in doing a clinic in Washington, D.C., the Hinckley Institute of Politics streamlines the process of living out there by providing housing and a support network. I feel especially fortunate that I found an internship in an area of law in which I am genuinely very interested and my experience has taught me that such opportunities exist. Whether fellow students have my same interest or are interested in something completely different, I think an internship is the perfect way to explore those areas of law, make valuable connections and lay the foundation for further understanding of the field. Moreover, setting up an internship is easier than you would think. Initially, I thought arranging the clinic in a way that would allow me to graduate on time would be very complicated, given that I have not taken any summer classes. However, the College of Law helped me to arrange my schedule in such a way that I could accept this amazing opportunity and still graduate on time.
Are there any last thoughts you would like to share?
My experience interning at the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of General Counsel has been invaluable to my educational and career goals. It gave me the opportunity to explore a very interesting area of law and to hone my practical legal skills simultaneously. I believe I will be a better lawyer because of this experience.