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You were a stressed-out, pre-exam law student in April and are now on a new job as a summer associate. You are undoubtedly experiencing some anxiety. You wonder whether you have chosen the “right” firm and whether you can navigate the gap (which you suspect is really a chasm) between academe and the “real” world of law practice. If you follow a few basic common-sense rules, your immersion in the summer program will be rewarding and fulfilling, if not quite the equivalent of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (which, it should be noted, did not pass without Ferris experiencing some bumps in the road). A summer spent at a law firm affords you an unparalleled opportunity to find out, up close, what the firm is really like. Law firms, like individuals, do have distinct personalities. Your first responsibility to yourself is to take every opportunity to experience and understand your firm’s personality and to determine if it accords with your own. For example, if formality and hierarchy mark the firm’s relationships with associates and you desire informality within a framework of teamwork, a “fit” does not exist. Accordingly, you should watch and listen attentively and constantly. How do the attorneys at the firm relate to and treat each other and the staff? Does a sense of professionalism pervade the institution? Do people work together toward common goals? On a more basic level, do people seem happy, do they smile, do they seem to enjoy each other’s company? In addition to watching and listening, you must also engage in meaningful “due diligence” or fact-finding. To come in every day, work on and complete assignments and then go home will not get the job done. At appropriate times, engage the lawyers at the firm in conversation. Ask probing questions about their sense of pride in the firm, their relationships with their peers, superiors and subordinates, the nature of their work and the responsibilities that have been entrusted to them. Have their hopes at the time they joined the firm been realized? Talk to lots of lawyers engaged in different practice areas and at various levels of experience. Don’t overlook the nonprofessional staff. You can learn a great deal about a firm from secretaries, librarians and mail room employees. If many of them have been with the firm for an extended period and believe they have been well-treated and respected, you can achieve a level of confidence about the professionalism of the organization. In the all-important area of work assignments, you must share responsibility for your experience with the firm. If the summer is half-gone and you have not attended and assisted at a closing or a deposition, speak up and ask for the opportunity to do so. If you want and have not received an assignment in a particular practice area, let your wishes be known to the summer program administration. Be proactive. To a large extent, your summer experience will be what you help make it. Show enthusiasm in the course of discharging your work responsibilities. Firms do not (or at least should not) look for associates skilled in the art of manufacturing “face time.” However, if a work assignment is time-sensitive and others are depending on your performance, don’t let them down. If you have a passion for the law, be sure that your excitement and yearning for challenges are not masked behind a “cool” attitude. Strive for excellence in your work — leave no avenue unexplored in your research. Re-read and edit your written work, and then re-read and re-edit it before turning it in. Don’t put undue time pressure on yourself — do the job as well as you can. A firm worth joining seeks quality more than quantity; assigning attorneys want to judge your best work. Be conservative when assessing your ability to churn out work. Understanding and researching problems and preparing clear and well-thought-out memoranda, documents or pleading always consume far more time and effort than one would initially suspect. Despite this advice, it is likely that at some point during the summer you will make the mistake of failing to recognize when you have, or are about to accept, too many assignments. Your rationale for overloading yourself will be: “If I say I’m too busy I will be seen as a shirker and will offend an attorney who will torpedo my chances at getting an offer in August.” The consequence of making the “overload” mistake is that you may miss the deadline for handing in one or more assignments, pull an all-nighter to get the work done (remember those end-of-term papers in college?) or enter a catatonic state precipitated by sheer terror. Even if you ultimately complete the assignments on time, the work is likely to be less than impressive. If you have any doubt about the wisdom of accepting an additional assignment, seek the guidance of the program coordinator, your mentor or an associate, preferably one who summered at the firm. Don’t be the person about whose work an evaluator writes: “This might have been acceptable job had it not shown obvious signs of being produced under pressure ‘on the fly.’ “ As important as not overestimating your ability to take on work is not forging ahead on a project without understanding it fully. After you receive an assignment given to you orally, write a memo expressing your understanding of the assignment and submit it immediately to the assigning attorney. This procedure will ensure you have understood correctly the problem you have been asked to solve. If you are unsure of what has been asked of you or you run into a dead end, don’t thrash around or gamble on whether you are heading in the right direction. Ask for help! Your mentor and assigning attorneys expect that you will have questions and will need guidance. Finally, you must recognize the importance of your function in the professional life of the firm. You will be working on real problems for real clients. The attorneys with whom you work and the clients they serve rely on your performance. Of course, law firms make available social events designed to provide opportunities for you to interact with your summer associate colleagues and with the other attorneys at the firm. Those opportunities should be seized upon and used in the “due diligence” process. Firms also provide, and you should attend, educational programs to help you adjust to the practice of law. First and foremost, however, firms want to learn whether you have the attitude and capability to cooperate with others to achieve the firm’s primary goal — to satisfy the demands of its clientele. Accordingly, you will want to demonstrate that you understand the firm’s goal and that you are prepared to accept the responsibility and commitment it requires. The most complimentary evaluation a summer associate can hope for in August is to be told: “You performed this summer as a valuable contributing member of our team.” A summer at a law firm can be and should be fun. It should also be an experience that leaves you with a clear understanding of what it will be like to practice law full time with the firm. It should be challenging intellectually and satisfying emotionally. The summer associate who enthusiastically participates in all facets of the summer program will return to school, as Ferris did, with a sense that the adventure was well worth the effort. Joseph LeVow Steinberg, a partner with Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland concentrating on real estate and land use matters, is chairman of the firm’s Recruitment Committee and its Associate Life and Training Committee.

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