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The summer associate program has arrived, and you’re determined to make your mark. Given the anemic market, there may not be enough offers to go around. You’ve surely come prepared for what amounts to a three-month job interview — having attended your law school’s programs on succeeding as a summer associate. You’ve undoubtedly pored over Kimm Walton’s book, “What Law School Doesn’t Teach You … But You Really Need to Know,” and memorized all the “career-limiting behavior.” So put your law firm savvy to the test with this quiz on summer associate policies, politics and politesse. 1. You have a long-scheduled dental appointment during the first week of the summer program, when you’re supposed to attend “Interest Rate Swaps Made Simple.” What do you do? a. Ask the recruiting coordinator if you can miss the lecture. It will take you six months to get another dentist appointment, and anyway, you want to be a litigator. b. Slip out quietly after the lunch break for the dental appointment. With 40 summer associates in the room, you’ll never be missed. c. Reschedule your dental appointment; the partner delivering the lecture will expect all hands on deck. d. Apologize to the partner-presenter for having to miss it, and ask whether the program can be videotaped. Did you pick the correct answer, c? The first week is no time to be blowing off substantive training programs, even if you think they aren’t related to your areas of interest. The truth is, you don’t know an Interest Rate Swap from a hole in the ground, and if it’s important enough for the partner to take his valuable time to prepare and present it, you should be there. Unless you have a real emergency, schedule medical appointments for weekends or very early or late hours — and be prepared to cancel if duty calls. Don’t even think of asking the partner to videotape the lecture. 2. You eagerly dash to an important partner’s office for an assignment. You write down every word she says about a research project on the regulation of financial instruments held in trust in offshore accounts. She rushes off to a meeting; you sit like a deer in the headlights, knowing you haven’t understood a word she said. What do you do? a. Immediately leave the partner a voice mail asking to meet with her for some follow-up questions. You don’t want to waste billable time until you truly understand the issue. b. Run the issue by a few summer associates. Someone is sure to understand this stuff and give you a briefing so you don’t spin your wheels. c. Call one of your corporate law professors. Since he works for a big firm, too, he will probably be able to help you. d. Ask one of the law firm’s research librarians for a secondary source to introduce you to the topic, and what reporters or other resources are best for this type of research. The correct answer is d. The role of the library staff is to make your research efficient. These pros know all of the most important specialized resources for corporate and commercial clients. If you choose a, who knows when she’ll be able to get back to you, given her busy schedule, and you won’t be making the progress on the assignment she expects. As for c, not only will your professor not appreciate your call, you risk spilling the beans about a confidential matter to an outsider — bad summer associate karma. 3. Another summer associate, Bob, sucks up to all of the partners but spends most of his time picking out restaurants for his two-hour lunches. He wastes so much time during the day that he is always one of the last summers to leave at night. What do you do? a. Nothing; the powers that be are sure to figure out that Bob is trouble. b. While riding in the elevator one morning with two members of the hiring committee, comment to a fellow summer associate, “Gee, I can’t believe Bob took another two-hour lunch yesterday. I wonder how he gets his work done. I’m so busy, I always end up eating at my desk!” c. Be sure to leave after Bob each night, and occasionally change his 9:30 to 7:30. d. Meet with the recruiting director and explain your concerns about Bob. You really like and trust her, and she will know what to do with this information. The correct answer is a. When faced with the laziness or bad attitude of a fellow summer associate, the best thing you can do is keep your distance, and keep working. If you contemplate either b or d, you risk being labeled an immature, competitive snitch or a meddler. You should strive for excellence, and make sure your hours exceed any benchmark provided for summers. After all, what counts is not “face time,” but billables and work quality. For all you know, Bob might be the next Learned Hand. What are people saying about your personality, work ethic, and productivity? No comment on falsifying the firm’s security records. 4. It’s 1 p.m. on Tuesday, and you are working on a memo for a midlevel associate due the next day. The research is well in hand, but meeting the deadline will take a solid six hours of concentrated writing time. One of the most prominent and well-liked partners stops by your office. You’ve been dying to work for him. He asks for your help on a speech on the USA Patriot Act. Within 24 hours, he needs a “quick and dirty” briefing on the legislative history on the ports and border security. What do you do? a. Go immediately to the associate and tell her that you have accepted an urgent assignment from this partner. She is sure to understand how important that is and give you more time to complete her memo. b. Stay up all night if necessary, first finishing the memo for the associate as you promised, and then diving into the partner’s briefing. c. Explain very politely to the partner that, while you would love to accept the assignment, you have another project due. Ask whether there might be another assignment you could do for him in the future. d. Tell the partner that you would love to do his project, but ask if you can give him the briefing in two days. The correct answer is either b or c. The idea that you can limit your work neatly to one project at a time is laughable. One of the prime skills of a successful associate is the ability to juggle multiple tasks. All clients are demanding and deserving of high-quality work completed within the requisite time frame. But it is not your job as a summer associate to determine the relative weight or priority of competing assignments. Just provide both parties with the information and ask them to decide how you should proceed. (Giving the partner the work after it is needed is not an option.) If you choose to do both projects, do not allow the quality of either project to suffer; your evaluators don’t take into account how many assignments are on your plate. 5. After a country club dinner punctuated by several bottles of expensive wine, a group of male attorneys heads to the lounge for cigars and whiskey. A senior partner, clearly intoxicated, starts telling sexually suggestive jokes, to raucous laughter from the other attorneys. Then the partner asks you to tell one. What do you do? a. Respond with the raunchiest joke you can think of. No one is likely to remember this tomorrow, and you don’t want them to think you’re not “one of the boys.” b. Slip out of the room and seek out one of the partners on the hiring committee. Tell him that you are upset and feel that while the jokes may not be illegal, they are certainly inappropriate. c. Retort with a wink: “I wouldn’t want to expose myself to liability for joke malpractice in front of all these lawyers!” Then try to change the subject, asking the partner about his golf game (unless he lost, that is). d. Tell all assembled that you find these jokes offensive and hurtful, and that you would really rather talk about a more neutral topic. The correct answer is c. Sure, it’s not exactly funny, but you’re being evaluated for your good judgment. The key is to use humor to avoid participating in behavior that’s not acceptable to you. If the conversation goes beyond tasteless to discriminatory, you would need to decide whether this is indicative of the firm’s culture or an isolated incident born of overindulgence. When it comes to letting loose with the lawyers, remember: They have jobs — you don’t. When in doubt, don’t drink and don’t hang around with the “hard partiers.” As far as the summer program is concerned, you are always on the job, even on the golf course. And while you may be tempted to express your justifiable indignation, partners might fear that you’ll do the same when a client is the one telling the jokes — making a scene instead of diplomatically addressing the issue. 6. When you receive your midsummer evaluation, the news is mixed. Overall, you are “meeting expectations” and “people seem to like you,” but one review cites your “lack of enthusiasm.” You suspect that this last comment was by a partner who gave you a very small project and was vague in describing the assignment and difficult to pin down for follow-up questions. However, he is a member of the management committee and quite influential. What do you do? a. Nothing; in the scheme of things, a short assignment is unlikely to hold much weight. If you are “meeting expectations,” everything must be fine. b. Use the evaluation as an opportunity to explain how the partner’s lack of specificity undermined your ability to do your best work. Note that a personality clash might underlie the unenthusiastic evaluation. c. Ask the attorney giving the review whether you can talk to the partner about reconsidering his comments. Emphasize that because the comments are based on an intangible rather than work quality. d. Ask how you can improve in the second half of the summer, and what qualities the reviewing attorney is observing in “standout” summer associates. Ask whether you can go to the partner who gave you the poor review and request another assignment to demonstrate your diligence and positive attitude. The correct answer is d. Perhaps you mistook a law firm for a court of law: There’s no due process in the review process. This review, in fact, sounds a bit like damning with faint praise — most firms would anticipate that you would exceed expectations, not just meet them, and a comment that “people like you” may be the most positive thing they can come up with. The fact that you have a poor evaluation from a partner on the management committee is big trouble — even if it is a short assignment, and regardless of the part his personality played in the project. “Bad attitude” can be code for many things, and you need to think long and hard about each interaction you had with this partner. After all, your career will be full of difficult people, some of them clients, and you are expected to learn how to work effectively with them to get the job done. 7. You have big weekend plans and a nonrefundable ticket to Vegas. Friday morning, you get a call from the assigning partner seeking “volunteers” for an emergency due diligence trip to Tulsa, leaving tonight. What do you do? a. Tell the partner you’d be delighted to go to Tulsa, and ask what she’d like you to do to prepare. Mention that you foolishly booked a nonrefundable flight for the weekend and certainly wouldn’t expect the firm to make you whole for the $200 as you hadn’t cleared the trip first, but want to double-check the firm policy. b. Apologetically beg off, explaining that you have to visit a sick relative, but offer to go on any other weekend trip or work on any other project that arises in the future. c. Explain that you have personal plans this weekend, including a nonrefundable ticket. Ask whether you can join the group on Sunday night. d. Tell the partner about your weekend plans, and explain that you were given assurances during the recruiting process that summers almost never work on weekends. The correct answer is a. If you choose anything else, in the words of Dr. Phil, “What are you thinking?!” This summer, it’s all about the firm. When an assigning partner calls looking for “volunteers,” particularly for an emergency project, it really means “pack your bags.” Short of emergency surgery or a very sick relative, your weekends should be flexible to accommodate any work that might arise. Your willingness and good cheer about such projects can make the difference in whether you get an offer. For canceled vacation plans that are cleared by supervising attorneys beforehand, the firm or the client may reimburse expenses. This policy is unlikely to apply here, but if the ticket is cheap enough and you ask very nicely, you might be given a partial reimbursement — after proving your worth on the due diligence trip. 8. One of your fellow summer associates is really hot, and she is showing signs of being interested in you, too. She is from a West Coast law school, however, so this would be your only chance to date her. What do you do? a. Date her. She could be the one, and from what you hear, law firms are like soap operas. Life is too short to pass up this opportunity. b. Don’t date her. As your mother says, if it’s meant to be, you can be friends for now, correspond after the summer, and possibly date after returning to this city post-graduation. c. Discuss the issue with her and whether you could date secretly. Agree to see each other only on weekends, away from the immediate neighborhood of the firm, and play it cool in the office. d. Try to spend as much time with her as you can at firm social events, so that you can find out whether you have a connection without risking being seen together outside the firm. The correct answer is b. Firms are notorious gossip mills, and you can be sure that no matter how assiduously you try to keep a summer associate romance a secret, it will be Topic No. 1 around the water cooler. Your mission at firm social events is to get to know as many attorneys in the firm as possible and enhance their good opinion of you. Even if the quality of your work is superb, at the end of the day, what everyone will know about you is your summer fling. Finally, if it ends badly, as it so often does, it will be unbearably uncomfortable for both of you, and distracting to your work and success at the firm. 9. Near the summer’s end, the hiring committee members and recruiting staff gather all the summer associates to get input on improving the program. You have some real reservations about the mentoring process — your partner mentor took you to lunch only once, and your associate mentor was a dweeb. What do you do? a. Don’t say a word. You don’t need to go out on a limb before offers are extended. b. Take the lead; you’ve been the unofficial ringleader for the summers, and you think it is important that the firm know that the mentor program was a total bust. c. Start the ball rolling with positive feedback on the training program and assignment process. Wait to see if a hiring committee member brings up the mentoring program. Suggest that not having worked with your mentors may be why the relationships did not fully develop. d. Say only positive things. You don’t want to be labeled as a whiner, and it’s unlikely that the criticism would lead to changes, anyway. The correct answer is c. Providing constructive criticism, just like receiving it, is dicey business. A summer program is the culmination of hundreds of hours of meeting, debating, planning, and tweaking. Don’t be a whiner, and do realize that some things, like mentoring or ‘buddy’ programs, don’t always work out. You can’t force a busy partner to take a summer to lunch, and often summers are less proactive than they should be. 10. At your exit interview, you are told that you are unlikely to receive an offer, but given little specific feedback beyond “lack of fit” with the firm. You are devastated, as the summer seemed to go very well, and your midsummer evaluation was almost entirely positive. What do you do? a. Don’t take this lying down. The firm recruits extensively at your school, so call your dean immediately and say you want him to intervene. b. Gather intelligence. Tell your fellow summer associates, and figure out how many of them have been told the same thing. Try to figure out whether this is really a market-driven move disguised as a “performance-related” decision. c. Try to turn the conversation around. Ask whether the firm would be willing to extend a “cold offer;” that is, to say that you’ve been extended a permanent offer, while you agree not to accept it. d. Find out as much as you can about why you may not get an offer and when the final decision will be made. (Later is better, so you can begin interviewing without the no-offer stigma.) What is the firm’s policy for references, and will prospective employers be told you didn’t receive an offer? Ask to meet again with the hiring partner after you consult with your school’s career services counselor. The correct answer is d. Your relationship with the firm does not end when a no-offer decision is rendered. You need the firm’s cooperation and communication both to understand your shortcomings or lack of “fit,” and to secure a positive reference from your champions. Going to your law school dean is high-handed and does not bode well for your future interactions with the firm — your job is to understand the process, not to try to extort a different result on the strength of your school’s reputation. Don’t confide in other summers or attorneys not involved in the decision. Your not returning to the firm can be interpreted in a more benign way down the road. You don’t want to advertise the decision and have inaccurate information floating around in the very small world of D.C. practice. Your career counselor can help you strategize and serve as an intermediary with the firm. The “cold offer” approach is rejected by virtually every firm because it is dishonest and sends the wrong message to prospective employers, putting the firm’s credibility on the line. There are many ways to make the decision more palatable to other employers, and ease your way into a firm with a better fit. How’d you do? If you found these questions perplexing, or a vexing situation arises during the course of the summer, don’t try to figure it out on your own. Contact your career services office and speak to a counselor. Many are former law firm associates themselves, and they can help you navigate the potential minefields of law firm politics and come out on top. So, summer associates, get behind the wheel, carefully watch every sign along the road, and enjoy the ride! Gail E. Cutter is director of the Office of Career Counseling and Placement at New York University School of Law.

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