Everywhere you turn, it seems someone is giving advice to summer associates — from what they should or shouldn’t wear to the office to the proper etiquette for a lunch with partners. Last year, I weighed in with this heresy: Scrutinize the attorneys in your firm as closely as they’re evaluating you. Then ask yourself: Who among those lawyers leads the kind of life you’d want?

Even so, in a tough employment market where loan repayment schedules beckon, practicality reigns. There are plenty of factors to consider. Start with some basics:

1. You want a full-time job offer. (To call them “permanent” anymore is just silly.) After three days at the firm, you might have concluded that the place isn’t for you. But an offer to return is a useful ticket to wherever you want to go. Interviewing as a 3L, the most important question you’ll get is: did you get an offer from your summer firm? If you did, the message this sends is that another firm has signed off on you and your work. As such, you’re a less risky proposition. If there was no offer, the road ahead will be rougher, especially if you’re interested in some other large law firm.

2. You want to like the place. The job pays well; you’ll probably find some people you like. There are worse ways to start a legal career than as an associate in a big firm.

3. Point No. 2 means that you have confirmation bias. That is, you embrace input that reinforces what you want to believe. Be aware that you’re processing your summer experience accordingly. If you think you want a big-law career, you’ll discount observations contrary to that premise. Among other delusions, you might view yourself as the exceptional candidate who survives to the equity partner finish line. It’s possible, but only about 10 percent of your entering big-law class actually will. In many firms, the percentage is much lower. As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things.”

With that backdrop, what next?

1. Do your best work, but ask for clarification when needed. If you develop doubts about a particular task, ask the assigning attorney before spending hours on a frolic-and-detour.

2. Befriend young associates. They can offer practical advice while providing a window into the firm and its lawyers. Burdened with their own confirmation bias, they’ll also be among its most enthusiastic boosters. All firms put their best public faces on their summer programs. If you encounter jerks or malcontents, remember this: the really bad apples are out of sight until you’re gone.

3. Listen to non-lawyers; treat them as real people. Secretaries and staff reveal a firm’s culture. There’s also a practical reason for being nice: they know the place; you don’t.

4. Don’t take on more work than you can comfortably handle. Many assigning attorneys don’t really know how long a project should take. I counseled summer associates to avoid taking on new tasks until they’d brought earlier ones to conclusion. But even that guideline isn’t fool-proof. Sometimes, a project thought to be completed can reappear through a “follow-up” request.

5. Related corollary to point No. 4: moderation in all things. The prevailing culture of most firms makes it easy to take on lots of work to demonstrate your “productivity,” which is what big law mislabels as gross billable hours. But it’s far better to complete all of, say, seven summer projects well than to do 10 good jobs and two mediocre ones.

6. Don’t make waves, but watch for the underlying currents. Take a close look at senior associates and partners, especially those at the top who set the institution’s tone. Discounting their pep rally presentations, how many behave like the lawyer — and the person — you want to become?

Finally, when it’s time to complete The American Lawyer‘s summer associate survey, pierce through your own confirmation bias and tell the truth. Future classes will thank you.

As for table manners, does it really matter if a recruit passes the bread to the right or the left? I hope not. Of course, no one should ever be a brute, but every good attorney I know would say this: Give me a promising young talent over a lesser one with impeccable etiquette every time. I can teach anyone how to hold a fork.

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at www.thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.

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