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The Law Firm Summer Associate Dance

Congratulations! A law firm hired you for the summer. Now you need to figure out how to do the summer associate dance with success. The law firm hired you for the summer with the hope that you will excel during the summer, return to the firm when you graduate, and develop into a successful attorney who creates value for the firm. Although it may sound harsh, you should treat your summer experience as one very long interview. The firm’s goal is to decide whether to give you an offer of employment by assessing your fit with the firm’s culture and your ability to be a good lawyer. Your goal is to receive an offer, evaluate whether the firm meets your career goals, and hopefully come away from the summer with attorneys to add to your network, a reference, and a writing sample. Below are some concrete suggestions for having a successful summer.

Have a Great Attitude

From the moment you walk in the door of your firm for the summer, it is important to have a good attitude. If you think your ability to research and write is all that is important to firms, you are wrong. As important to them is your “fit” with the firm’s environment. Not smiling, not acting enthusiastic about a new assignment or summer event and not showing up for work on time are surefire ways to convince the firm that you are not a good fit.

Do not talk negatively about people or assignments to fellow summer associates, your secretary or anyone else in the firm. Keep in mind the distinction between confidence and arrogance. Be flexible and accommodating with others.

Firms will often evaluate your attitude based on your conduct with support staff, including administrative assistants, paralegals, the recruiting staff and library personnel. Be friendly and polite because it is the right way to act, and also because these individuals can offer you a wealth of information on everything from research tips and shortcuts, to office decorum, attorney likes and dislikes, and the best way to present your work.

Take advantage of learning opportunities. If an attorney asks if you would be interested in attending a client meeting, enthusiastically accept. If the firm offers training programs for summer associates, attend and be an active participant.

Make your Work Product Excellent

It is imperative that you make your work product outstanding. Start the summer on the right foot by going into the job knowing something about legal research. Take refresher courses through Lexis and Westlaw and spend some time remembering what you’ve learned in school.

When you get your first assignment, and for all subsequent assignments for that matter, make sure you understand what you are being asked to do. Students often do not ask questions because they do not want to demonstrate a lack of knowledge. Asking questions does not make you look stupid—spending 30 hours answering the wrong legal question makes you look stupid. Carry a notepad with you every time you are called into an attorney’s office and write down your assignments as they are given to you. Do not reinvent the wheel—inquire with the assigning partner, your mentor or others whether there are existing memos or research files that may assist you with your assignment. Follow up with the assigning attorney or other attorneys on the case with questions to avoid getting off track.

Understand that there is no such thing as a draft. In evaluating you, attorneys will be reviewing your work product and may have no idea that you were requested to provide only a draft. Even if an attorney requests a draft, be sure to provide top quality legal work. Verify that your cites are correct and review your document for grammar and spelling mistakes. If time constraints require that you provide a true draft, make sure the document clearly indicates that it is a draft.

Give equal effort to every matter, regardless of whether it is an issue of interest to you, a client you are passionate about, a project for a partner you do not get along with, or the final assignment of the summer. Do not ignore deadlines. If you believe you are going to have trouble meeting a deadline, speak with both the assigning attorney and with your workload coordinator, if you have one, to determine how to prioritize your work. Use the summer to seek out a wide variety of legal assignments and to work with many different attorneys, but keep in mind that at the end of the summer, it will be the quality of your work and not the quantity that will matter.

Finally, be sure to keep a copy of each of your written assignments, in order to remember what you did during the summer and to determine what to choose for a writing sample for future employers.

Find a Mentor

While many law firms establish formal mentor relationships between summer associates and attorneys, others do not. In either case, it is critically important to seek out an attorney whom you particularly admire and spend some time getting to know him or her. In addition to hopefully serving as a reference for you in the future, this person can also be a sounding board for you during the course of the summer to provide you with advice about particular issues you may face and about your career in general. For many students, developing a bond with a mentor makes the difference between a good summer and a great summer.

Use Common Sense

Throughout the summer you are being evaluated on both your fit with the firm and your ability to do the legal work. The hiring committee is considering whether they would trust you to handle clients in a professional manner. Use the social activities during the summer to demonstrate that you have common sense and a level of maturity. While it is important to attend at least some of the social functions sponsored by the firm to demonstrate your enthusiasm and interest, use your common sense. Do not get drunk, do not use profanity and do not make statements that may be construed as sexual overtures or as insensitive to any minority group. Use common sense when dealing with client matters as well. Remember that you have an important obligation to maintain confidentiality for the firm’s clients and the matters on which you work. Do not discuss cases that you are working on with your friends or family, or with colleagues in a public setting.

Be Proactive

While your firm is interested in making sure you have a good summer experience, it is your responsibility to seek out the type of work you want. Decide before the summer what you hope to learn and what skills you hope to develop. If feedback is not provided to you, seek it out. If you hear about a particularly interesting case, make it known that you would be happy to assist. If there are certain attorneys with whom you wish to work, make an effort to meet them and discuss your interests. Be careful, however, not to come across as a “gunner.” Be enthusiastic and responsible on all matters you work on, whether they are with the managing partner or a first-year associate. Take responsibility for your own success.

Finish Strong

At the end of the summer (or soon thereafter) firms will give offers to their summer associates. Whether or not you plan to return to your firm, it is useful for you to obtain an offer. Having an offer under your belt will enable you to speak freely with prospective employers about your summer experience without worrying about how to handle questions that may arise about your offer status. If it turns out that you do not receive an offer at the end of the summer, accept the news politely; ask for constructive criticism so you have an understanding of what went wrong; and come speak with a CDO counselor upon your return to school. You may also want to read CDO’s handout What to Do When You Don’t Get an Offer from Your Summer Employer.

Additional Resources Available in CDO

» What Law School Doesn’t Teach You But You Really Need to Know (Chapter One)
» Begin with a Successful Summer (NALP pamphlet)
» Videotape from annual CDO program about having a successful summer