Q. I will be running our firm’s summer program, which starts later this month. Although we solicit feedback from our participants, I am not so sure that we are receiving responses that are as critical as they could be. What do you hear from young lawyers about their summer experiences? What general advice do you have about summer programs?
A. The current generation of summer associates is unlike any other. This group is better informed, as there is a plethora of available data – surveys, reports, and articles – that exhaustively detail the plusses and minuses of many firms’ programs. This quantum of information was not freely accessible in past decades. This leads to more penetrating and far-reaching questions that go well beyond the rather basic inquiries of old.
In addition, much has been written about the more holistic approach that this generation takes toward trying to achieve a work/life balance. This is not hype, as I hear it and see it in practice every day. This does not mean that a firm should go even further in conjuring new and more exciting outside activities. While these still have their place, this cohort is more interested in ascertaining what life will be like for them as a lawyer in your firm. Their overriding request is that they want a summer that provides them with a realistic depiction of the professional life that awaits them. This will better allow them to gauge how this piece of the puzzle fits into the overall mosaic of their life.
With those two overarching points in mind, the following are some other factors to consider.
Develop a sound training program. Every firm has a cadre of partners who eschew devoting a significant amount of time and expense to training summer associates. They espouse the philosophy that since a firm is already spending a veritable boatload of money on the program, why should even more resources be poured into training a crop of law students who are supposed to the best and brightest?
The enlightened answer is that most summer associates are ill equipped to seamlessly transition to a law firm practice. Many have neither worked in a professional office environment nor have done the type of writing that firms and clients demand. If a firm thus hopes to assess how these lawyers will perform in a few years, they need to provide them with the tools to succeed.
The training program should cover essentials such as: 1) how writing in a law firm – whether it entails briefs, memoranda, or agreements – differs from the more expansive style that they likely have utilized throughout their lives; 2) the actual format of the documents they are expected to produce. Development of a forms file, that includes sample client letters, memoranda, agreements, and pleadings, is a must; 3) what procedures the lawyers follow in the firm. This could be rather broad, as it could range from how to request messenger service to the importance and manner of inputting time; and 4) how to master the intangibles, such as interacting with staff, clients, and third parties and acquitting oneself at firm events.
Assign two mentors for each student. There is a lot of benefit, if possible, of assigning two mentors – one associate and one partner, to each summer associate. The associate can play a vital role, as he can be more of a buddy. The associate mentor, for instance, can provide the “scoop” on the unofficial way to get things done in a firm and the predilections of certain partners. This mentor can also serve as a sounding board and typically can bond much easier with the summer associate.
A partner mentor can also be quite valuable. This lawyer has a longer, and broader view that can be very beneficial. The partner also can more critically evaluate how the summer associate is progressing. Most importantly, the partner can step in, if necessary, to work through tough issues that may arise with other partners, which is a role that is almost impossible for an associate mentor to handle.
Provide exposure to a broad range of lawyers and practice areas. It is surprising, if not shocking, how lawyers end up picking a practice area. In many cases, it is solely by chance, as an offer is extended to them to join a certain practice group, as that department has a need at that moment. In other situations, there is a bit more thought that goes into the decision, as the summer associate enjoyed handling a particular assignment or sought to emulate a partner in a practice group who he grew to respect. If one considers the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are spent on an education, and the significance of picking a practice that meshes well with someone, it is amazing that such a critical decision is often driven by pure serendipity.
As a mistake in this regard can be quite costly for a lawyer and for a law firm, it behooves the firm to provide a summer with a broad exposure to a wide range of lawyers and practice areas. Attention should thus be paid to not letting a particular partner occupy too much of a summer associate’s workload. Similarly, assignments should be spread, as much as is feasible, among different departments. Summer associates should be invited to departmental lunches so that they can get a feel for how practice groups differ. Part of that lunch should be devoted to explaining what day to day life is like in that practice area.
Lawyers of all kind – senior, mid-level, and junior partners and associates should attend events and interact with the summer associates. Junior partners and associates often carry the laboring oar in this regard, as the younger partners often are on the upward path toward leadership, while junior associates more acutely remember their summer experiences and want to help as much as possible. For lawyers at other levels, the combination of being buried with work and a disconnection with the program often leads them to not be involved. Summers notice their lack of participation that sends some unflattering messages about enthusiasm in the firm and what their own outlook may be later in their careers in the firm.
Give frequent and critical feedback. As noted, working in a professional environment, let alone a law firm, may be a first time experience for most summer associates. They thus need, and crave feedback, so give it to them as often as possible. It is a disservice to the firm and the summer if too much time elapses before initial feedback is given. This is especially the case if correctable faults are not pointed out until it is too deep into the program.
It also is important to provide critical and detailed feedback. Telling someone that the work is “fine” or that he is “on track” is not particularly helpful, as what is “fine” for one partner may not be for another. Detailed discussions as to the strengths and weaknesses of work product are what is needed, even though this is yet another nonbillable time drain for the evaluator. The payoff, of course, is down the line, as that feedback may be the difference in turning around a situation for someone who may be a valuable contributor. It also can be a flag that, if not reversed, can avoid a hire that cost the firm a significant amount of time and dollars.
Sell the long-range benefits of joining the firm. For a firm, there are competing tensions in place during the summer. On one hand, careful evaluations of the summer associate have to be made, as a bigger investment in that person lies ahead if he is hired. On the other hand, a firm hopes that those to whom offers will be extended actually accept them. As to this latter point, a fair amount of selling, most of which is subtle, goes on throughout the summer.
This marketing of a firm as a future home for the summer associate has become much more sophisticated. Unlike years gone by, very few first-year lawyers, and even fewer summer associates, anticipate that they will spend their entire career with their firm. Statistics demonstrate that most professionals stay with one employer for about four and a half years. With that in mind, a firm needs to understand that a summer associate is also evaluating a firm as to how it can help position him for future career advancement.
This can be galling to many partners and tends to trigger ire when a lawyer who came up through the summer program leaves a firm after a few years. This is reality, so if a firm wants a summer associate to join it (in the hope that he will be the exception who does stay forever), it needs to make its case. As it is easier to do that while the summer associate is in its midst, I recommend having the following types of persons speak to the summers at some point:
“Career” lawyers in the firm. They can openly explain their path in the firm, the other opportunities that have been presented to them, and why they elected to stay;
Laterals. These lawyers can discuss why they feel that the firm is a better home for them. This can be compelling, as it can help to underscore the differences between firms and why yours is better;
Alumni. This, too, is an important group, as it shows how the firm has helped prepare someone for life in a different venue (such as in house, government, or some other arena). It is even better if the alumni can talk about how the firm helped to make that move happen;
Clients. It is very powerful for a young lawyer to be to hear why a client works with your firm, and
Marketing staff. Tuned-in summer associates have certainly heard that it will be important to develop business some day. Providing them with an overview as to how the firm helps to support its lawyers in that crucial realm could be a real plus.
Best of luck with your program!
FRANK M. D’AMORE is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm. He is a former partner in an AmLaw 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at email@example.com.