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The Structure of a Summer Associate Program

published January 07, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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( 286 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
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Fitting into a firm is only half the battle. You must also learn how to master the more technical aspects, the work assignments. You'll have an easier time mastering the work if you first understand what firms expect from their summer associates. What is important when you deliver an assignment? How many assignments should you tackle at once? What types of mistakes do firms find acceptable? How is work evaluated? I'll answer these questions for you and give you some pointers on how to deliver the best work possible. And again, the difference lies in the details.
The Structure of a Summer Associate Program

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Obtaining, handing out, and tracking work assignments in summer programs are almost a full-time job in any summer program. Firms handle this process differently, depending on their size, areas of practice, and management structures. You'll have little control on how work is handed out in your firm, but it's helpful to understand how the work assignment process generally works.

The Assignment Book Technique

Firms gather assignments, generally before the summer program starts, and place them in a binder, which is usually housed in either the recruiting coordinator's or hiring partner's office. When you need work, you select a project from the book. Sometimes the project will be selected for you, so you may have little say in which assignments you receive. If your firm uses this method, make sure you get a variety of assignments from as many areas of the firm as possible. Also make sure that at least some of your projects are billable.

The Rotation Program

Firms with distinct practice groups sometimes rotate summer associates through each practice area for a specific amount of time. Some firms will allow their summer associates to pick the areas they want to rotate through. If your firm uses this method, make sure that you find out early on how students are evaluated. A danger in adopting the rotation program is that the practice groups often want the same "star" students, leaving others out in the cold.

The "Vulture" or "Water Fountain" Method

The "vulture" or "water fountain" method is when the attorneys walk through the corridors and snatch up summer associates for projects. Once you catch on, if you have a lot of work, you never roam the halls. All firms practice this to a degree, but some are worse than others.

The "Land on Your Own Feet" Method

Some very independent and entrepreneurial firms tend to practice the "land on your own feet" method. Many firms will never admit to you that they expect you to gather at least some of your own work, but it's a wise idea to learn how to master the art of garnering your work assignments without the assistance of others in the firm. If you master this art, you'll never be without work.


Doing the work and learning the proper way to deliver the product are two completely different issues. It takes a while to adapt to a new working environment. Learning the proper procedures or channels of communication to get the work out takes time, which is in short supply during a summer internship.

Technology is a great leveler, and it plays a starring role in many law firms. Law students are often technologically more efficient than their associate and partner counterparts; and many come into firms frustrated by the lower technological standards. Each firm will be different in this regard. Some firms will give each summer associate his or her own computer, while others will not. It is not uncommon for students to bring their computers with them, especially laptops. Just be ready to adapt to whatever environment you find yourself in.

Working Smart Hints

Adapting to a work environment while working with multiple attorneys, each with a different working style, can be nerve-racking at best. The following are some helpful hints that may prove useful as you adapt to your new environment:
  1. Get a memo format. Attorneys love to utilize hard copy memoranda, even when it would be easier to use e-mail. Therefore, many of your assignments will be delivered via written memo. Get a copy of the standard memo format in your firm during the first week, and learn to use it. Also, make sure you have copies of all of the formats if there is more than one.
  2. Keep copies of all your assignments. Make a file, create a notebook, or keep a disk (whatever works for you) of all of your work assignments during the summer. That way, if anything is lost or misplaced, you have a backup copy. This also gives you a file of sample work products for future use if you need them. But don't wait until the end of the summer to start this project.
  3. Learn to juggle multiple assignments at once. Summer associates come into a firm wanting to obtain an assignment, finish it, and then go on to the next one. Unfortunately, the real world does not work like this. You have to learn how to slay several dragons at one time, using the same sword. You'll probably struggle at first as you learn to do this, but to be successful you must be able to master this task. And the sooner you are able to work this way, the better.
  4. Keep up with your time in a timely manner. You have to learn how to bill your time-a necessary evil ranked up there with getting a root canal. No one likes to keep track of his or her time, especially in tenth-of-an-hour increments. But learn to be efficient early on. Enter your time into the billing system weekly or even daily. Your billing partners will love you, and your secretary will love you even more.
  5. Never assume that you know the billing policies of clients. When you receive an assignment from an attorney, ask if there are any billing policies you need to know about. Some clients have established specific billing guidelines, which you will not know about and the attorneys may forget to tell you.
  6. Get permission to bill Westlaw/LEXIS time before you start. Computer research time is not free anymore. Just to be safe, get prior permission to bill computer research time to clients. Many summer associates have left firms with $1,000 Westlaw bills, unknown to the client, making many billing partners very unhappy. Get the green light on the front end, and be efficient when you work. Get the firm librarian to help you in the beginning as you learn to be an efficient online researcher.
  7. Stay in touch with attorneys who give you long-term work assignments. You will probably receive a mix of short- and long-term assignments over the summer. There is always at least one summer associate who alienates a partner who gives out a long-term assignment, never hearing from that student again until the end of the summer. Make a weekly progress report to the attorney, indicating where you are with the project, even if you have to do this for the entire summer. Some attorneys believe in the "out of sight, out of mind" philosophy-if they don't hear from you, they think you aren't working on an assignment or aren't interested in it. Communication is key. Make sure you communicate frequently on the long projects.
  8. Become good friends with the librarian and the MIS director. Despite what many senior partners think, a firm is helpless without these two people. They are invaluable resources for everyone in the firm. Get to know them well over the course of the summer.
  9. Ask for feedback. Generally, attorneys are not good at giving feedback to summer associates, and therefore students are often disappointed with the amount of feedback they receive. Put the burden on yourself for obtaining comments on your work. No one will fault you for taking the initiative.

You should know, from the very beginning of your clerkship, how you'll be evaluated over the course of the summer. This knowledge should include who is involved in the evaluation process (i.e., which attorneys evaluate you), how often you'll be evaluated (once or twice during the summer or more), and what criteria will be used to evaluate you. Without this knowledge, you may not know what the firm is looking for in its future associates.

If possible, get the firm to show you a blank evaluation form. Keep in mind that all firms will have a different evaluation form.
In large firms, the evaluation process is often very structured, while in smaller firms, the process will probably be more informal and loosely designed, if it formally exists at all. While the procedures vary from firm to firm, I've outlined below how the process works in one large firm, which I'll call Smith & Jones.

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General Evaluations

If you were working at Smith & Jones, you'd be evaluated twice during the summer (only once if you're there for half of the summer). You're apprised of the evaluation process during the orientation you receive during your first week. Each attorney in the firm is given the opportunity to evaluate every student by completing an evaluation form on each one or by giving feedback directly to a member of the recruiting committee. If an attorney chooses the latter method, his or her comments are recorded during the meeting. These two evaluations are general in nature. All evaluations are kept under lock and key by the recruiting coordinator. Summer associates are never allowed to review their evaluations.

The first evaluation, which usually takes place at the end of June, is intended to identify any major problem areas. Hopefully, if problems are identified at this early stage, they can be remedied. For example, a student might have an abrasive personality, which is offending firm members. Or a student might be treating the staff in a rude manner. Fortunately, negative evaluations are not the norm. At Smith & Jones, an associate and a partner from the recruiting committee sit down with the student and deliver the evaluation. This session can be as short as ten minutes, or if there are major problems, it can take hours. If problem areas are identified, a follow-up session is usually scheduled in a few weeks in an effort to remedy the situation.

The second evaluation, which is given at the end of the summer, acts as a "summary." By this time, firm members should have gotten to know you and your peers well enough to evaluate you. Attorneys are usually instructed to ask themselves, "Is this someone with whom I want to work? Do I like this summer associate? Does he or she possess the necessary criteria to be a successful attorney in this firm?" As you would expect, much more information is gathered during this evaluation. As during the midsummer evaluation, representatives from the recruiting committee meet with you and deliver the evaluation. This is usually done sometime during your last week at the firm.

Individual Work Evaluations

Separate from the overall evaluations are the individual work evaluations. These are just as important as the general evaluations. If you are able to do the work but can't "fit" into the firm, you probably don't have a future there. If everyone loves you, but you simply cannot do the work at the level required, then your offer potential is equally weak. Take a look at the sample work evaluation form below. One work evaluation form is completed by the assigning attorney for each project you complete.

Obviously, work evaluations are handled differently in different firms. At Smith & Jones, the recruiting coordinator keeps track of which assignments are given to each summer associate. She then contacts the assigning attorneys once the work is completed, attempting to obtain a completed evaluation form. She maintains contact with the attorneys until the evaluation is handed in. Once the evaluations are received, if there are any negative comments, she contacts the attorney for further feedback, attempting to identify any real problems. All work evaluations are kept under lock and key. Only members of the recruiting committee see the actual evaluations. The attorneys are more willing to write down information if they know that their audience is limited. The summer associates never see the completed evaluations on their work.
My experience has shown that students seem to be more concerned with the work evaluations than their overall evaluations. You should be equally concerned with both. While improving the quality of your work is easier to control, you don't want to end up in a firm that clashes with your personality type.


There are many pieces to the puzzle that influences how firms make hiring decisions. While it's probably impossible for you to know what the pieces to that puzzle are for your particular firm, your best bet is to gain an overall knowledge of the factors that most firms have to deal with-factors such as law firm politics, law firm economics, and the size of the summer associate class, for example.

The Time Lag Factor

Consider the fact that second-year recruiting is done almost two years in advance. So much can change within a firm from the time that you are hired during the fall of your second year and the time that you report to work as an associate once you've completed law school. A partner with millions of dollars of portable business can leave a firm, a major client may go to another law firm, regulatory changes can dry up work in a particular area—these are just a few examples. And infighting and indecision can also have an adverse effect on hiring.


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The Actual Hiring Decision

Firms decide to hire students in different ways. In most firms, the partners must vote on associate hiring decisions. This is often done after receiving recommendations from the recruiting committee and the wishes of certain practice or work groups. Large firms are sometimes organized along practice group lines, and hiring often follows this alignment. At Smith & Jones, for example, the trust and estates practice decides how many associates they want to hire for that practice, and the trust and estates partners actually determine which summer associates get hired for their practice. The method works for other departments in the firm as well.

Some large and medium-sized firms have a general rotation for the first year or two, and new associates are not assigned to a practice group until the end of the second year. Associates are hired as a "pool" based on the general projected needs of the firm. In small firms, the partners decide if they have the financial resources and the workload to hire additional associates.

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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

More about Harrison

About LawCrossing

LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit www.LawCrossing.com.

published January 07, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 286 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.