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Each year, thousands of summer associates pour into law firms ready for the summer of their lives. They’ve heard all about the great parties, the boat trips, and the endless free lunches from those who have come before them. While virtually all of them enjoy their summers, and nearly as many receive offers to return, very few summer associates take the time to thoroughly evaluate their firms and consider whether returning as an associate is the right move. My own experience as a summer associate came in 1988 with a major firm in New York, when I finally escaped the stifling, unair-conditioned warehouse of my father’s furniture store on Long Island for an office on Park Avenue and an apartment just off Columbus on New York’s Upper West Side. I traded in my $5 hourly wage for a weekly salary of $1,400, which at the time was every bit as breathtaking as the $2,400 this year’s summer class will earn. I was easy to recognize that summer — I was the one with the big, stupid grin on my face. After spending the previous six years busting my back opening and delivering furniture, I couldn’t believe that I was going to earn seven times as much at a job that featured an air-conditioned office, happy hours, and a “dream night” that included a Broadway show and dinner at the fabled Rainbow Room for me and a date. Though we didn’t know it at the time, 1988 was the last of the glory years for a generation of summer associates, much the way that 2000 was the zenith for a subsequent generation. Salaries were high and expectations were low — all we had to do was account for four hours of our day to remain in good standing (three of which could have been spent at Westlaw training). We had no idea that lurking around the corner was a recession that would cause starting associate salaries to remain frozen for nearly seven years. I approached that summer with a relatively simple attitude, namely that for that much money I was willing to do pretty much anything: “Need me to stay late? No problem.” “Want help with that memo? I’m your guy.” “Need your car washed? Give me a chamois and a bucket and show me where the hose is.” Now, 16 years later, while I remember that summer fondly, I realize how badly I blew the chance to critically examine my choice of firms and the areas of law that I could pursue. Although things worked out fine for me, not everyone will be so lucky. Below are some things that you might wish to consider (in between your lunches at Galileo and trips to Wolf Trap) to make sure you’re making the right decision: 1. Choose your practice area carefully. The practice area you choose can have a profound effect on your life and your lifestyle in the years to come. For example, if you think you want to do sophisticated mergers and acquisitions or litigation, prepare yourself for the late nights and weekends at the office that come with those practices. Whether it’s a hostile takeover or a TRO, the client can’t, and won’t, wait to go forward based on whether or not the deal is convenient for your schedule. The train is moving, and for what they’re paying your firm in fees, they expect you to be on it. Conversely, some practice areas, especially certain regulatory practices, have a more predictable rhythm. Ask around and you’ll find out which ones they are at your firm. Trust me on this one — do your homework now. 2. Invest time in meeting people. Take the time to really get to know several junior associates, senior associates, and young partners, especially those who most closely resemble (figuratively, not literally) yourself and your personal situation, to get a feel for what life will be like for you when you return as an associate. For example, if you’re a single parent, seek out associates who are also single parents. The stresses they feel will almost certainly be different than those experienced by associates without children or even those who have children but are married or who have partners. I think you’ll find that the associates and many young partners will be eager to share their experiences with you. Be proactive — invite them out for lunch, even if it’s just for a quick sandwich or slice of pizza. By the end of the meal, you’ll likely know far more about the firm (and what your life will be like) than you ever dreamed possible. 3. If you know what you want, go after it. If you already know which practice area you want, spend as much time as the firm will allow working on projects in that area and developing relationships with the lawyers in that group. Some of the more specialized practice areas often only have room each year for one or two new associates. Putting yourself in front of those attorneys and, most importantly, doing great work for them over the summer will greatly increase your chances of getting assigned to that practice area once you return. Keep in mind, however, that if you don’t do great work, you will eliminate any shot of ever working in that area again. If you have no idea about what you want to do when you return, actively seek out assignments in several areas that you think you might enjoy. This will be especially important if you are required to pick a practice area when returning as an associate. Granted, it’s pretty hard to tell from one or two assignments whether you’re ready to do that for the rest of your life (or at least until your loans are paid off!). Find out whether your firm will let you change practice areas if you discover that you made a mistake. 4. Ask questions about your performance and your career path. Always remember that no one, and I mean no one (well, except maybe your mom), will care more about your career than you. Throughout your career, you need to be aware of how others view you and your work product, not only to ensure that you stay on track but, more importantly, to be able to address any potential problems before they become insurmountable. Don’t rely on the firm to do this for you. Many summer associates only get one review, and by that time, it can be too late to fix any problems (this is especially true for summer associates who “split” their summers). Don’t be shy about asking attorneys for whom you work whether your performance met their expectations and whether there’s anything you could do better the next time around. Manage your career — don’t let it be managed for you. Similarly, because it seems so far away, many summer associates never ask about their chances of making partner or what it takes to get there. Hopefully, your firm will address this as part of its summer program. If not, I think you’ll find that the younger partners are more than willing to talk about their own experiences. If you’re really brave, you may also want inquire as to what young partners earn. At many firms, especially those with two-tiered partnerships, the difference between what a non-equity partner earns and what an eighth-year associate earns can be very small, while at others the jump can be pretty substantial. If you know you want to be a partner at a big firm, it seems pretty reasonable to ask what young partners there make. That being said, just because it seems reasonable to ask, don’t be surprised if your firm is extremely reluctant to share that information with you — most firms absolutely hate talking about partner compensation with their associates. 5. What behavior does your firm reward? Some firms claim to be totally committed to pro bono or training, yet don’t reward (monetarily or otherwise) those who make significant contributions. Talk to the associates and find out what behavior is rewarded at your firm and ask yourself whether that system is consistent with your own personal goals. If there’s a huge disconnect, think seriously about finding a new firm — don’t expect to be able to make your firm suddenly “see the light.” It just doesn’t work that way. 6. Be realistic. Finally, be realistic about what you’re getting yourself into. Being an associate at a big firm is HARD! Yes, the pay is great, but the work is difficult, the hours are long, and the expectations of both your clients and the partners can be excruciatingly high. Use this summer to gauge whether this high pressure lifestyle is right for you. If you find yourself enjoying the challenge, then you will likely thrive as an associate. If not, think twice before coming back next year just for the money. Over the long run, your personal and professional happiness will be better served doing something you love. Jeffrey Lowe is the founder and senior managing director of Major, Hagen & Africa’s Washington, D.C., office, where he focuses on lateral partner and group placements. Prior to joining MHA, he spent nearly 15 years in private practice, the last 13 with Hogan & Hartson LLP, where he was a partner and two-time chairman of the firm’s nationwide summer associate program. He is also an adjunct professor of law at the College of William & Mary. He may be reached at (202) 628-0661 or [email protected].

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