Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

Day (and Night) at the Museum Hannah Cloh is taking part in W&L Law’s residential externship in Washington, D.C., working at the Smithsonian Institution.

Hannah Cloh is a third year law student from Northbrook, Illinois. She received her undergraduate degree in English Literature from Knox College. At W&L Law, she is a Senior Articles Editor for the German Law Journal. This semester she is taking part in W&L Law’s residential externship in Washington, D.C., working at the Smithsonian Institution.

When I saw a posting for the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of General Counsel online, I assumed it would be another application sent into the void. But about a week before exams, I received an email from an attorney with an interview request. I could barely believe it, so I had someone check over the message to make sure I read it correctly. The ability to have an externship in DC was one of the deciding factors for choosing W&L Law.

During the interview, I spent most of the time gushing about the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Renwick, and countless other museums. Jess, a Smithsonian attorney who wears “legal intern coordinator” as one of her many hats, made it clear that it was part of my job to go to museums at least once a week. I replied with something along the lines of “twist my arm if you have to.” Jess connected me with a previous semester extern so I could talk to him and make sure that I had a clear idea of what the externship entailed. He mentioned some projects he worked on, and I knew it was the right choice for me. I think that I accepted my offer within 24 hours.

I spent half of my summer bragging about getting to work in the Smithsonian Castle, and the experience has been beyond what I imagined. Within my first week, I had seven assignments all focusing on vastly different areas of substantive law, ranging from torts to intellectual property, and toured the Phillips Collection with a group of attorneys from the office. My second week, I attended a site visit to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center out near Annapolis, met Secretary Lonnie Bunch during a meeting with the Office of General Counsel, and attended a conference with museum attorneys from all over the country. On week three I attended a strategy meeting regarding a project I worked on and contributed to the discussion. Over the course of the semester, I attended all-staff meetings, various client meetings, the annual staff picnic in the Arts and Industries Building, exhibit openings, and Secretary Lonnie Bunch’s official installation ceremony.

Along with the remarkable experiences and constant trips to check out different parts of our museums, I learned to hone my research and writing skills for different areas of the law. Before, I primarily wrote all of my projects with a litigation mindset, but the Smithsonian does everything. Sometimes my research would be as simple as searching for a statute online to make sure it says what the attorney thinks it says, and sometimes it would be forward looking to parse out a difficult area of law that a Smithsonian client wants to understand. The wide variety of legal topics allowed me to experience substantive areas of law that I would never encounter, and the attorneys in the office always made sure to find a teaching moment or to include me in their next task. My confidence in my research and writing significantly increased, and I now know that I can turn out high-quality work regardless of my background in the subject.

The Smithsonian’s mission is the growth and diffusion of knowledge, and getting to spend my semester working here full time taught me so much more about a vast array of legal topics and client counseling skills than I would have been able to get from classes alone. While I will miss flashing my badge at the staff entrance of every museum to avoid security screening and lines, getting to work for such an important institution will be the biggest loss. The opportunity I received to absorb the museum culture and professional academic world this semester in DC is immeasurable.

And, a special note, you do not need tickets for the National Museum of African American History and Culture on weekdays during the off-season, and tickets are released on their website the first Wednesday of every month at 9 am.