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Eight Critical Action Items before Picking a Law Firm

Even for a student in the throes of it, the fall recruitment process seems like an odd exercise. Bidding on firms with similar names, researching unfamiliar practice areas, and knocking on the door to signal the end of a 20-minute interview—it can become too easy to lose sight of what one is trying to accomplish, beyond “getting a job.”

Hopefully, you have already gone beyond cursory internet research and given some thought to your practice exploration interests, short and long-term career goals, and the types of firms that might best suit you. Ideally, you have spoken to your career services office and interacted with attorneys (or current summers) who have worked at firms you are meeting. Before you begin “selling yourself” as a candidate, however—have you given some thought to what you will seek of your future employer? Too often in the rush to “just get some callbacks” students overlook this critical step of first clarifying what attributes are important to them in their firm. Here are eight steps to help you make the best career decision you can.

Do some introspection

Complete a personal self-assessment as to what is important to you in an 8-10 week summer experience. Is it the opportunity for exposure to as many practice areas as possible? Is a certain type of work a “must” for you? Is spending the summer in a particular firm or city merely a stepping stone toward another professional goal? Remember to ask 3L classmates about what was important to them—both at the outset of interviews, as well as now looking back upon this most recent summer. Obviously, your own answers may change as you hear theirs and learn more, but it is critical to give some advance thought to what it is you are really seeking.

Understand summer program terms of art

Become familiar with various firms’ assignment mechanisms and the pros and cons of “rotational” vs. “free market” systems. Both come with benefits but also with corresponding responsibilities. What is the upside to spending a number of weeks focused solely on the work within a single practice group? How much control might you really have over your choice of assignments in a free market? Is there a danger to dabbling across too many areas, but never really contextualizing your contributions? Will this be the same system used for assignments as a junior associate? As a practical matter, any system for assigning work plays out differently depending on the program in any particular office and in any particular summer. Still, consider how the pros and cons of these systems might suit you, and how they have worked for former summers now at that firm. This is also a great discussion topic when you are asked whether you have any questions about a summer program.

Think about your expectations for training

Look into the availability and scope of professional development opportunities that a prospective employer offers. How will a firm demonstrate its commitment to investing in your success? Are performance and evaluation criteria clearly articulated? Ask junior associates how their firm’s training has been helpful in their own career development, but make it a point to investigate both formal and informal mentoring. Focus on finding that mix of substantive educational programs and opportunities for developing practical skills that will work best for you.

View attorneys you meet as prospective mentors

Remember that formal professional development workshops and training can only supplement the mentoring that you will receive directly from a firm’s attorneys. During a summer program, you will become an apprentice—learning by doing alongside your firm’s partners and associates. Concentrate on finding a sufficiently wide variety of styles and personalities from whom you can simultaneously learn, grow, and discover what you still need to learn.

Be sophisticated about firms’ pro bono

If pro bono is a priority for you, take your research beyond what all firms seem to say about their commitment. Simply boasting about the media-worthy coverage of a particular case does not guarantee that associates receive the bandwidth or encouragement to pursue pro bono work regularly. Is there an enforced pro bono hours requirement? Is there a team or committee specifically devoted to these efforts? How many hours of pro bono count as billable hour equivalents? Speak with attorneys who actively engage in pro bono about how they juggle other commitments, how the firm supports them, and how they balance pro bono and billables.

Own your personal take on diversity

For you, does diversity go beyond headcount and understandably extend to a feeling of inclusion? Many law firms have active and established affinity groups, but not all groups pursue projects related to retention, development, and leadership. Be honest about what you personally seek. What would you define as a “critical mass” of colleagues committed to diversity and inclusion? Will you search out role models, and what are the indicators to you of a supportive network? Is this a setting where you can envision yourself excelling? These are all questions worth considering, and the earlier in the process, the better.

Revisit existing allies

Think about people you’ve met who know (or can introduce you to those who know) critical things about the legal market, such as what type of work is done in different firms’ practice groups, which employers enjoy strong reputations for specific expertise, and how you can further add to a roster of seasoned professionals familiar with various aspects of the legal industry. Rely on these people as resources throughout your OCI process. Go back and ask additional questions, especially when new information or criteria for choosing among firms presents itself. Analogously, recruiting staff can be an excellent conduit to cementing relationships with attorneys you have met previously. Take proactive and creative advantage of all the information-rich sources available to you—as any good future lawyer would.

Trust your instincts

It has been said that choosing a summer firm is like hunting for an apartment that feels like home. Ultimately, your final decision will come from your gut. You will know when your choice feels right—be brave when you make it. Indicators will point to a firm that just feels like the right place for you. Don’t abandon common-sense intuition just because this landscape feels understandably foreign to you. In the end, if a summer program genuinely feels like the right choice, it probably is.