In the ever-heated competition between law firms’ recruitment teams, a new battleground seems to have opened up: virtual internship programmes. Created using a platform called InsideSherpa, these aim to give students an insight into what it’s really like to work as a lawyer, all without needing to leave the comfort of their own bedrooms. The ‘virtual interns’ complete a series of online tasks, most of which involve submitting a short piece of writing or audio file, then they’re guided through them by videos from senior lawyers at the firm. The tasks are supposed to mimic those that a trainee lawyer might be expected to complete and are usually based around a fictional legal case or client. Anyone who’s tried a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) may well find the format of a virtual internship familiar.
I recently started White & Case’s virtual internship programme (I’ll be honest, I initially didn’t notice that it was created specifically for American students), which I found surprisingly engaging. I was certainly sceptical about InsideSherpa’s claim that White & Case’s careers team might actually look at virtual interns’ submitted work, and their suggestion that contacting White & Case on social media might be a good way to get noticed looked very much like an attempt to gain some free online advertising. However, what the virtual internship (which would be better described as an online course) did provide, was an insight into the kinds of tasks that a trainee might be expected to complete; drafting emails to partners, contributing to reports for clients or writing routine letters. Virtual internship programmes might also be helpful for those looking to invest a little extra time into finding out about an individual firm before applying for their vacation scheme.
Useful or not, virtual internships are definitely a fast-growing phenomenon. InsideSherpa itself was only created in the last couple of years by an alumnus of the Australian law firm, King & Wood Mallesons. In January 2018 it became the first Australian law firm, and also one of the first law firms in the world, to launch a virtual internship programme. Since then, several Australian and American firms have followed suit, with Linklaters becoming the first UK law firm to offer its own programme in June 2019. Interestingly, it did so without any suggestion that recruiters would actually look at virtual interns’ work; instead, it was presented as an opportunity to learn more about lawyers’ work and perhaps also as a way to add something valuable to your CV.
Virtual internships are definitely no substitute for actual work experience, but with the summer holidays providing students with a little extra free time, trying one out may be a productive and interesting way to spend four to five hours.