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Summer clerkships: Understanding the Rules

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Contrary to popular mythology, the objective for any summer clerk is not simply to enjoy the summer, nor is it merely to learn about the law firm or the corporate law department or the city in question. These are important considerations, but they are far from being the most important objectives. The single most important objective is to get an offer of permanent employment. Not receiving an offer can be bitterly disappointing and haunt you throughout your job hunting days. Very few interviewers will interview students who were summer clerks and not ask them whether or not they have received an offer from the firm or firms for which they worked for the preceding summer or summers. Although in almost all cases the people questioned will have received offers, there are some instances in which that will not be true. No matter how good the explanation or rationale, the absence of an offer always creates a doubt. Remember, your experience as a summer clerk is, in the eyes of most interviewers, more akin to practice than your law school experience. Consequently, interviewers tend to put more weight on so-called practice experience than they do on law school grades when given the opportunity to evaluate both.

Summer clerkships: Understanding the Rules

The distinction between law school and summer clerking experiences is not altogether logical, but it exists. Somehow interviewers seem to believe that personality conflicts with law school professors are acceptable, but personality conflicts with partners in other law firms are not. Given that basic fact, you need to understand how and when offers at the firm at which you are working are made.

Equally important is to understand who makes the decision. The person or persons who recruited at your law school will be happy to explain their firm's process to you. Your questions in that regard should include questions about who reviews your work and how the critique process (if any) operates. Incidentally, the absence of a review and critique process, especially in a summer program, should create a question.

Having set the basic goal, you should know that most summer clerks do receive offers. The person who invited you to spend the summer will be able to provide some historical information with respect to the percentage of offers given in any summer class. Recent National Association of Law Placement officers ("NALP") questionnaires also attempt to answer that inquiry. You should also ask how many of those receiving offers actually arrive at the firm as permanent associates and what is their percentage.

To Work or Not to Work

Remembering the basic objective, you should find the answer to this question relatively easy. Nonetheless, many law firms downplay the importance of working during the summer and instead encourage students to do the things mentioned in the first sentence of this chapter: to enjoy the summer and to learn about the law firm, department, and city. The primary objective of the interviewing process, in general, is to preserve as many options as possible. Options are preserved by receiving an offer. To satisfy that objective you will still have time to do other things even as you provide significant work product for the firm to evaluate.

To the extent possible, you should avoid getting stuck on a single project particularly if your work product is not available for evaluation until the very end of your stay with a given firm. This is less of a problem with firms that do not make decisions about offers until the fall. If you find yourself working on a project that never seems to end, you should express your concern to the person or persons who hired you as well as to the person who is handling work assignments for summer associates at the firm. They will be able to tell you whether or not your fears are unfounded and should be able to correct, to the extent possible, the inequities in such a situation.

In some situations, of course, you simply cannot turndown an assignment nor, once having accepted a certain responsibility, reassign it to another person. Those situations are simply part of the practice of law.

Approaching a Work Assignment

Although the purpose is not to educate young lawyers in the practice or provide any specific guidelines for success in the practice of law, a few general observations about approaching a work assignment must be made if to provide insight into how to get an offer. First, you should understand the problem. To the extent you are confused, ask questions. Lawyers handing out assignments to summer clerks expect them to ask a lot of questions; they know you may be given a problem in which you have absolutely no substantive background. Do not disappoint them; ask every conceivable question.

Next in importance after understanding the problem is to know when the project is due and in what form. Deadlines are easy enough to explain; the form in which the work product is desired may be more difficult to understand. Do not presume that the lawyer for whom you are working wants you to take the law school approach, i.e., discuss both sides of the issue.

In other words, you should understand how your work will be used. If it is to be used in writing a brief, be heavy on quotations. If you have a tax problem, you might try to make an analysis of the Internal Revenue Code independently of what the Internal Revenue Service may say about the Code in various Treasury Regulations. If you have a corporate securities question, be heavy on analysis. If you are drafting an opinion, be perfect. Obviously, you should edit and review your work, but be sensible about it. There comes a time when you must turn the assignment in. Do not worry about it; do the best you can. Be careful about turning in "drafts"; develop a confidence that allows you to work with a final product. The Supreme Court and the Securities & Exchange Commission do not take drafts; approach every project, even ones for lawyers one year your senior, as if you were going to the Supreme Court. Obviously you cannot practice in that manner all the time, but be serious about your approach on each problem until your experience can provide more discriminating guidance.

One of the most difficult situations any summer clerk (or for that matter new associate) faces is how to use a law firm or corporate law department's stenographic and other administrative personnel. For example, chances are quite good you will never have used dictating equipment. Try to learn how to use the equipment available at your institution. Technology is a part of the practice of law. Indeed, projections for the future indicate an incredible increase in the technological advancement in the practice. You will not be able to survive if you persist in writing in longhand or typing your own memoranda.

Moreover, do not be frustrated when your work comes back from word processing later than you thought it would or with substantially more mistakes than you had anticipated. Remember the functional equivalents of summer associates work in the word processing department as well. If you have problems meeting your deadline as a result of the firm's inability to process your work quickly enough, see the person for whom you are working. If the deadline is real, that person will be able to find stenographic help.

Socializing and Dating

There will be tremendous social demands made upon your time during the summer. Indeed, most law firms and corporate law departments err on the side of making too many demands on your social schedule. Do not feel an obligation to accept every invitation offered. On the other hand, do not be reclusive. People are genuinely interested in getting to know you and giving you the opportunity to gain a feeling for and an understanding of their institution.

Many times during the summer the question of whether or not you should date other clerks or, for that matter, lawyers in the firm will present itself. As is true in any other business or professional situations, doing so, if handled discreetly as the personal issue it is, is completely acceptable. However, some relationships have not been handled on a discreet basis, resulting in questions about the judgment of the younger or junior person involved. Somehow firms or institutions have a subconscious ability to protect people on the basis of seniority. The best lawyers get paid for judgment; never do anything during the interviewing process or when clerking that may raise questions about your judgment.

Interviewing Other Institutions during the Summer

Questions always arise about the propriety of interviewing other firms in town. In most instances, firms expect and, indeed, may encourage you to see different firms in the area while you are a summer associate. There are situations in which that may not be true, but firms that are relatively confident about the quality of their institutions are generally eager for you to go out and be disillusioned firsthand. If in doubt, ask.

Incidentals; House Sitting; Car-Pooling; Rentals

Many firms have elaborate processes designed to allow you to "house sit", viz., use the homes of lawyers taking summer vacations. Those situations are generally highly desirable. You are offered opportunities to live in residences that are probably better than you could afford, particularly on a short-term basis, and you will be given an opportunity to experience life in different areas of a city. On the other hand, some people have an understandable paranoia about living in someone else's home, constantly worrying about damage or problems.

If you fall into that category or think you might, house sitting may be more frustrating than it is worth. If you do house sit, do not leave a mess and respect everything in the residence as if it were your mother's.

Car-pooling arrangements are not only desirable but probably relatively easy to make, in that available, acceptable summer rentals in any given city tend to be somewhat centralized.

Many firms provide professional help in locating and arranging apartment and automobile rentals for summer associates. Use the firm, law department or agency rental services for cars and apartments if they are available; without them it may be virtually impossible or quite cumbersome economically to arrange for such rentals. Some firms also arrange for guest memberships in various clubs or spas for summer associates to use during the course of their stay at a given firm or law department.

Tickets and Other Perks

In all probability you will be wined and dined to a greater extent than you imagined possible, or even desirable. You may have an opportunity for beach parties, huge western barbeques, expensive catered dinner parties, golf and tennis outings, trips to branch offices, and the like. In addition, you may be offered tickets to sporting events, outdoor concerts, plays, and as many other activities as the creative minds of recruiters can invent.

Feel free to take advantage of those situations; that is what they are there for. On the other hand, be careful about monopolizing a certain event or type of ticket. There will also be times when you may feel that you are being used just as a "meal ticket". Meaning, you may find lawyers inviting you for lunch, dinner and drinks with astonishing frequency and may assume, at least at the outset that it is due to your incisive intellect and scintillating personality. While no doubt that is the real reason, you will soon learn that such excursions are reimbursable to the lawyers hosting you. Do not be offended at that, but if the invitations become over-powering, you might talk about it to the attorney who hired you.

Timing Questions: How Long Should I Stay?

It is probably not in your best interests to spend less than six or, perhaps in some isolated instances, four weeks at a given firm during the summer. In many situations you will not be given that option; the firm or corporation will simply dictate the interim stay, and if that is unacceptable, you will be free to look elsewhere. If you have decided to split your summer between two firms (splitting with more than two firms is a mistake), begin with the firm in which you are most interested and end with your second choice. If you have decided to spend the summer with a single institution and are faced with the prospect of coming right after school and leaving midsummer or arriving late and leaving just before school begins, elect the former. In the world of first impressions it behooves you to create the correct one first.

Splitting the Summer

If you have an opportunity to spend six to eight weeks with a big firm on the west coast and a small firm on the east coast, or some other equally attractive alternative, take it. The value in splitting your summer is to give you back-to-back opportunities to compare institutions, styles of practice, and geography. In that sense, it probably does not make much sense to split your summer between two large firms in Los Angeles or two small firms in Chicago. Use the summer to develop your insight.

Special Insight for Third-Year Summer Clerks

Most firms react negatively to summer clerks who have graduated from law school. There are two principal reasons for this. First, most summer programs are designed for summer clerks who are still students. The work is tailored for them and not for the law school graduate. Work suitable for law school graduates can be given to newly arriving permanent associates.
In addition, an important purpose behind every institution's summer program is to create goodwill in the people who spend the summer at that institution so that, when they return to their respective law schools, they will create a positive image about the institution or institutions with which they spent the summer. Third-year students do not return to school.

Special Considerations for the First-Year Clerk

An increasing number of law firms are developing first-year clerkship programs. Indeed, some law firms visit law school campuses strictly to recruit first-year students. Other law firms confine on-campus interviewing for first-year clerks to those schools that have meaningful mid-term grades available.

Check with your placement office to see whether or not firms will be interviewing at your school for first-year clerks or, alter natively, what firms have hired first-year clerks from your school in recent years.

Assuming there is no significant number of on-campus interviews, you can do several things to try and find a position as a first-year clerk. If you are in a given area for Christmas or Easter break, see if you can arrange to visit the firm in which you are interested. Of course it is in your best interest to write in advance, sending a resume and grades if available and perhaps offering a writing sample. Even if your efforts are fruitless, they may give you an advantage next year in your quest for second-year clerkships.

Firms vary in their practice with respect to giving offers to first-year clerks. In some instances firms are giving you an offer to return for a second summer; in others the offer is to return either for the second summer or as a permanent associate. In either event, you face the question of whether you should return to the same firm for the second summer. Generally speaking, there is no reason to do that, notwithstanding what may be very persuasive arguments offered by the institution in question. If you have had a successful summer, the institution will remember you even if you do not return until the fall of your third year. Take advantage of the second summer to broaden your experiences and test another environment.

The first year student has special insecurities borne by the fact that he or she has had less substantive legal education.
Do not worry about that. You may find getting started a bit more difficult than you would as a second year student, but the process is the same for you as for a second year student. You will generally not be asked to do things that you cannot do, and you should be confident about your ability to perform on a basis roughly equal to that of the second year student.
What to Do If You Do Not Get an Offer

First of all, be honest about it. Do not duck the issue. It may hurt, but you should find out exactly why you did not get an offer. In addition, in almost every instance there will be something you did during the summer which was either qualifying or perhaps very good. You should talk to the person for whom you did that work and see if you can list that person as a reference. In a few instances persons who were not given offers at our firm have approached me to act as a reference because work they did for me was, in my opinion, qualifying or in one or two instances quite good. In those situations I have been happy to act as a reference; when contacted, I have been pleased that the effect of their not having received an offer may have been mitigated.

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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