Congratulations on your summer associate position! For many of you, this will be your first experience working in a law firm environment. Your summer will you give you the chance to make a good impression on your potential employer while deciding if the firm is a good fit. In my role as a career coach, I have worked with hundreds of lawyers at all stages of their careers—from summer associates through partners—and have seen how a summer associate experience can set the stage for your early legal career. With this in mind, here are some ways to maximize this opportunity.
First, view this as a chance to learn more about yourself in a professional context—your strengths, preferences, interests, and areas to work on—as well as an opportunity to learn more about your potential employer. As much as possible, within the structure of your firm’s summer program, try different types of work in many practice areas. Once you begin legal practice, you will likely have a specific practice focus, so your summer is a unique opportunity to try out different work, get exposure to as many practices as possible, and experience the variety of assignments in those practices.
Soak up as many experiences as you can—sit in on conference calls; join meetings with lawyers on your matters (and client meetings if you can); attend court hearings, depositions and negotiations, and participate in pro bono work. Observe and learn what it feels like to do the work and live the life of the lawyers in your firm. Consider the pace and flow of the work, type of clients, and “culture” of the group you are interested in joining and firm overall. Don’t just look at what the junior lawyers do—observe associates at all levels as well as partners—and explore whether it is a good fit. Are you someone who gets excited about the intensity of closing an M&A deal? Or do you prefer to dig into research and writing? Does the idea of being on the phone with clients all day excite or drain you? Use this information to help you decide where you might fit in your firm and legal practice more broadly.
Similarly important to your own exploration is the impression you make through your work product. How you perform on your first few assignments will set the stage for your reputation as a summer associate and for success well beyond your summer. Do all you can to knock it out of the park:
- Understand the assignment and what is expected. Make sure you know the answers to key questions: What is the “bigger picture” of the assignment, and where does your piece fit? Who is the intended audience (client, internal team)? What is the work product expected (email, portion of brief, mark-up)? Are there limitations on what you are being asked to do (time spent and use of resources)? And, critically important, what is the deadline?
- Ask questions. If you don’t initially get the answer to these questions, don’t make assumptions. Ask clarifying questions, even after you’ve already started working. Consolidate your questions into one email or meeting with the assigning attorney. Don’t leave them until the last minute. Avoid missing the mark by getting all the information you can and need early on.
- Control what you can. Give yourself enough time to complete the assignment and proofread. Print out your work product to review—typos easily seen on paper are often missed on a computer. Ask a fellow summer associate, assigned mentor, or secretary to proofread your work.
- Meet (or beat) the deadline. I can’t emphasize this enough. This is one of the easiest ways to make a good—or bad—impression. Make sure you know the deadline, and unless told otherwise, turn in any assignment before the close of business (5 p.m.). If you can beat the deadline, great! But don’t overpromise and under-deliver by missing your own self-imposed deadline. And don’t prioritize speed over accuracy.
- Communicate. Be sure to communicate with the assigning attorney if anything unexpected comes up, so there are no surprises. If a work or personal conflict arises that prevents you from meeting the deadline, let the assigning attorney know right away. And don’t be afraid to say “no” to work if your plate is already full and taking on additional work would cause your work quality to suffer.
Finally, don’t give short shrift to the relationship-building aspect of your summer experience. Some of the relationships with your fellow summers will last your entire career. By getting to know the people at your firm, you’ll be better able to assess whether it is a good fit for you. Keep in mind the following:
- Don’t stay at your desk. I give this advice to the lawyers I work with. While many of you will want to focus all your effort on your work product—which is where your primary efforts go—take advantage of non-work opportunities. Go to social events, and ask good questions. Building relationships is critical to your success as a professional.
- Events are work too. Keep in mind that firm events are an important part of the summer program. At these events, the firm’s lawyers will get to see how well you mix with other people and, one day, clients. While you should have fun, treat them like work. RSVP (and be sure to let someone know if you can’t attend), manage your time so that you can attend (while also staying on top of work), and act professionally at all times.
- Be strategic. Don’t go to lunch with the same group every day or stick with your fellow summer associates at events. Branch out, and get to know people you haven’t met professionally as well as personally.
- Treat everyone well. From the person at the security desk to the head of the firm, be kind and courteous to everyone. While this should go without saying, I’ve seen many summers (and lawyers) forget this golden rule to their detriment.
Finally, enjoy your summer associate experience. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!