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Friday, May 20, 2011

Advice to the New Summer Associate in Big Law

As a sequel to an old post advising new junior associates in big law (here), below are some nuggets of wisdom for those rising 3Ls and (fortunate) 2Ls about to spend a summer at a big firm.

Do Less Well

The firm’s assessment of you will be based more on how well you performed on the assignments you were given and less on how many assignments you completed.  Beware the natural inclination to hand in an assignment too quickly in the pursuit of yet further assignments.  This is probably the most costly mistake summer associates make.  Keep people abreast of your progress, but take as much time as you need.    

“S/He cannot Even do this Right!”

The expectations of the substance of your work product will be low.  This has the unfortunate effect of inflating the expectations of the formal and technical aspects of your work.  Spelling errors, typos, using a sample and failing to insert the name of the new client in the caption, saving your work to the wrong hard drive, forgetting the page numbers etc. are often blown out of proportion.  So proofread! proofread! proofread! proofread! and then proofread some more.  

 Do not be a Brat

Many partners resent the summer associates, especially during an economic downturn.  After all, that signed Chagall lithograph is not going to pay for itself.  I recall tagging along to a meeting of a defense team that comprised the very best white-collar crime litigators in NYC.  At the end, one of the partners from the hosting firm invited us all to “yet another party we are having for those brats.”  Everyone but me – the only summer associate – laughed.  Your aim is therefore to project an image of a thankful adult, as opposed to a spoiled brat complaining about the quality of the hors-d'oeuvres, that the Broadway show was not the most expensive show around, or that at Skadden they already upgraded to the newer Blackberry.  It will surprise you how much of this goes on.           

Getting an Assignment

Always have a pad and pen.  When given an assignment ask questions.  Better to ask even the dumbest question at the beginning than have to ask midway.  Some basic things to know: what the deadline is; the scope of the assignment; the jurisdiction; the partner on the case; the name of the client; the billing number.  Do not leave the room until you feel comfortable that you know what it is you are being asked to do.  Worrisome of appearing ignorant and not wanting to waste a superior’s time, summers have a tendency to scribble the instructions on their pad with little understanding, thinking that they will figure things out later.  This is a sure recipe for wasting everyone’s time, including yours.    

I’m FROM CORNELL, where are you from?”

Don’t do that.

Be Part of the Team

The fact that your discrete assignment is complete does not mean that there is no work to be done on the broader matter.  Inquire.  Offer to help.  Do not leave for home or some firm event before checking in and finding out whether there is more to be done.  Associates will appreciate you for this.      

The Long Run 

Although your main goal is to obtain an offer for permanent employment, do not lose sight of the long-term goal: having a successful career at the firm.  Any negative impressions you leave people with during the summer will catch up with you a year or two later when you return.  Remember this when interacting with junior people at the firm who may have little power over your offer prospects.  The lowly second-year associate of today may be the mid-level associate who makes your life hell tomorrow.  

Give Everyone thy Ear, but Few thy Voice 

Everyone at a law firm gossips about everyone else in the firm.  If there is something you do not want the firm or others to know, confide in no one.  At least not until you have formed some consistent and reliable friendships.      

 Eye on the Prize

Regardless of whether or not you are certain about spending your first post-graduation years at a big firm (and there are weighty reasons not to), act as if that is your aspiration.  Your primary goal should be obtaining an offer for permanent employment, and a firm is less likely to give such an offer to noncommittal candidates.  Keep your reservations about geography, practice area, your dream of joining Amnesty International, your secret desire to get a slot with a top-ten ranked firm (there are as well weighty reason not to) etc. under wraps.  Once you have the offer, there may be room for delicate negotiations.

Those RAH-RAH Folks in Recruiting

They may seem like your friendly camp counselors, but they are constantly assessing you.  Do not trust them.  Assume everything gets reported back to the hiring partners.          

What do YOU Want?

You are assessing them just as they are assessing you.  Do not allow your pursuit of an offer and eagerness to please to distract you from asking yourself – and mostly only yourself – whether the firm appeals to you.  Look more to how people at firm act and appear and less to what they say.    

Posted by Ori Herstein on May 20, 2011 at 02:08 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I take exception to the paragraph regarding Recruiters. Recruiters have a vested interest in the summer associates success. Recruiters will advise summer associates that they should develop relationships with the secretaries and paralegals because they are the "on the ground" people who can give them the inside scoop. Also, Recruiters help the summer associate adjust to the law firm culture and politics. They are the "go to" people who can help the summer associate avoid political minefields. Recruiters are the "Rah Rah" group and they are constantly assessing you, but they are assessing you to help you, not "report" back to the hiring partners....unless, of course, there is a need to have to report back to anyone. As a former recruiter, I found that paragraph particularly insulting to the profession.

Posted by: Nona | May 24, 2011 11:59:40 AM

:I'm from Cornell..." I love those types. I was on a motion argument in federal court and the other attorney said "we'll I went to Stanford, and I know," in a rip towards me going to the little state school. Unfortunately for him, they didn't actually teach the details of this state's law and he lost. 2 years later, the judge was at a CLE and during a break walked by me and said "Hello, and I would know it's you, because I went to Stanford/" Loved that the judge never forgot that too..

Posted by: Brian G. | May 24, 2011 11:44:45 AM

FWIW, I did summer clerkships myself at BigLaw firms in Austin, Houston, Dallas, and New York, then spent a dozen years in a BigLaw practice in Houston, each with its own set of summer associates. Toward the end of which I was making (or closely consulted on) all hiring decisions for my practice area -- so I've seen the process from both sides.

Posted by: Beldar | May 23, 2011 7:06:10 PM

I would add:

Invite war stories, and then listen to them. Even for non-litigators, war stories -- the "then I said, and she saids" -- are a key method through which associates learn the practice of law. Any lawyer who's been in practice even a year will have some. Solicit them: "How'd you learn to do ____?" Or "what sorts of things would I learn from ____ if I had a chance to work here?" Or "What do you find most fun/challenging/non-obvious about _________ in your practice?" Or even "Why'd you choose ____ instead of ____?"

Yes, this is in part just calculated and graceful sucking up. But people like to talk about themselves, and they will like you for being genuinely interested (so make yourself be genuinely interested!). And -- best of all -- you'll actually gather useful information that will help you make an informed decision on not only firms, but practice areas.

Posted by: Beldar | May 23, 2011 7:03:06 PM

Make friends with the Secretaries and Paralegals. They have the ear of the partners, know what they want and how they want it. It is easy to stand out because the "I'm from Cornell" guy has already thoroughly ticked them off. Be nice, treat them like intelligent human beings and when they give advice take it. The secretaries and paralegals can help you immeasurably.

Posted by: stevethepatentguy | May 23, 2011 6:43:28 PM

Matt. I clerked for two judges and both had a lot of summer interns. Here's my impression. The ability to schmooze is perhaps less valued in the chambers context than in the law firm context. My fellow clerks and I found that some interns thought that they could make the best impression by getting to know the clerks and judge very well, kissing rear and generally rubbing elbows; trying to get "connected." Those interns earned little respect. Then there were the interns who were professional, cordial and warm, yet delved into the work and strived to show they could produce incisive and well written memos. Especially if your goal is to clerk, make the impression that you truly enjoy rigorous analysis and discussion of complicated legal problems. And that you can write VERY well. This is a good way to get a rec letter from a judge, which is always nice.

Posted by: Anotheranon | May 23, 2011 4:14:03 PM


Good idea -- I just posted something here:

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 23, 2011 12:45:22 AM

I was working as a junior corporate associate one summer and was assigned to a particularly awful deal. The type of deal where you don't go home for days at a time. The senior associate running the deal (who was going up for partner that fall) literally hadn't slept for three days when a group of wide-eyed summer associates showed up at the printer one morning to "see a deal in action." The first thing one of the summers did was to march up to the senior associate to tell her that she needed to leave by 5:00 because she needed to "get to the dry cleaners before it closed."

If you're a summer associate reading this, please don't be that person.

Posted by: JC | May 22, 2011 8:59:17 PM

Two more practical tips:

Learn to make a beer last a while. You are going to be at a lot of functions where there will be drinking. Your goal is to look like you are enjoying and participating in the "happy hour" atmosphere, while at the same time, not getting inebriated. Slowly nursing a Miller Lite for 45 minutes is a good way to do this.

You are also going to be going out for a lot of fancy, rich dinners. You basically have three choices. Skip a good number of them; preemptively let out your suits two inches; or order the healthiest fish dish.

Posted by: Joe | May 22, 2011 2:06:13 PM

Interesting post. I wonder if you could produce something similar, or link to something similar, for those of us who will be working for a judge this summer? I would imagine the environment requires one to observe a different set of guidelines.

Posted by: Matt | May 20, 2011 5:28:25 PM

In assessing the firm, look at how the powers-that-be treat those working beneath them. That tells a lot about what kind of people these are. And, of course, if you come, you will be beneath the powers-that-be.

Posted by: Mike Zimmer | May 20, 2011 4:25:03 PM

I am not sure about number 1, in particular the advice to "take as much time as you need." It is true that because expectations are low for summer associates, much of the work they are given is not time sensitive. And it is also true that quality is more important than quantity. But in my experience law firm partners value the ability to get an assignment back in a timely fashion, since that is what ask of associates. Generally, associates are not asked to produce term papers with flexible deadlines; they are asked to produce high quality work under time pressure. Showing partners that you can meet deadlines without sacrificing quality is therefore important in demonstrating your ability to be successful as an associate (again, at least in my experience and with appropriate caveats about assessing whether a particular partner will be annoyed if you ask for an extension -- and you should be sure to ask, not simply take).

Posted by: TM | May 20, 2011 3:03:45 PM


Posted by: Ori | May 20, 2011 2:38:30 PM

Great advice!

Posted by: Sarah L. | May 20, 2011 2:36:13 PM

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