The Delaware Court of Chancery Melissa Lagoumis '20L writes about how a 3L externship changed her outlook and her career.
Melissa Lagoumis ’20L, from East Moriches, NY, is a graduate of the University of Delaware. She serves as a lead articles editor for the W&L Law Review. She will begin working as an associate at Richards, Layton & Finger in August.
My first two years at Washington and Lee University School of Law consisted of a lot of personal and professional soul-searching. Like many law students, I was not quite sure what type of law I wanted to practice after graduation. Fortunately, I had the privilege of spending a semester of my 3L year working full-time in the Delaware Court of Chancery under Vice Chancellor Joseph R. Slights, III, a 1988 graduate of W&L Law. My time with the Court of Chancery was one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences I have ever had. After graduation, I will be practicing corporate law at a Delaware law firm, and my externship experience could not have aligned better with my professional goals.
The Delaware Court of Chancery is not your standard trial court. It is a court of equity that is often the forum for major corporate law disputes. Proceedings in the Court of Chancery are exclusively before the Chancellor and six Vice Chancellors, meaning there are no juries. The absence of a jury makes proceedings in the Court of Chancery unique from those of a typical trial court. Judges are expected to know the law, and oral arguments generally focus on discrete legal issues and often do not emphasize broad concepts and themes. The Court of Chancery is a specialized court that decides, among others, cases involving breaches of fiduciary duty, appraisal actions, and summary proceedings for books and records.
Instead of taking classes, I spent my fall semester working on complex corporate law cases, while simultaneously serving as a lead articles editor for the W&L Law Review and completing a seminar course. Not only was I working full-time, but I was getting real-world experience in a position directly relevant to what I will be doing in practice. Throughout my externship, I tried to absorb as much information as I could. I worked closely with Vice Chancellor Slights and his two law clerks on active cases, and I was given real responsibility. I conducted legal research, attended hearings, and learned first-hand how much work goes into drafting a legal opinion. I learned about substantive legal issues that were not covered in law school. Delaware corporate law is a very dynamic practice and the issues are constantly evolving. I saw what types of cases were being decided on a day-to-day basis, and was exposed to issues that I otherwise would not have encountered until after graduation.
In addition to substantive experience, my externship afforded me many opportunities for professional development. I was able to meet the judges of the court in a more informal setting. I also attended networking events hosted by Delaware law firms and participated in a writing workshop that taught me how to write more clearly and concisely. More importantly, I became a part of chambers, which gave me the chance to interact with Vice Chancellor Slights, his clerks, and his administrative assistant on a more personal level. I was the only full-time extern at the Court of Chancery and I never felt like I was looked down on for being just an extern. I am incredibly thankful to Vice Chancellor Slights, his two law clerks, and his administrative assistant for warmly welcoming me as part of the team. I am also grateful that I attend a law school that gave me the opportunity to participate in this program.
I learned so much about myself from this experience. I am the first person in my family to go to law school, so I was completely uninformed on how the entire legal profession operated, and I had no idea what I was doing. The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was my own self-doubt. I, like many law students, struggle with imposter syndrome. A part of me was terrified that doing this externship would be a mistake. I was afraid that I would be exposed as a fraud and that my professional reputation would be ruined before I even started my career. I knew when I started this externship that this was an incredible opportunity. That fact weighed on me.
If I could go back in time to the start of my externship, I would try to put less pressure on myself. Everyone has internal doubts. I think the secret to dealing with that doubt is to remember that you are doing your best. Doing your best is really all that anyone can ask of you. Going back in time, I would remind myself that I am a student and this was a learning experience—and it is probably one of the best I’ve ever had. Making mistakes is part of the process, and as long as you keep putting yourself in a position to work hard and learn from your mistakes, you will continue to grow as a person and as a lawyer—I know that I did. Once I stopped being intimidated by my work, I realized that I was capable of so much more than I thought.
When I first started my externship, I was hesitant to speak up and participate in the post-hearing conversations with Vice Chancellor Slights and his clerks about how an issue should be decided. Most of the cases I worked on involved complicated concepts that I was unfamiliar with. I necessarily spent extra time catching up on general principles before I could analyze the issues and get to work on my assignments. Sure, plenty of issues and arguments went over my head. Yes, sometimes that made me feel inadequate. But once I got up to speed on the topics and understood the issues, I felt those feelings of inadequacy start to dissipate. As time went on, I stopped feeling like an imposter and joined the conversation. By the end of my externship, I was no longer afraid of voicing my opinions and participated freely in discussions. The best way to overcome fears of inadequacy is to lean into them and force yourself out of your comfort zone. I am so thankful that I did. My externship taught me to have greater confidence in myself and I think that is the most important lesson I learned from this experience.
I strongly encourage law students to seek out an externship while in law school. Leaning into your fears and embracing the opportunities that present themselves is the best way to grow personally and professionally. Any inconvenience, event, or course that I missed because of my externship was well worth it for the experience I gained. I not only grew academically and professionally, but I’ve taken from this experience lessons that will stay with me for years to come.
Rarely in life do you have the opportunity to appreciate the importance of an experience while you are experiencing it. I knew when I started as an extern at the Delaware Court of Chancery that this would be one of the highlights of my career. What I did not know was just how much I would learn about myself in the process.
This article appeared previously on the ABA’s Law Practice Today website and is reprinted here with permission.