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Conventional wisdom holds that life as a law firm summer associate is as good as it gets. After all, there are few other jobs in New York City where 20-somethings can earn monthly salaries in the five figures while spending their days in a blur of chi-chi restaurants, ballgames and Broadway shows. But beyond the summer’s glamour might lie a workplace of unrelenting pressure, where associates are expected to work 100-hour weeks, where young lawyers cower in terror of partners, and where attorneys can end up stuck in tedious dead-end practice areas. “Everyone says being a summer associate is such a great gig, but nobody ever talks about law firm life like that in any other context,” said one former big-firm summer associate. “If you take away the lunches and take away the theater, what do you have left?” Of course, savvy law students know a firm’s summer program doesn’t always reflect reality. But knowing the firm is engaged in a public relations campaign is not the same as being able to detect what life is really like on a day-to-day basis. That requires a separate set of skills — ones more typically used by an investigative reporter or a detective than law students. HONE YOUR GIFT OF GAB The first step, say law firm experts, is simply to network with other associates. “Talk until you cannot talk any more,” advised Charles Douglas, a consultant with Hildebrandt International. Befriend some junior associates and pick their brains about anything and everything from their hours to how assignments are doled out, agreed Nancy Klein, a recruiter with Klein Windmiller. Most of all, ask very specific questions about the practice, advised Ellen Wayne, dean of Career Services at Columbia Law School. For example, when you meet an associate who is working in a practice area you’re interested in, find out how that person scored the assignment. “Watch the more successful associates. Talk to them. Say: ‘You’re doing the kind of work I want to do, how do I get it?’ ” Another specific question to ask junior associates is whether they are doing the type of work they expected. At all costs, do not limit yourself to socializing with fellow law students or members of the recruiting committee, who have their own agenda. “Don’t just go to the people trying to woo you,” warned Klein. There are, however, some areas where it is helpful to get an official answer, said Hildebrandt’s Douglas. “The No. 1 rule I would recommend to any summer associate is to ask, ‘Does the firm have a professional development director?’ ” If so, and if that person has power in the firm, it is at least a sign that the law firm cares that associates have the opportunity to forge a career path. Another area to delve into is whether the firm offers training for partners. Douglas suggested asking whether there is any kind of new partner orientation and whether partners are taught mentoring skills. If the firm does, it’s an indication the office does more than just pay lip service to training new associates. Be warned, however, there is a danger to too much gossiping: You might give away more information about yourself than is politic if you’re hoping for an offer. “In reality, these people are part of the firm and they give an evaluation of you,” said one law student who spent last summer as a big-firm associate. “I didn’t think you could let your guard down.” The bottom line, said the former summer associate: “You always have to be careful about what you say, but you can still listen.” THE TRUTH: IT IS OUT THERE In fact, you can also learn a surprising amount simply by listening and observing. “Everything’s there. It’s visible,” said Wayne. “You just have to look.” For instance, if you want to know what hours people really keep, work late one night and see who else is there, suggested Klein. If you’re curious about whether you’ll have your own office as a first-year, walk the halls and see who has roommates. If you want to predict how you’ll be treated as a junior associate, it’s more useful to watch how partners treat current associates than how they treat you. One law student said she learned more about firm culture by sitting in at a practice group meeting than from a summer of lunches. “The associates were afraid to speak up,” said the student. “The partners controlled the meeting, even though it was supposed to be a group discussion.” Also pay attention to how the partners interact with support staff, suggested Renee Rush, a recruiter with Corrao Miller Rush & Wiesenthal. Even if the partners treat you with kid gloves, they might act more naturally around the mailroom workers and secretaries. “You can learn a lot from the secretaries,” said Rush. “Ask them how they like working there,” she said. “Ask whether people walk around screaming.” If you’re on the firm’s general e-mail list, read everything that’s sent — even if it doesn’t apply to summer associates. All sorts of information about projects, new business, the firm’s finances, even billable hours get distributed through cyberspace, and the tone of the messages can be unexpectedly revealing. Should your firm harbor bad-tempered partners, chances are you’ll be shielded from them as a summer associate. If you notice that there are some partners in your department who never come in contact with you, there might be a reason. “If you are never getting assignments from certain partners in your department,” ask an associate about those partners, suggested a former summer associate. There are many things law firms would rather keep hidden, but a little detective work can lead you to the truth. Wendy Davis is a free-lance writer in New York.

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