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Field supervisors’ evaluations of their student externs are packed with lively stories. They deliver a fly-on-the-wall perspective, giving us color about the work entrusted to our students, the behaviors our students exhibited, and the enjoyment the attorneys reaped. The authors decided the evaluations were so fertile that they should be systematically scrutinized to seek meaningful, reliable insights about the extern experience, especially regarding the variety, complexity, and responsibility levels of their work. We also saw a prime opportunity to assess an externship program and find ways to improve it. Thus, the Externship Assessment Project was born. We deployed qualitative data analysis methodology to distill the supervisor narratives in a comprehensive, uniform, and disciplined manner. Our method entailed building a database of all elements of the supervisor evaluations (both numerical and narrative), and coding the data for types and quality of student work. We added data on each placement’s setting and practice area. From a two-page evaluation form we were able to tag characteristics about student work with dozens of codes, enabling us to compare and contrast student experience across many dimensions. We overlaid student demographic data to understand variations along class year, GPA, gender, and race. The evaluations revealed that educational opportunities varied among different field placement settings and practice areas. For example, and perhaps the most expected finding of the analysis, nonprofit and government settings provided the best platform for dynamic and high responsibility work, especially in criminal practice. In contrast, student work was most often featured for its high complexity and quality in government and law firm settings. Student GPA was not a predictor of the types of work performed by the externs or of supervisor ratings. Although judicial placements tended to attract the higher-grading students, the judge and mentor attorneys tended not to highlight the complexity or quality of the student work in their final evaluations. Our analysis seeks to describe extern performance and learning in clear-eyed fashion and offer guidance for externship program design and assessment of programmatic and institutional learning outcomes.

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Brooklyn Law School, Legal Studies Paper