This summer may be the first opportunity for many of you summer associates to work in a professional services firm. It’s widely known that a summer is a short amount of time to get integrated, make a favorable impression in connection with substantive work assignments, assess the culture of an organization, and begin to form lasting relationships. And even though firm cultures vary, there are standard “rules” that seem to apply regardless of the law firm (or investment bank or corporation, for that matter) when it comes to demonstrating professionalism.
This summer, more than ever before, it will be important for summer associates to project themselves as confident, mature and interested. By following a few guidelines, the transition from student to summer associate will be smooth and productive.
T Is for Timeliness
It’s next to godliness, isn’t it? Time is money in the world of billable hours and attorneys shouldn’t have to wait for summer associates. This applies not only to work assignment deadlines, but also to training sessions, lunches and other meetings. Being on time shows a level of respect for the individuals and the overall process, and making every effort to convey that respect (or explain what caused a delay) is very important.
Everyone is different: Some may need to arrive in the office 45 minutes before the start of the day to organize before the opening bell at 9:30 a.m. Others may only need enough time to log onto the computer. Becoming aware of your personal needs is the first step. Always allow for additional travel time and be prepared to start your day with the rest of the firm – you never know when a subway is going to stall or the line at Starbucks will be unusually long.
Finally, keep the lines of communication open, especially when it comes to deadlines. Don’t ignore a deadline thinking that summer associate research is not important. Talk to the assigning attorney or a mentor about prioritizing assignments if you begin to feel overwhelmed, and keep people apprised of your progress. It’s a good practice to continually communicate status even if a deadline is attainable, and even more important if a deadline is going to be missed.
I Is for (First) Impressions
Although it would be nice if people had more of a chance to make a first impression, the first interactions between two people matter. Remember this throughout the summer experience because chances are, opportunities to meet new people will continue to present themselves until the end of the summer program. This applies to both appearance and work product.
Make note of the work environment within the firm: Is it a ‘business casual’ place, but everyone is wearing a suit? If so, a suit is more appropriate. Do attorneys get more casual (leave the jacket in the office or wear flat shoes) for social events or do they put on the jacket and heels? Are khakis and polo shirts appropriate on Fridays or not? In these instances, it is probably better to blend in rather than stand out.
As for work assignments, make sure to double and triple check the details. Use spell check and compare assignments to other similar work product in the document management system. Each firm has its own way of setting up documents and every attorney has his/her own style. Does the attorney have a sample from a previous case or deal that can be referenced? Is there an associate who has worked for a particular partner who can provide pointers? Always hand in your best work product, even if it’s only a draft. Remember, there are no second chances to make a first impression.
Attitude is also important in making a good impression. Be enthusiastic about the learning opportunities offered and take advantage of them. Stay positive, even in informal discussions with colleagues, and don’t forget about the support staff!
All employees (attorney or not) should be treated with respect, regardless of their position. There may be a time when a secretary or copy center supervisor is the only person able to help you meet a deadline. Hopefully this individual will be willing to go the extra mile to help out, or to speak highly of you to partners whose ear they might have. At the end of the summer, if it can honestly be said that your best effort was put forth, then there should be no regrets.
P Is for Preparedness
As the saying goes, “You can never be too prepared.” This is true in many situations and at the beginning of the summer associate program, this certainly applies. Even if the computer system is foreign and the office map seems like it will take years to memorize, there are little things that can be done to prepare for meetings.
Prior to a scheduled meeting or training session, it’s good practice to read the attorney’s bio and review any articles he or she has written (most of which should be available on the firm’s Web site). This may give a little insight into the topic to be discussed. It may also help with conversation starters, like “I notice we both went to XXX Law School.” Also, what if the person you are meeting isn’t in his office, but there is a group of attorneys chatting in the hall? How will you know whom to approach in the group if you haven’t done a little research?
Another good practice is to carry a notepad and pen to any meeting. The assignment will be easier to understand later in the day if a few notes were jotted down. This also instills a sense of confidence in the assigning attorney, because she feels like the information conveyed was correctly recorded and not just committed to memory.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It won’t come across as silly, but will demonstrate an eagerness to learn. Attorneys prefer not to have summer associates spinning their wheels for hours on end to return with an erroneous response. Assigning attorneys would much rather clarify in the beginning and feel confident that the summer associate has some understanding of the task at hand. Insightful, well thought-out questions are more likely to enhance a supervising attorney’s view of your capabilities rather than hurt such a view.
Finally, bring a jacket and tie into the office and hang it on the office door. Throughout the summer there will be opportunities to attend meetings, go to court, and possibly dine at one of the top restaurants in the city. Missing out on one of these opportunities because of dress code would be too bad. Plan ahead!
S Is for Social Networking
This summer is a great opportunity to meet many people and learn what practice areas are appealing. It’s also a great time to ascertain “fit” within the organization’s culture.
Most firms offer ample opportunities for networking, whether they are social events, training sessions or lunches. In this economy, firms are being mindful of the quality and type of events they organize, so it’s important to make an effort to attend as many as possible.
The summer program events are designed to be both informative and fun. Enjoy and relax, but also remember that these colleagues may be completing evaluations at the end of the summer. While attending events, make a conscious effort to introduce yourself to someone new if the opportunity arises. Ask questions and seize the occasion to learn about people and their background, experience and interests. This is a valuable skill that is important not only during the summer program, but in all social situations.
Much networking can be done during business hours as well. It may take a little extra effort, but it would be a good practice to walk the halls and speak directly with attorneys instead of calling or e-mailing about assignments. If a certain practice area is appealing, stop by one of the partner’s offices. Ask attorneys if they have time to get a coffee. Remember, this is another chance to learn, as the summer program experience goes by in a blink of an eye.
The law firm summer associate program provides an excellent opportunity to lay the foundation of your legal career. There will be many opportunities to learn and network, if you are proactive. It’s important to start off on the right foot, and these T.I.P.S. should help with the transition. Enjoy the experience!
Jennifer Cullert is the director of legal recruiting for Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel.