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Like the reality television shows now flooding our airwaves, summer associate experiences can make students feel as though they have been airlifted to an alien environment with a group of strangers. Teammates will be competing with each other as individuals but will also be expected to work together to further the best interests of the group. The assignment for most summer clerks is the same as that of the television participants — to learn the skills, avoid the obstacles, and create the alliances necessary to be a “survivor” at summer’s end. Accomplishing this assignment might not be as easy as it was in past years. This summer, some students’ experiences will be impacted by the economic downturn that has fueled selective layoffs, midsized firm mergers and “tougher” work evaluations. Many firms over-hired last year in their zeal to fill summer programs at a time when the work flowed and the lawyers could not keep pace. Now, work already in the pipeline is slowing, and new work is harder to find. Summer assignment partners will be struggling to keep summer associates meaningfully busy. Standing out in this overcrowded environment will be more difficult than in past summers. LEARNING THE SKILLS Practice Skills. One of the most important opportunities to learn during the summer will be provided through the informal system of feedback that is available to those who seek it. Although most firms have formal midsummer and end-of-summer reviews of work product, informal feedback directly from a partner or supervising associate is always the best form of learning. Many attorneys are of the school that believes that no feedback means that the assignment was satisfactory — as expected. This approach leaves many summer associates feeling adrift in a sea of insecurity until the midsummer review. In order to improve writing, reasoning or analytic skills, it is often best to use a more direct approach. This can be accomplished by asking questions about the status of the project (which will provide information on the direction of the project or case) or through inquiring about whether anything more is needed, e.g., updating or enlarging the scope of the matter. These inquiries should be handled without appearing insecure or defensive. In addition to learning directly from individual lawyers on the projects and assignments that students either select or are assigned, there are other opportunities available. Throughout the summer there will be many chances to learn legal practice skills by taking advantage of the educational offerings that many firms provide to their lawyers in specific departments and for the firm in general. Summer associates are often included in these programs and are, in fact, encouraged to attend. This summer, with mandatory Continuing Legal Education (CLE) instituted in many states including New York, most firms have instituted in-house training programs that provide varied and wide-ranging legal practice experiences. Although there may be cutbacks in the programs offered through outside commercial vendors, most firm in-house programs are surprisingly sophisticated and often utilize the most experienced lawyers at the firm as presenters. Take advantage of programs that appear interesting as a chance to learn more about practice areas that may not be at the top of the list but might just be “hot” areas at your firm at the moment. Experiencing a practice area that is new might be a pleasant surprise and might, in fact, become of strong interest in the future. This will also be an opportunity to meet attorneys in a less formal atmosphere than during a work assignment. Once the practice areas of interest have been identified, use the firm’s rotation system or assignment selection process to obtain work in one of these areas. Currently “hot” areas include bankruptcy and workouts, tax, M&A with small undervalued companies, and many areas within litigation (including alternative dispute resolution and copyright/trademark). Pro Bono Opportunities. Another learning option is to take advantage of pro bono activities offered by the firm. This is a wonderful way to learn practice skills and to experience areas of the law, with direct client contact, that is not readily available in a generally corporate law firm environment. Many firms have hired full-time pro bono coordinators to develop projects and supervise work. In order to obtain the most benefit from a pro bono experience, it is important to keep the following factors in mind. This summer, as a result of the economic slowdown, there will be less billable work available for summer associates and, in addition to their usual programs, some firms will be supplementing firm billable work with increased pro bono and other nonprofit activities. Some of these opportunities will take place at the firm through the firm’s pro bono program and others will take place at off-site locations (local legal service offices, not for profit organizations, etc.). It is important to keep in mind that there needs to be a balance between the work that is done that is billable by the firm and work that is not. If the pro bono project is supervised by a firm partner, that partner will be able to evaluate the work and consider it as part of the firm’s summer program for offer purposes. If, instead, the work takes place off-site, it is even more important that someone at the firm either supervise the work or be directly aware of what is being done and has a sense of its quality. The firm’s evaluation of these assignments will be very important when, at the end of the summer, the entire file of a summer clerk’s work is reviewed. Pro bono activities can be important and interesting not only because they provide a chance to develop new skills but also because they give something back to the community. To demonstrate the importance of pro bono to many law firms and to the legal profession in general, on June 26, 2001, more than 30 major New York law firms will join with the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and Columbia Law School in sponsoring a Law Student Pro Bono Challenge. The intent of the one-day conference is to encourage summer clerks at New York City firms to view pro bono activities as an important part of their professional careers and to value those firms that provide meaningful pro bono opportunities. If you are interested in attending, contact the Law Student Pro Bono Challenge contact at your firm. AVOIDING PITFALLS Communication Skills. One of the key factors in success this summer is the ability to work both independently and on a team. These are skills that will be important to future success when moving into the full-time associate practice world. Watch the most successful partners. A vast majority are able to maintain good relationships with others in the firm, both with colleagues in collaborative efforts and with the staff that they supervise. Most summer associates have never supervised staff before. It is a complicated skill and not always easy to learn. To supervise well and to create a team environment, begin with a respect for the skills and abilities that all of the parties bring to a project or assignment. Learning from the many different people at the firm is important. It is especially important to be open to learning from those people with whom summer associates will be working on a daily basis: the paralegals. They can be invaluable in explaining the firm’s procedures and processes and can save everyone time in organizing and completing assignments on deadline. Be aware that getting along with people is one of the highest-ranked criteria on most firms’ evaluation scale. If people do not feel that there is cooperation, team work and “fit,” an offer for an associate position will most likely not be made at the end of the summer. Another aspect of communication has to do with the ability to interact with others in relation to specific assignments. The lawyers who supervise summer associates will expect that their associates, from the very start of the summer, are able to evaluate the issues and ask questions if an assignment is not understood. Many summer clerks waste time by trying to puzzle out a question instead of directly asking for clarification. At a firm, time is money, and if there is a delay in completing a project, or if the project is misdirected because the summer associate was reticent about asking for assistance, an important deadline might be missed or an error made which requires correction. If a predicament arises in which it is clear that a mistake has been made, the best approach to take is to go to a supervisor or to a more senior associate and ask for help. It is unusual for someone to be faulted for recognizing an error, acknowledging it and then taking steps to correct it; after all, summer associates are just learning, and mistakes sometimes happen to even the most seasoned attorney. The real problems occur when the error is not divulged, thereby allowing it to expand from something that could have been corrected to a larger problem that can jeopardize an entire project. Obtaining Work. This summer especially, summer associates will be competing with other, more senior associates for meaningful billable work. Due to a slower economy, firms may not have work equally distributed across all departments. If the matter being worked on ends, and there does not seem to be another project in the pipeline, it is time to be assertive in seeking out new assignments. Do not sit and wait for work to be provided. Approach the summer associate work coordinator; do not assume that anyone is aware projects are scarce. If the firm allows summer associates to select their own assignments, approach a partner who is busy and doing work that seems interesting. Take risks and experience new practice areas in departments that are getting work. The ability to know a number of substantive areas of the law and to be flexible will prove valuable over a legal career. Splitting Summers. In some cases students decide to split their summer between two different employment opportunities. There is some value in attempting to gain experience in different locations or environments that can provide a contrast in work projects and the ability to meet a larger number of attorneys. It can be an effective means for students who are unsure of their interests or are attempting to gain exposure to more than one city to do so. The pitfalls, however, can be real and often difficult to overcome without careful planning. Someone splitting a summer should be aware of the possibility of having a “thin” file in both locations. With firm activity in many practice areas reduced, and students competing with more senior associates for billable work, it is increasingly important that the projects completed in the short time that the student is with each employer be the best quality, most polished work possible. It is not going to be as easy to “recover” from an initially poor showing on an assignment. There are the twin dangers of not enough work to do and not enough time, especially if the split is only for five or six weeks, to recover before the final evaluation. Due to the factors explained above, it is often “safer” to be splitting the summer between different offices of the same firm rather than between two different firms or a firm and another type of employer (government agency, legal services office, etc.). The same-firm split allows the student to have exposure to attorneys and projects within the same overall structure and with a more standardized evaluation system, and still have the benefit of experiencing two different locations. Summer Work Travel. It is becoming common practice for summer associates to travel, on firm business, to different cities in the United States, and, more often, abroad. Some firms provide this experience to a large percentage of their summer associates. Keep in mind that this is not a paid vacation. It is an opportunity to work and to experience another office of the firm. With the right attitude, the trip can provide a valuable learning experience. Summer associates who travel have the chance to meet more partners and associates across the firm. Travel to foreign offices of the firm is especially attractive to many students. If the chance to go is offered and you are able to make arrangements to be away for a few weeks, the experience can be an effective way to learn about practice settings, to meet attorneys with a wide range of educational backgrounds and to encounter a more diverse spectrum of clients. Most students return from such trips excited about the experience and with a better understanding of how firms represent clients with business interests around the world. Time Off. If you are intending to take a vacation during the summer, ask the firm well in advance. Do not assume that the firm can be flexible about time off. The earlier in the summer the request is submitted the more likely it is that arrangements can be made. Summer associates are always surprised when firms have difficulty providing a week or two off in midsummer. It may be assumed that firms can just replace one summer associate on a project with another. It is not always that easily accomplished. Projects are often worked on for weeks at a time and critical periods are not often predictable. They are entirely dependant upon the client’s needs and the firm’s resources. If it is possible, try to take time off at the end of the summer rather than during the program. CREATING ALLIANCES Balancing Work and Social Events. One of the difficulties faced by summer associates is how to balance the work projects that have been assigned with the social events planned by the firm. For some associates, the temptation is to choose work over social events, assuming that the work is more important. The key to making the summer successful is balance. Be cognizant of deadlines for work projects and be sure that they are met with a quality work product, but also be aware of the importance of some of the firm’s social events. These provide summer associates with the opportunity to meet many members of the firm in an informal setting. Dinners at partners’ homes, cooking classes, theater evenings — all can play an important role in not only bonding the summer class but in allowing partners and more senior associates to begin to know the people summering at the firm. This is especially important for summer associates at firms with very large summer programs. It is one way not to get lost in the crowd. Small group lunches or dinners allow an exchange of ideas and information about people as individuals as well as professionals at the firm. This is also one way to identify attorneys who might prove to be mentors in the future. Competition vs. Collaboration. It will be tempting to view other summer associates as competitors for, perhaps, a reduced number of offers at the end of the summer. Firms value individual initiative but not at the expense of a collaborative environment. People who summer together learn to work as a team, whether on a particular project or at social events. This collaboration can forge professional friendships while accomplishing intense deadline-driven work. Whether or not everyone in the summer program returns as an associate at the firm, a professional bond is established which often lasts for many years, resulting in the referral of cases, working on the same client matter or sitting across the table as respected adversaries. The legal profession is made up of collaborations and professional alliances formed through years of practice that often begin during a summer internship. Mentors. Finding a mentor is an important part of the summer experience. Defining what is meant by a mentor can prove helpful. Mentors can be either of short- or of long-term duration. A short-term mentor may be someone who serves as an adviser on a single project or assignment. It is possible to learn a great deal from a good supervisor who takes an interest in the quality of work produced and points out to the clerk the improvements that can be made. The long-term, more traditional definition of a mentor refers to a professional relationship that provides a summer associate with assistance in navigating the waters of firm culture and politics. These mentors can also teach practice development and client relations skills, evaluate a work product and, in the end, assist with general professional development over more than just one summer. Summer associates often ask if it is better to have a partner or an associate as a mentor. The best answer is to find a mentor who will relate to the interests that are important and provide a common bond at the time and then see if the professional relationship develops further. In order to increase the chance of finding a mentor in an often large summer intern class, take some time to plan a strategy. Often, one successful approach is to attend firm CLE training programs that can provide an introduction to some of the most experienced attorneys at the firm who are experts in their areas of practice. More often, a mentor relationship will develop while working on a project with an attorney and then doing the work well enough to be asked to assist with additional projects. The additional work, over time, will begin to cement a relationship. Long-term mentors are often hard to find and to retain, but once these relationships are developed, they tend to last a professional lifetime. Mergers. One of the many impacts of the changing economy has been a large increase in the number of firm mergers this year. Sometimes these events create special issues for summer associates. Often the tension of a change, whether it is positive or negative, will impact a summer experience. It is best not to get involved in discussions with others about the pluses or minuses of the intended change. Listen carefully to the announcements made by the summer associate supervisor. Although things may appear to be unsettled, do not assume that it will mean a bad or disruptive summer experience. A merger may add additional practice areas to a firm, making it a stronger and more vibrant place. Similarly, the merger will most likely provide additional offices in cities that may prove to be of interest over the long term. Most firms try to protect their summer associates from the upheaval of combining practice groups, changing office space and creating compatible office systems. It is best to remain flexible and treat the change as an opportunity to meet new attorneys from other environments and to learn about the dynamics of firm practice and client development. Evaluation. Every firm handles its evaluation of summer associates differently. Learn from the orientation program what will be expected during the summer. Most firms have two formal reviews, a midsummer evaluation and a final review at the end of the summer. The final review is usually the occasion for announcing whether an offer will be extended. Many firms also provide interim informal reviews of particular projects or assignments. Assume that every project is being evaluated, either on paper or by a comment made to the summer associate supervisor or coordinator. This year, due to large summer associate classes in a changing economy, a positive evaluation of each assignment will be crucial to the receipt of an offer. It is important to take the initiative. If there is a problem that appears evident by midsummer, begin a discussion with the summer supervisor so that changes can be made before too many assignments are impacted. If caught early enough in the summer, most problems can be corrected by hard work and a serious attitude. In conclusion, success in any summer program depends upon the ability to balance work and social events, produce quality billable hours, and meet all deadlines with a polished work product. The summer program provides more than an exposure to a wide variety of work. It also allows the summer associate the opportunity to evaluate the experience and determine whether this is the best environment in which to begin and build a career. Ellen Wayne is dean of career services at Columbia University School of Law.

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