The summer before the last year of law school can be both an exciting and nerve-wracking time for any law student. If you have managed to land a coveted summer associate position, you should feel fortunate. Not only will you gain invaluable professional experience, but you may also secure your future employment, as many law firms hire directly from their summer associate classes. This article is designed to provide guidance to future (and current) summer associates, as well as to the law firms that hire them. To make the most of the experience for both parties, it is vital that the program be designed in a way that benefits both the summer associates and the firm.
As my summer associate position draws to a close, I’ve developed the following list of 10 tips that I believe can maximize the summer associate experience for both sides.
Variety Is the Spice of Life
One of the most amazing things about the summer associate experience is having an opportunity to gain experience in many different areas of law. Open yourself up for a variety of legal experiences. When I entered law school I was set on becoming a health care compliance attorney, but my experiences this summer exposed me to numerous other areas of the law, including professional liability, aviation, medical malpractice and products liability, which I now find equally appealing. I appreciate these experiences, as they provided me with the opportunity to learn about new areas of the law while working alongside a variety of skilled attorneys.
While it is important to help summer associates find work in areas of the law that interest them, law firms should build variety into their programs. Doing so will emphasize the scope of the firm’s practice and provide summer associates with a better idea of all of the opportunities that a firm has to offer.
As a summer associate, there simply is no way to get around being social. You are invited to events to get a feel for the culture of the firm for which you may be invited to work. You will constantly be placed in new situations and invited to events where it is imperative to meet and engage with other attorneys and staff of the firm. How you handle these situations may provide indicators for how you will handle client relations in the future.
Therefore, if you are the type to avoid crowds or if you have any level of social anxiety, this would be the time for you to brush up on your conversational skills. Scan daily headlines or take note of topical legal stories on a consistent basis. If you know who will be at an event, review their bios in advance so you’re familiar with their practice and activities and will have something to talk about or add to the conversation. Most importantly, listen, relax and be yourself. Doing so will help you come away from the experience with a greater understanding and appreciation for a law firm’s culture.
Firms should provide a variety of social events for summer associates to attend that are representative of the types of events that will take place once one becomes an associate with the firm. When appropriate, invite experienced associates of the firm to these events to act as firm ambassadors for the summer associates, helping to put them at ease and answering any questions a summer associate might be hesitant to ask a more senior member of the firm.
Use Time Wisely
Set a start time for yourself (if one is not mandated) and follow it. Equally important, be as productive as possible throughout the workday. This is your time to make an impression, so take advantage of it. If you use your time wisely, you will be surprised by both the amount and quality of the work you will be able to produce.
Firms should set expectations for time and schedules at the outset. If you expect summer associates to put in a minimum number of hours per day, tell them. Be upfront with all communications and make sure your time expectations are representative of your firm’s culture.
Seek a Mentor
Your firm will likely provide you with a supervising attorney, but if you have an opportunity to also be paired with a mentor, take it. Mentors are valuable resources for summer associates because of their life and career experiences. My supervising attorney was an amazing resource in both capacities. He introduced me to civil rights law, an area which I now find very intriguing. Furthermore, he sought out numerous opportunities throughout the summer to involve me with tasks that a new associate would perform.
Law firms can provide summer associates with both a supervising attorney and a firm mentor, if possible. Mentorship programs are especially helpful for attracting and retaining minority candidates.
Quality Is Key
You will be judged on the quality of your work product. The best thing you can do is make sure you always turn in your best work. Most law firm associate job descriptions list “excellent written and oral communication skills” as a core skill necessary to performing the job. Demonstrate your competency in this area. Make sure you proofread your work to ensure that it is free of mistakes. It always helps me to put a written assignment aside for a day, and then proofread it with fresh eyes later, before turning it in.
As for law firms themselves, let your summer associates know how their work will be evaluated. Law students are accustomed to some type of rubric grading system. If you have one, share at least the major evaluation categories with them. It will help the summer associates to have something concrete to work toward and will help them build proper habits for legal practice.
Professionalism is demonstrated through one’s attire and behavior. Always conduct yourself in a professional manner. Follow your firm’s dress code and, when in doubt, err on the side of caution. You should invest in at least one full suit, including a pair of shoes that are in good repair. You want to be an attorney—dressing like one is an important step.
Prior to their first day of work, law firms should provide summer associates with a copy of the dress code or, at the very least, some guidelines to adhere to.
Attempt to get as much feedback on your work as possible, as that is the only way you will improve in your legal analysis and research. It may not feel good to see the memo you spent hours working on marked up, but it is necessary.
Law firms can ensure that summer associates get prompt constructive feedback on their work. It may be helpful to establish a rule that attorneys can only give assignments to summer associates if they agree to provide at least one piece of constructive feedback directly to the summer associate within a week of assignment completion.
Know When to Say No
In my opinion, there is only one good reason for saying no to an assignment, and that is when you do not have the time to give it the attention deserved. Only decline assignments when this is the case, and be sure to provide a thorough explanation supporting your response.
Law firms should consider appointing a gatekeeper to track summer associate assignments. The idea is to have someone, perhaps the associate’s supervising attorney, to screen all assignments and have knowledge of the summer associate’s workload. In an ideal world, this gatekeeper could decline assignments on an associate’s behalf, if necessary, as it is not easy for summer associates to turn down assignments when they’re trying to make the best impression.
As a summer associate, there really is no such thing as a stupid question. If you have been asked to do something and you do not understand, then you need to ask questions to ensure that your work product is in line with what your assigning attorney is looking for.
Law firms should make sure there is at least one person each of your summer associates can go to in order to ask questions. It’s important that this person be knowledgeable, approachable and available.
Remember the Rules
Be extremely careful not to discuss privileged information outside of your office. Be especially cautious about the information you share about your work in restaurants, bars and even elevators. You never know who is listening and it is a good habit to establish early on.
Law firms, talk to your summer associates about professional conduct. For many of them, their summer experience is their first time working for a law firm. Make sure that you equip them with the tools they will need to build proper habits for the future.
The law firm summer associate experience should be a win-win for both the associate and the law firm. By following the tips above, a summer associate has the greatest chance of being offered permanent employment, and the law firm has the greatest chance of hiring an enthusiastic, productive and dedicated individual with the attributes necessary to make great contributions to the firm.
Patrice M. Turenne was a summer associate in the King of Prussia, Pa., office of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin during the summer of 2014. She is currently in her final year as an evening division student at Widener University School of Law. Contact her at email@example.com. •