As traditional summer associate programs are cut back year after year, it is harder than ever to score a coveted summer position. But you’ve done it. You have a legal job for the summer. Finals are over for the year, the weather has warmed up and it’s time to get to work. For law students, summer jobs are not just a matter of putting nose to grindstone. A summer position comes with unique potential and risk, and must be treated as more than just a paycheck for the summer. You should go into the office with an understanding of what the job is and what it is not, and tailor your performance accordingly.

What Your Position Is: A Three-Month Interview

In contrast to the practice 10 years ago, if you have a traditional summer associate position in a medium or large firm, having that summer associate position does not guarantee an office with your name on it come graduation. Firms sometimes hire more summer associates than they have first-year associate positions. Particularly with law being an employer’s market, if a summer associate’s quality of work is less than impressive, the summer associate does not show appropriate work ethic or the summer associate’s personality does not fit the firm culture, the firm will not hesitate to withhold a full-time offer. You should be at your peak performance for those three months, at your best, brightest and most driven. While you may have gotten on well with your interviewers, your time as a summer associate is your opportunity to prove to the whole firm that you can be a star member of the team.

Many law students find themselves working with firms that simply do not have an open full-time position to offer at graduation time. In particular, small firms are ever in need of summer law clerks, but frequently do not have an open first-year position or cannot project their employment needs far enough in advance for employment after graduation to be on the table. Do not become complacent in your performance — such a job is every bit as much a summer-long interview as if post-graduation employment were on the table. In a job market glutted with qualified applicants, connections are key. Your employer will have his or her own network of trusted colleagues. A summer of stellar job performance will likely earn you not only a glowing recommendation, but many employers will go an extra mile and reach out to their own contacts to seek out open positions on your behalf. You will not have any way of knowing what efforts your employer may (or may not) make on your behalf for your full-time job search, so you should treat every assignment as an opportunity to prove yourself.

This is also your chance to make yourself known around the firm. Make your rounds in the offices early on and introduce yourself. If you have a particular substantive area that you are interested in working in, make sure to tell the partners working in that area about your interest. If your assignments get slow, seek out busy partners and ask how you can help. People cannot get to like you if they do not get to know you; you will not get hired if you are not well known. It is up to you to make sure that you are well known and well liked.

What Your Position Is Not: A Simple Paycheck

In law school, you learn law, but little about the actual legal practice. You certainly can’t learn all the ins and outs of practice in one summer, but a summer position will give you the opportunity to learn the practicalities of practice, often in a more instructional format.

If your position has a formal mentoring component, take full advantage of it. Do not be shy about quizzing your mentor. Try to set up weekly sessions to discuss the substance of your assignments, the individual style of each partner you are working for and the culture of the firm. If you do not have an assigned mentor, develop a rapport with an associate who can show you the ropes. And if you are working in a very small office where there simply is no one off of whom you can bounce questions, keep in regular contact with your classmates so you can discuss your assignments and experiences.

What Your Position Is Not: An Exam

With every legal question you analyze in law school, the professor knows the answer. You will be assigned research assignments because the assigning attorney does not know the answer. He or she is relying on you to identify the issues implicated by the circumstances, thoroughly research those issues and provide a thoughtful analysis. Your response will guide the course of action recommended to the client. Getting it wrong is not an option. That is all the more complicated because a legal question rarely has a clear right or wrong answer.

If you are unfamiliar with the area of law, dust off the secondary sources and give yourself a crash course in the substantive subject area. When procedural rules are involved, make sure you check the codified rules, local rules and chambers rules. Do not be shy about asking your mentor or another associate to read through your memo before handing it in, to make sure you did not miss any major issues. Unless your research assignment is "find me the citation for this statute," the response to a legal research assignment is hardly ever just a statute. Even if a statute appears to be clearly on point, review the interpretive case law. Check that the statute is generally applicable to the circumstances before you, and check for any pending litigation calling the statute into question. Responding to a legal research assignment by just pointing to a statute is usually an incomplete — sometimes dangerously incomplete — response, and you want to show the partners that your work is thorough.

Legal research assignments are where communication is key. Ask questions. Always ask questions. If you are uncertain about the scope of the assignment or the partner’s expectations, return to the partner and ask questions. You will always be better off being upfront and asking a lot of questions than having to face the dreaded music of giving an inaccurate analysis, which the partner relies on in advising the client.

What Your Position Is Not: A Party

Traditional summer associate programs are heavily scheduled with lunches, social activities and outings. This is never a time to cut loose. Although there may be happy hours, you should mind your drinks carefully. The social outings are all part of the summer-long interview, and an integral part at that. The practice of law frequently involves entertaining clients in social settings, and it is essential for you to demonstrate that you can have fun while also behaving professionally. It is important to show you are personable and fit well with the firm’s culture, but even if you feel you get along well with everyone, go easy on the drinks and the blue language. It is better to appear reserved than to go wild and give the firm an embarrassing story about "that summer associate" to share for years to come.

Elizabeth F. Collura is an associate in the commercial and corporate litigation practice group of Thorp Reed & Armstrong in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at ecollura@thorpreed.com.