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Pope John Paul II’s death and the conclave’s selection of Pope Benedict XVI have propelled the subject of leadership back into mainstream media. It’s not unlike the buzz New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani generated in post-9/11 days. Leadership of this magnitude inspires people and changes them in big and small ways. And so when a leader emerges, people notice. The same is true within law firms. True, a lawyer’s leadership does not generate the public dialogue of that of a pope or a mayor. But for law students about to embark on their summer associate experiences and make career-altering decisions, it should. They are about to find out if the law firms they will walk into for 11 weeks this summer will be places where they can be leaders. Yes, even as summer associates. Career placement professionals estimate that today’s law students are roughly evenly divided between those who “intend” to practice in law firms and those who, in their earliest days of law school, make a beeline for the “alternative careers in the law” counselors. While presumably headed in vastly different directions, the two groups have more in common than you might think. The dot-com phenomenon and the widespread acknowledgement over the past decade that lawyering is a business, not simply a profession, have made law students eager to develop more than their legal skills in their first jobs after law school. They are keenly aware that, whether they stay in a law firm for the long haul or venture out into something else, they’re going to need leadership skills to be at the top of their game. So, the question is: Are the hundreds of law firms about to employ summer associates geared up to respond in kind? It really doesn’t matter. Summer associates can create their own opportunities and, in so doing, start their careers as leaders. Here are a few ideas on how. Strong client/lawyer relationships are born from results, trust and a lawyer’s constant focus on keeping his or her antennae up for opportunities to advance the client’s interests. There’s no “experience” barrier to figuring out what these things are. Summer associates bring two things to the table of great importance — objectivity and time to focus on a limited number of assignments. When they also bring a mindset that every contact a lawyer has with a client is an opportunity to further cement the relationship, they have the makings of a leadership opportunity. Clients’ businesses and industries do not stay stagnant. Competitive forces, economic conditions and regulatory changes create new business opportunities and challenges. That means lawyers need to be prepared to serve their clients through an ever-changing filter. Summer associates can be part of a client team’s work in this area. The simplest way to begin is for them to ask the bigger-picture questions about assignments from day one (e.g., what are the client’s business objectives; how/why did the matter come about, etc.). Armed with “perspective,” summer associates can take the initiative to drill down into what’s happening in the client’s business and industry and frame their thinking in that context. The key is not to be a “know it all,” or to waste time doing the equivalent of a research paper on the client’s business, or to be a brown nose. It is to take the initiative to ask questions and bring new ideas to the dialogue. Client matters do not exist in a vacuum. The earlier summer associates experience this firsthand, the faster they will get to the top of their game. Law firm department heads are the bottom line for every aspect of their groups’ success — from quality of work to profitability and everything in between. And so they are pulled in more directions than a single person can handle. Summer associates can be a great resource to those who fill these roles — from offering to brief the department on noteworthy events in a key client’s business to being a resource to those responsible for department mentoring and training (for example, on subjects such as “what new lawyers don’t know”) to helping on items important to the department that never seem to get needed attention. There’s no better way to get an inside view into the business side of the practice — a key marker for future success. DEVELOPING A COMMUNITY The most successful and profitable law firms typically get that way because their lawyers know one another, trust one another and collaborate. For some law firms, collaboration is natural to the culture. For others, it’s not. The fortunate ones (in collaborative cultures) have no shortage of lawyers to whom they can go for advice on building a tight summer associate community. The less fortunate ones can lead by example. Summer associates who build tight communities among themselves benefit during the summer and beyond. They typically produce better work (they have built-in sounding boards), have more fun and have a ready-made business network when they return to their firms. Leaders are inclusive, and they are good at outreach. Summer programs provide first-rate opportunities to leverage those skills. ON-THE-SPOT MENTORS Law firm leaders typically enjoy developing and inspiring new lawyers. (Remember, they’re good at outreach.) Unfortunately, in an 11-week summer program, there isn’t always sufficient time to schedule formal personal meetings to make this happen. That shouldn’t stop summer associates from finding it on their own. Summer associates shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to ask for a few minutes with leaders of the firm, be they department heads, managing partners of offices or individual lawyers — a 10-minute office visit, a conversation at a firm event or a breakfast or lunch. Leaders are natural mentors, and summer associates are well situated to benefit from them. Acquiring the leadership skills to be at the top of one’s game is a highly nuanced and complex endeavor. It goes way beyond being exceptional at any one skill. Not all law firms have kept pace with the career psyche of new law school graduates. But leaders don’t wait around for people to tell them how to get what they need. If a law firm is not proactive about providing opportunities to hone leadership skills, summer associates can take ownership of that part of their experience. Their resolve will inspire law firms, launch careers as leaders and change the people around them — in big and small ways. And that will be noticed. Carol Allen is the chief recruitment officer of Greenberg Traurig, based in the firm’s New York office.

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