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Corporate Counsel Connect collection

October 2013 Edition

In-house interns: Harnessing young brainpower with Allen Institute's GC Maja Larson

Karen Deuschle, Corporate Counsel Connect Editorial

What do you do when your organization has the opportunity to change the world – but you're short on the legal workforce to get all the work done? You pioneer an internship program that not only supports your non-profit organization's mission but also serves to educate and support young lawyers. Maja Larson, General Counsel at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, has done just that since 2008, bringing interns in-house and giving them weighty responsibilities that support the non-profit's lofty goal of accelerating the understanding of how the human brain works in health and disease. Corporate Counsel Connect spoke with Maja to understand the genesis of Allen Institute's program and the differences between its interns and the traditional summer associate.

In the beginning

Maja started with the Allen Institute six years ago, where she recalls being "the only attorney with a lot of work to do." She had a colleague that worked at, which put in place a solid internship program. "I remembered the success of that program so I went that route instead of using outside counsel. It is also a good way to give back to the community," says Maja. Starting with just 2 interns in the summer of 2008, Allen Institute has employed 2-5 legal interns at time ever since. There have been a total of 20 interns, including the four currently working.

Interns were a welcome solution to the non-profit's legal staffing issues. "It is easy [for management] to see the value that the interns bring to the organization," explains Maja. Original hires were part of the state of Washington's work study program, so the company was significantly reimbursed for the intern's wages through the state. "When you see how much you are paying for what work product you're getting, it's really a win-win for both the interns and the organization. And that was my business case," shares Maja. Allen Institute continues to prefer to hire from the work study program because of the cost savings.

Interns work year-round, which requires they be local – most coming from University of Washington or Seattle University law schools. With up to 19 hours a week during the school year and a full work week on breaks and during the summer, Allen Institute's interns have the opportunity to gain a lot of experience. Maja also makes a point to hire law students after their first year, so they have another two years of interning available, and time to be "properly trained."

This is not wining and dining

"The most important thing to start a program is to be clear what you expect the interns to do. I am very clear that it is...not a mentoring experience," says Maja. The program has a steep learning curve and the interns must be ready to learn quickly. Maja looks for prospects with professional experience, and who can work independently but also know how to work as a team. "This isn't a competition; there is no job at the end," states Maja, contrasting the Allen Institute program against some of its large law firm counterparts. Interns are rewarded with a once-a-year happy hour at Maja's house – definitely not the wining and dining associated with large law firm programs.

As each intern interviews, Maja explains to them, "We will give you a paycheck, the ability to see in-house attorneys work and how an in-house department runs, access to lots of interesting and diverse projects, the ability to grow your resume and experience for your future. In return, we require that you produce good work product and be a good employee. It's that simple."

An integral part

Expectations for these interns are high – and why not? They're working for an organization that employs some of the best and brightest brain scientists in the world, and demands on the legal department are no lower. Work product from the interns is meant to be in its final form, and they have heavy workloads with multiple projects with multiple deadlines. A recent change in the program has each intern supporting an attorney. Maja clarifies, "This allows the interns to dive a bit deeper into more specific substantive areas, gives more time for one-to-one mentoring, and lets them learn different management styles." One-on-one time with an attorney give the interns more face time with the in-house clients. Interns are also expected to attend legal department meetings, provide weekly reports of their work, track and input their time, do personal performance reviews, and more.

The interns really are an integral part of the legal department. States Maja, "Their projects run the gamut and almost everything that is done in the legal department can be worked on by the interns. They have written most of our policies and procedures with guidance from department heads. They routinely review contracts, including managing our contracts database and our program for material transfer agreements. They do all of the research and paperwork for visas and green cards. Interns have filed all but one of our trademarks." One intern taught herself Access and built a database that is now being used by the department for contract management while another researched and wrote the documents to create the Institutional Biosafety Committee. Explains Maja, "The reason they can have all of these 'meaty' projects is because they are always supervised by an attorney and their end work product is approved by the attorney."

Maja advises those looking to start an internship program to give interns a real-life experience and make them a true part of the team. As a result, Allen Institute interns are also exposed to the unique in-house management responsibilities as well. Maja makes a point to introduce interns to the "inner workings of administrative decisions." They attend the meetings where budgets are discussed and decisions on outside counsel are made. They even interview prospective new interns, providing valuable hiring experience.

Setting an example

As for Maja, she understands the value of the program from her own experience with three separate internships, and shares the strong belief that "every position you have shapes your career and it's up to you to make the most of it." In her internships at Karr Tuttle Campbell, Port of Seattle, and Preston Gates & Ellis, she exhibited the behaviors she expects of her interns. "I was a sponge and took advantage of every learning opportunity I could and I produced as much good quality work product that I could," says Maja. She also enjoyed the opportunity to connect with fantastic mentors, which have greatly impacted her career decisions.

The graduates

It is hard not to get the impression just in conversation that Maja is the type of boss that, as in intern, you're intimidated by, but forever grateful to have. Her pride is obvious when she speaks of her past interns – including Lemuel Navarro, who is currently in his third year working at Allen Institute after being hired straight from his internship. "One of the best hires of my career," states Maja. Together, Allen Institute "graduates" have become a successful group of young attorneys. Maja invites previous interns to her yearly intern happy hour, and believes every intern is now employed in this tough market, many of them finding "exactly what they were looking for."

About the Allen Institute for Brain Science Legal Department

The mission of the Allen Institute is to accelerate the understanding of how the human brain works in health and disease and one of the ways this is done is by generating useful public resources. Maja's legal team, which is responsible for the legal, regulatory, risk management and grants management functions, works to ensure that the organization can do the science it wants to do and distribute the products and tools the way it wants to distribute them to support this mission. The legal team is responsible for ensuring that the organization can work with collaborators at other institutions and that the Institute can bring in the biological materials that are needed for its science. The legal department also submits grants for funding the science; reviews all of the abstracts, posters and journal publications relating to brain science; manages the regulatory approval process for all of the scientific protocols; and ensures that the Institute can distribute products and tools, including software, data and biological materials, as openly as possible with few restrictions.

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