If you're fortunate enough to receive job offers from law firms as a first-year student, count your blessings. You're definitely in the minority these days. But no matter who you are and how many job offers you may receive, there's a right and a wrong way to handle the process. Even if you don't have multiple offers waiting in the wings, let this exercise be a warm-up for your second-year interview season. Learn early in your career the right and wrong way to make these decisions. Too many students burn their bridges very early on, simply because they didn't take the time to turn down or accept job offers in a polite and timely manner.
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Before You Accept
If you receive a summer job offer from a law firm, there are several points you should consider when making your decision. If dealing with large firms, make sure the firm gives you at least two weeks to make a decision, in accordance with NALP guidelines. Firms sometimes take liberties with first-years and cajole them into making quick decisions, since it's in the firm's best interest to know immediately if you are coming on board or not. With the tight job market for first-year students, some firms think they can get away with this practice. It's not unreasonable to ask for additional time if you are dealing with a large firm, so do so if you need to.
Occasionally, firms try to manipulate students on salary issues. It is common for firms to pay first-years less than second-year students, but the gap shouldn't be significant. A large East Coast firm wanted to hire a few first-years, but decided to pay them one-half of the second-year rate. It is acceptable to ask firms what the second-year salary is when they quote you the first-year rate. Your placement office may also possess this salary information. While you may not be in a position to demand higher wages, you don't want to enter a situation in which you feel slighted, which might cause negative feelings the entire summer. Fortunately, this isn't a common practice.
Make sure you find out what your job responsibilities will be. Don't assume that you'll be given legal research to perform or that you'll be doing the same work as the second-year students. Ask what your responsibilities will be if this hasn't been made clear to you.
Get It in Writing
Always request that your job offer be sent to you in writing. While a summer associate offer will not be as complex as that of a regular associate receiving benefits and vacation pay, you should have some things spelled out on paper. This will eliminate any uncertainties and will back up what you have been told in the interview process, should there be any problems or miscommunications later on.
One such horror story involves a student who received an offer from a small New York firm over lunch in January. When he reported to work in June, to his dismay, he discovered that his salary was $250 a week, not the $1,000 he was originally quoted. He also spent his first week at the firm photocopying files instead of doing legal research, as he was told. He was informed that he could take the job or leave it, and the firm denied ever promising to pay him $1,000 a week or promising him that he would perform legal research.
To eliminate potential problems, the letter should state your job title and briefly define your responsibilities, job function, and salary. If the firm has a policy on summer start and end dates, those dates should also be included in the letter. Keep a copy of the letter for future reference. Again, shafting first-years is not a common practice in law firms, so don't be alarmed. But it's always a good idea to have a paper trail. It's also a good practice to begin your career by developing a professional eye for proper business procedures.
The Way to a Successful Summer-Some Basic Helpful Hints
There are lots of things you can do to assist your transition to law firm life, even if only for a summer. You should be prepared to make some mistakes as you adjust to law firm life, but you can make that adjustment run smoothly if you follow some of my advice. Law school doesn't do the best job of preparing you for this transition, so don't be intimidated when you first encounter law firm culture. You'll have a more successful experience if you remain adaptable, flexible, and optimistic.
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Top Ten Survival Tips for First-Year Students Working in Law Firms
Here are some of the little things that can make your summer experience run smoother:
- Always ask questions. Even the most trivial things are difficult when you don't know the proper procedure to get something done. NEVER assume you know the right way to do things. Asking questions, even about the most trivial things, is viewed favorably.
- Make friends with the support staff. Some support staff members know more about the practice of law than some associates. Figure out who the savvy ones are and become their friends, especially those who have been around forever. They can help you out (and usually want to) more than you realize.
- Get along with your peers. Summer programs have little room for prima donnas. Get to know your fellow law students, and learn to get along with them. No one has a need for a back-stabber or a one-upper.
- Quality over quantity every time. It is better to produce a few good assignments rather than many mediocre ones. And no one is counting.
- Remind attorneys that you are a first-year when necessary. Sometimes assigning attorneys forget that you are a first-year and have taken only the basic law school courses. This makes tackling some complex assignments almost impossible. If necessary, remind them that you are a first-year rather than get in over your head. It is much easier to stay out of a tough assignment than to get out of something that you had no place in to begin with.
- Work hard but take the time to have fun. Summer programs are meant to be two-dimensional. You must prove that you can do the work, but you also must prove that you can fit in. No one will ever know if you fit in if you are working 100 percent of the time. And life is too short not to have fun at least part of the time. Take the time to get to know the people you are working with, for your benefit as well as theirs. Firms won't hire or invite back students they don't know very well.
- Don't burn your bridges. The law firm community is small, and you can't always predict where you will ultimately end up. If you discover that you don't like the firm where you're working, learn to make the best of it, and if you must leave, always depart on good terms, no matter what your circumstances.
- Learn how the politics work in your firm sooner rather than later. In law firms, like the rest of the corporate world, politics play a leading role. Learn the ropes quickly, as well as how not to become entangled in them. Be aware, but don't get involved.
- Be savvy. If this is your first law firm experience, educate yourself on law firm economics and culture as quickly as possible. Remember that you are not in academia anymore. Listen to the war stories. They can be quite revealing if you are able to separate fact from fiction. At the very least, they can serve as cautionary tales of what not to do.
- Be yourself. Don't try to be someone you are not. This is only a summer job-you don't have to sell your soul.
Some additional advice comes from an article that appeared in an ABA Journal. Attorney Kathy Biehl tells young associates to ground their attitude in reality. "Think of what you're doing as a job... and it's okay for jobs to be boring every now and then." I agree. Take the initiative, and learn to expect the unexpected. While your first summer may be just a dress rehearsal, remember, even seasoned actors take dress rehearsals seriously.
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