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When John Crolle entered the 2003 summer associate program at Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Martin, he expected to get down to business. He got what he wanted. Crolle spent his days drafting a response brief for an Environmental Protection Agency hearing and prepared other documents that were submitted to clients and to court. “The firm treated me the way a first-year associate is treated,” said the recent Georgia State University College of Law graduate. “There were no BS projects.” Although summer associate programs are famous for generous salaries and social calendars, they are — beneath it all — an extended employment dance. While firms are evaluating students’ skills, personalities, work ethic and long-term potential, students are assessing what summer programs say about the firms. The students’ verdict? Summer programs have room for improvement. “You’re afraid to give too much criticism because you want job offers,” said a 2004 graduate of Mercer University, who split her time last summer between a midsize labor and employment firm and a small general practice firm. But once they’re home from the dance, students have plenty of suggestions for making summer programs more positive and productive. Getting to know a firm’s attorneys alleviates the pressure students feel to have the perfect summer, according to Shannon Barrow, a 2003 summer associate at Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial. “If you get to know a partner on a personal level, [he's] not a scary person anymore — you [don't] feel like if you say one wrong thing or make one wrong step, you’re done. It’s more normal, less like you’re in the spotlight constantly,” Barrow said. Some firms are better than others at getting their lawyers to interact with summer associates. The Mercer graduate who split her summer said one of the firms she worked for left her almost entirely alone. “There wasn’t really anyone I knew on a personal level, and that was disturbing to me,” she noted, adding that she accepted an offer from a small firm in Macon, where the atmosphere was “more close-knit.” Derin Dickerson, now a first-year associate at Alston & Bird, had hoped to work with many of that firm’s lawyers when he summered there last year. Instead, he spent much of the summer working on a single project, which was limiting. “If you’re only [with a firm] for six weeks and you’re spending three or four weeks on one project, you don’t get the opportunity to work for a variety of people,” he said. Students are eager to learn about office life, but they are equally curious about the workings of a courtroom. Barrow said one of her favorite summer experiences was attending a trial. “It was a chance to get out of the office and see what really goes on,” she said. “We don’t get the opportunity to see that during school because we’re researching.” Courtroom trips allowed her to compare the arguing techniques of the attorneys and to observe juror reactions and the chronology of a trial — things they can’t teach you in school,” she said. While students do not expect hand-holding, they do appreciate guidance and assessment. Crolle found feedback difficult to come by in his summer program. “In a roundabout way, you’d be talking to a junior associate and they’d say, ‘So-and-so partner is happy with your work,’ but you’d never hear it directly,” he said. “You don’t want to seem needy [by asking] ‘How am I doing?’ but there needs to be a somewhat formal critique of our work. We’re law students — we don’t know if what we’re doing is right or wrong unless someone tells us.” Dickerson has a similar outlook, noting that Alston & Bird conducts mid-program reviews for its summer associates. He met with his mentor and the program coordinator, who discussed his performance and told him “to keep doing what I was doing,” he said. “It eases your mind a little bit,” he said of the reviews. “This is the time you’re trying to make a name for yourself and want to secure employment after law school, and you don’t want to mess up.” Extensive social calendars are mainstays of summer associate programs, but students reach a point where they choose rest over recreation. Elizabeth Wilson, who summered at McKenna Long & Aldridge, appreciated that the firm limited social events to a couple a week. “Some nights I could come home and go to sleep, or I could work late if I had to,” she said, noting that friends at other firms “burned the candle at both ends — going out and being social at night and then being at work and having to put out a good product.” Dickerson said he felt pressured to attend events, even though he would have preferred a breather. “It’s great to get out and meet everyone,” he said, “but I remember just feeling worn out, like if I got invited to something I needed to go. It would be beneficial if we had some time to rest.” While summer associates are focused on landing the offer, they are eager to learn as much as they can about the firm and its people. They, like the firms, want to make an informed decision at hiring time. “We go into [the summer associate experience] completely blank,” said Jen Blackburn, who spent her 2003 summer at Troutman Sanders. That is why Blackburn valued the firm’s series of informational lunches, which focused on aspects of general law — such as ethics, stress management, pro bono work and billable hours — and on the workings of the firm’s practice groups. “It showed they really wanted us to know all about the firm — not just what we could do for them, but what they could do for [us],” she said. While high salaries and flashy social events are impressive, students will choose their first jobs by the type of work they will be doing and the type of people they will be working with. “A lot of what we base our decision on is [whether] we like the people,” she said. Everyone, from partners to support staff, can influence a student’s feel for a firm. “A lot of us had problems with secretaries refusing to work with us,” she said of one of her summer employers. At another firm, disregard was even more widespread. “You almost got this sense that people were pretty bored with their work and not able to hide it. It really came through,” said a first-year associate who summered with a general practice firm. The slow pace in the office, coupled with a lack of interest from the attorneys, led her to look elsewhere for her first job. “If you’re not really excited, you’re not going to be the best ambassador for your firm.”

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