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Being a summer associate is like being involved in a summer romance — when it begins, you don’t know if the romance is meant to be for the summer only or the beginning of a long-term commitment. Although I was never a summer associate, I am qualified to write this article. Why, you ask? Because since graduating from law school six years ago, I have worked as an associate in four law firms, and as of June 5, will be starting at my fifth — and I hope final — firm. This column will help you decide if your summer romance is merely a fling or the real deal. WHAT’S IMPORTANT? Be honest with yourself. No one else needs to know what is important to you. Is it money? Lifestyle? Experience? The prestige and perks of working for a “big” firm? The quality of work that you will have access to as an associate? The availability of a mentor? Respect? Opportunity? All of these things are important, but determining how these things rank in importance can save you from making the wrong decision regarding a law firm. Starting salaries today, especially at large firms, are hard to ignore. Just remember that you will be expected to work for that salary. The summer associate romance stops after graduation. You will be expected to bill upward of 1,900 hours. No more fancy dinners every night. No more lunches where the time away from billing time does not matter. Maybe quality of life is more important to you. Is your firm a place where associates are able to maintain personal lives outside of the office or are they forced to cancel plans in order to finish last-minute assignments? Does the firm support pro bono work? Does the firm support your participation in bar association activities? Does the firm support civic participation? Does the firm have a “face time” policy? Have you heard partners or associates say that work comes before family? Does the firm have good work-life policies? Do they even know what a work-life policy is? What about the quality of the work experience? Maybe the work quality outweighs money or lifestyle issues. Do you want sophisticated deals or do you want to research and write? Do you want client contact? Do you want to go to court? What is the firm culture like? Do they have a closed-door or open-door policy? Are people collegial? Do the associates and partners mingle or stay separate at firm functions? Is there an effort to have a mentor program? Does the firm support associates who try to bring in business or are associates expected to be there solely for the convenience of partners and existing clients? Does the firm view associates as the building blocks of the firm or as disposable assets to be used and then discarded? BE AWARE Chances are, even if you are not at a big firm this summer, the individuals at the firm you are working for will make an effort to make sure you have a positive experience. That might translate into fancy dinners, associate lunches, exciting speakers and special trips. Just remember to look beyond the rosy glow of this new romance. No one is going to tell you the downsides to the firm. Hopefully you’ve found those downsides on your own and evaluated them next to the list of important factors you have made for yourself. You’ve watched the interaction between partners and between partners and associates. Ask associates if they were placed in the department of their choice or randomly assigned. Find out what the associate retention level is. If an associate is unhappy in a department, will that associate be allowed to move? Ask associates at different levels what their impression is of the firm. Ask people outside the firm what their impression of the firm is. Compare these impressions to your impression at the end of the summer. How does the total picture compare to what is important to you? In the end, a firm is right for you if you like the people you work with and enjoy what you are doing. Remember that any good relationship will require time and effort on your part. In order to determine if your firm is worth the time and effort, resolve to accept invitations for lunch when extended, attend firm functions, finish your work, ask for more work with as many different people as possible and ask questions. No question is stupid. It’s better to be honest now about a concern than to remain quiet and discover at a later date that things were not as they seemed. Finally, be yourself. You’re not doing the firm or yourself a favor by trying to fit into some type of perceived mold. The firm should know whom they are hiring just as much as you should know the firm. In the end, you want a firm that actually wants the real you, not the summer associate. Marnie E. Simon is an associate in the Philadelphia office of Stevens & Lee. She was formerly an associate with Mesirov Gelman Jaffe Cramer & Jamieson, Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, Adelman Lavine Gold & Levin — all in Philadelphia — and Anderson & Quinn in Rockville, Md. She is also a member of the executive committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division.

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