Insider Report: Working at An American Law Firm

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Photo taken by author during his internship

Are Hollywood stereotypes of lawyers true? In this article, our columnist Steffen Hadi shares his experience interning at an American law firm in Philadelphia. He also shares some tips on how to get a law internship as an international student.

For many years, Hollywood has given us moviegoers rosy depictions of the typical American law firm. To be completely honest, I was actually motivated to become a lawyer myself thanks to Harvey Spectre, a fictional lawyer from Suits. Unfortunately—or maybe fortunately for certain people—not all of what those movies depict about American law firms are true. I have been lucky enough to experience working at an American law firm based on my internship at one of the Philadelphian law firms. Here are my stories, enjoy.

Internship Opportunities

During my postgraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania Law School (“Penn Law”), there were a number of internship opportunities at various American law firms. This isn’t surprising, considering that Penn Law is one of the best law schools in the US. However, those law firms usually aim for Americans who undertake full-fledged Juris Doctor degrees (“JD”). I was the only international student taking the LLM program, which is not as prestigious as JD.

Steffen Hadi at the University of Pennsylvania Law School
Steffen Hadi at the University of Pennsylvania Law School

I was lucky enough to get the chance to intern at one of the biggest law firms in Philadelphia; let’s just call it PH for short. Although it was pro-bono (I was not paid a penny), I am still glad that I got the chance to experience working at an American law firm.

If you are struggling to get into an American law firm, here’s a tip for you: try to get a pro-bono internship. The absence of money may be troublesome initially, but it gets better after you get the opportunity to show your spark there.

Furthermore, although you may think that having a bar (i.e., license to practice law in the US), such as the California State Bar or the New York State Bar, is the ultimate way in. I can say that for foreign lawyers like us, it’s not necessarily true. American law firms require our local expertise and native communication skills when they are dealing with matters involving the laws or clients from our country. Speaking from experience, I passed the New York State Bar but still faced a lot of challenges in terms of practicing law in New York.  

Business as Usual

First of all, “business as usual” perfectly reflects the actual environment of American law firms. You can see most people in their rooms and/or cubicles, typing away on their computers or passionately calling people on their phones. Others usually flood the meeting rooms to discuss matters with their clients. Usual morning greetings and coffee chats can still be seen, but only for half an hour at most.

During my internship, I was involved in real estate and immigration cases. I dealt with evicted tenants and their legal actions. I recorded their complaints and drafted the proper legal advices for their problems. I started the morning by carrying out phone interviews, and then I would visit clients in the afternoon.

Similar with Indonesian lawyers, long hours, tremendous pressure, and lots of serious discussions are also accurate descriptions of the everyday life of an American lawyer. It sounds stressful, though I actually enjoyed it it because every second there was a golden experience for me. Hollywood makes it seem like the American law firm is always filled with meaningless drama, but it wasn’t the case in my experience. People are attached to their jobs and everyone is very professional.

Lawyerly Outfit

In the US, lawyers are one of the highest paid professions. Thus, it isn’t surprising to see that many lawyers wear premium clothing, and (for women) expensive makeup. They dress nicely to represent their professionalism and the prominence of their law firm. Ties and suits are mandatory, but most lawyers are free to take their suit off after dealing with clients. I personally wore my tie and suit if I needed to visit clients and discuss with my supervising partner.

Hollywood, you got it partially right this time. Most lawyers do dress quite well for the majority of the day.

Partying

Most Americans love to party, lawyers included. Thursday or Friday night usually becomes the perfect time to head to the nearest bar. They drink, dance, and laugh as loud as they can, and all seriousness during the day drastically change during the party.

I felt isolated during my first days at the firm. People rarely talked to me as they were heavily occupied with their jobs. Thankfully, it all changed on the first Thursday of my internship. I was dragged to a pub and introduced to many associates there where they asked a lot about my background and they told me their inside jokes; happy times. Since that day, I was no longer isolated. On the contrary, I was able to forge strong friendships in the firm.

Here’s another tip for you: if you wish to break the stranger’s barrier with Americans, do it at a party. They adore friendship, and usually (though not always) love making friends at parties. I think that Hollywood provides a reasonably accurate depiction for American lawyers when it comes to partying.

Career and Reflective Evaluation

Interning at an American law firm might be glamorous for your CV, but it will not improve your local expertise much. Instead, use the opportunity to improve your professionalism and network. American lawyers have sophisticated working ethic: they value perfection, a practical way of thinking, and advanced logical solutions. If you can build a similar work ethic, I’m sure that you’d be a great lawyer for any law firm.

In addition, do expand and maintain your network. Having known many international friends, I can say that having American lawyers in your network can be a huge advantage. You can leverage your network for referrals in the future, as well as many unimaginable opportunities.

It is obvious that Hollywood does not always provide accurate depiction of American law firms. Working is not as easy as it looks and the work environment is not a fun as it seems. There are countless days of high pressure and also countless days of boredom. There are occasions when you might feel lame being a lawyer. But in the end, that’s what makes life real, and that’s why we should cherish every second of it.

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Photos provided by Steffen Hadi.

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Steffen Hadi
Steffen Hadi studied LL.M. in University of Pennsylvania Law School and Wharton Business and Law Certificate of the Wharton School at the same university. He was the Class President of Penn Law LL.M. Class 2016, Penn Law Students Representative in University of Pennsylvania’s council, and international associate editor in Penn Law Journal of International Law. Steffen also interned at a prominent international law firm in Philadelphia. Aside from LL.M. Steffen also holds a Sarjana Hukum (LL.B. equivalent) from Parahyangan Catholic University. Steffen has been practicing law as a corporate lawyer in Jakarta and Singapore. Presently, he is a senior associate in a prominent law firm in Indonesia and independently assisting few legal issues for start-ups. In his spare time, Steffen is a movie freak, loyal runner, and outdoor trekker.