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Attorney performance and its “value” is being utilized as never before to determine whether an associate, and now more often, a partner, stays or leaves. The reason can be found in the profound impact the economic downturn has had on recruitment and retention. At many firms, summer associates are also being held to stricter standards. Although most firms assure summer clerks that there are openings for everyone to receive offers at the end of the summer, the evaluation process will be utilized to appraise performance. This is especially true for firms that over-hired last fall and are now concerned about making offers to the entire class at the end of the summer. For a law student to best understand the evaluation process, it is useful to determine how an employer intends to use its appraisal of work performance and what can be done to insure that the review best reflects both learned skills and potential abilities. A summary of what employers are seeking and evaluating is detailed below. Also described is the way in which law students can evaluate their summer experience to determine whether their firm is meeting, and will meet, their needs for professional development and growth. EMPLOYER’S PERSPECTIVE Employers in past years tended to evaluate summer associates with a lighter touch than they did first year associates. Time for learning the firm’s processes and procedures, as well as slower starts on assignments, were not only built into the orientation but also were accepted components of the summer experience. Recent events have changed that process. With less work available at many firms, especially in their corporate departments, the manner in which every assignment is approached is important. The Big Three of performance appraisal are as follows. Work Quality. You are most likely aware of the importance of presenting your best work on every assignment. One poorly written or researched assignment can impact your summer greatly. If you are not obtaining “repeat” business from partners or senior associates, something is not working well. Make sure that each and every assignment is undertaken and performed with care and diligence. Good communication is one of the most important skills that you can develop. If a partner has to seek you out to inquire about the status of an assignment, or if you do not return all telephone calls and e-mails promptly, then you are not communicating appropriately. When approaching a new assignment, ask questions about any aspect of the project that is unclear to you. It is important to ask pertinent questions before you get off on the wrong track and waste time and firm money. Listen carefully when instructions are given and take notes so that you are not relying on memory alone, especially if you are nervous about understanding everything accurately. This does not mean interrupting a partner or senior associate constantly with questions as they occur to you. Save your questions and ask them at one time. Rather than continue with an assignment that you are unsure of, seek out assistance to determine whether you understand the issues correctly. Jumping lines of authority is also not appropriate. If the senior associate is the person most familiar with the project or is your supervising attorney, ask her before approaching a partner. Respect for the firm’s structure will be not only appreciated but also will allow the team to work smoothly and effectively. Every project must be delivered on time. Missing a deadline with no adequate warning to your supervisor is inappropriate and unprofessional. The supervising attorney’s expectations, which you agreed to by accepting the work assignment, must be met. The consequences of not doing so can be severe for you, the firm and the client. Motivation. At the end of the summer, the firm’s attorneys have to know that you want to be there for the long term and that you have the energy and desire to do their work. This can be telegraphed in many ways. The most effective means of communicating your motivation is through the work that you do during the summer. Meeting deadlines, knowing your capacity, seeking out work when you are not busy or are ready for a new project, and understanding how to turn down assignments when you may be taking on too much work, are all-important to managing your time and improving your ability to do quality work within a given schedule. They also demonstrate a professional attitude and your commitment to the firm. Another important aspect of motivation is viewed through the messages that you give to the people around you. If you share your unhappiness at being assigned to a particular department, be assured that someone will share your thoughts with others in that department. Don’t get involved in gossip or “backbiting.” It is easy to fall into the trap of appearing to be “one of the gang” by knowing what is going on behind the scenes, especially if layoffs are occurring in the more senior associate classes. Remember your audience. It is not considered professional behavior to gossip about others even if it is tempting to engage in idle chatter about some of the “characters” in the firm. Refrain from participating. It is always surprising to summer associates that the comments which everyone seems to be making are attributed to the individual least able to protect him/herself — the summer associate. It is better to discuss your interests, intentions and observations judiciously with the summer associate supervisor. Fit. Most students who make it through the interview process and receive an offer to summer with a firm enter their work environment with positive expectations on the part of the employer. Law firms are structured to support and enhance one’s ability to work with others at different levels of the firm. Be aware of the importance of the assumption that you will be comfortable with, and able to work in, a team environment. Firms are more and more often evaluating summer associates on their supervisory skills and their ability to work as part of the group. Most law students are used to working alone on class assignments and in preparing for exams. Firms expect their lawyers to be able to work with many different people and styles on transactions and in litigation. Clients also expect and value the particular expertise that different players bring to the table. The way many firms evaluate fit is, to quote a firm partner, “the airport test:” would the partner be comfortable being delayed for hours at an airport with this associate? Also be aware that poor judgment and inappropriate behavior can change the firm’s perception of your maturity level and ability to work with clients in a variety of settings, both formal and informal. An inability to handle social situations can be as damaging to a student’s career opportunities as any single aspect of the summer evaluation and can outweigh good work product. Always remember that you are in a business environment and must act professionally even if others around you do not. Firm social events can be wonderful opportunities to meet and impress more senior members of the firm or they can be minefields for inappropriate behavior. Overindulging at a firm event is never a good idea. Judgment is often impaired and difficult situations can arise. There is a great difference between being in law school, where often-heated intellectual discussion is appropriate, versus sharing your opinion in an aggressive manner at a firm event, especially with a senior partner. STUDENT’S PERSPECTIVE Take your summer experience seriously. This means not only working hard but also taking advantage of the many opportunities that most firms offer to interact with others and to have fun. The summer should be a mix of good work and strong social interaction. Balance and awareness of what is going on around you are the keys to success and to evaluating your experience. Many summer associates tend to become so involved in their work and the firm’s social events that they forget to look at what life is like for the associates and partners at the firm. Lift the curtain that separates summer associates from others at the firm and become aware of what is happening in their world. Every week or two, consider the following aspects of working at the firm: 1. What is the difference between what life is like at the firm not just for you as a summer associate but also for first- and second-year associates? This means more than adding up the hours that they spend working. Try to ascertain whether their time is determined by work deadlines or by the need to be seen by others. If motivation and commitment are determined by what is called “face time,” consider if this is the way you wish to spend your time in the future. The ability to enhance your skills as you grow professionally is also especially important. Do the associates have opportunities to work with people who can serve as mentors and teachers as they move up the hierarchy? Is training not only offered but also available, and do associates have the time and opportunity to take advantage of the offerings? 2. Are the associates being given meaningful work? This does not mean that they do not have to “pay their dues.” Often, repetitive assignments are a necessary means of honing skills and learning effective methods of completing assignments. Time is money at a law firm, and often client work has to be completed under tight deadlines. However, if all that the associates seem to be doing is beginner work, their ability to learn new skills, and to progress at a reasonable pace, will be severely impacted. (It might also be a signal that the associate is not highly regarded or trusted to handle more meaningful work.) 3. Is there an opportunity to experience a number of practice areas, especially if you are unsure of what you want to do in the long term? Some firms offer rotation programs, while others require that you choose a particular department upon joining the firm. Try to determine which approach best suits your needs. If rotation is available to you, find out if you can opt out of the rotation when you find the right practice area. If you have to specify a department immediately, determine whether you can change your mind if some other department’s work becomes more appealing. At some firms, departments are quite competitive and protective of their associates and it is political suicide to let someone know that you want to go to another partner’s “turf.” 4. Are firm mentor systems available in name only? Often these programs appear attractive, but if they only work for a small number of associates who are “chosen” by certain powerful partners, there is a good chance that many associates will be overlooked. The assignment process is often a good indicator of how these mentor relationships work. At many firms, there are formal means of assigning work that are meant to distribute the more interesting assignments fairly. However, there is often an informal means of assigning work that depends upon being known by particular partners. Try to determine whether there really is access to these “plum” assignment givers, or if favorites are chosen early with others left to fend for work. 5. Is there really a work/life balance? Many firms now have part-time policies, telecommuting availability and other means of allowing for choices as to how to get work done. If no one is taking advantage of these opportunities, then you can rest assured that they are not a part of the accepted firm culture and thus are not really available to you as an associate. See who is leaving the firm. If they are associates who are newly involved with family issues or who want to be able to try an alternative method of practice, this is not a positive signal that you would be able to take advantage of these policies. 6. How about communication? It is important to determine how feedback is communicated at the firm. Is there an easy flow of information concerning progress on skills development and fit into the firm? Can you approach a partner or supervising attorney and ask for an evaluation of your most recent project? If the answer is yes, then the firm is more likely a user-friendly place where you can learn and grow. If the answer is no, then a question should arise about your ability to learn from each assignment and to progress as an attorney. Improving your skills should be a part of each assignment that you complete. For firms that choose to use a midyear and/or annual formal evaluation, being able to determine how you are doing between formal reviews is very important to your being able to identify and fix problems before they become career-impacting issues. If communication is effective at the firm, then nothing said at the formal evaluation meeting should be a surprise to you. 7. What about pro bono? The manner in which a firm handles pro bono often tells you how valued it is at the firm. One of the keys to determining whether it is an integral part of firm life is who participates. If the program is dependent upon a few committed partners or mostly summer associates, then time to participate will not be easy to find as an associate. The firm’s commitment can also be evidenced by whether it has a full time pro bono coordinator, whether a portion or all of the time spent is treated as billable time and whether the work is only given to associates who are either not seen as successful or who are in departments that are slow. A firm that has a program that is not only valued but is part of the firm culture will show an enthusiasm for each project and will encourage new projects suggested by both associates and partners. 8. What are the firm’s future prospects? This question is the most difficult to reasonably answer these days. With the changing economic picture, client movement from firm to firm, firm mergers and associate and partner retention (and attrition) all impacting the health and strength of most law firms, summer associates will have a hard time determining the firm’s future. During the past few years, some summer associates, along with both associates and partners, tried to predict the “hot” departments in order to position themselves to be involved in a growing workload. The tech industry was the “hot” department that was identified — and most people who made career choices based upon that assumption were burned! You are better served by developing a wide range of skills, doing what interests you, and evaluating your position every few years so that you can more easily redirect your career should you decide to do so or if your particular practice area slows or changes. Both your evaluation of your firm and its evaluation of you are important to the options you will have and the manner in which your career will eventually develop. Continuously evaluating your growth and potential is worth the effort and should be a part of your professional life. Ellen Wayne is dean of career services at Columbia University School of Law.

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