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Succeeding as a Summer Law Associate

published July 24, 2013

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Now that you have been through the grueling recruiting process and have found a home for the summer, you are ready to jump on the law firm bandwagon as a summer associate. There are worse ways to spend a summer. My father always said that if he could be reincarnated, he wanted to be a summer associate in his next life. The decadent summer programs of the 1980s may be gone, but being a summer associate, even today, remains an educational and event-filled experience.

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Once you have decided where to work for the summer, make an effort to stay in touch with the firm during the winter and spring months. Contact the firm every few months just to say hello, or if proximity allows, stop in and meet the attorneys face-to-face. Your transition to summer associate will be easier if you make a few friends before coming on board. The attorneys will feel more comfortable with you, and you will feel more at ease with them. The firm will also appreciate the effort you make to stay in touch, especially if you are the only summer associate who has taken the trouble to do so.

Make Your Transition to Summer Associate Seamless

Law students put tremendous pressure on themselves to be successful summer associates. But some students fail, not because they cannot do the work, but because they fail to make a seamless transition from law student to summer associate. Being able to do the work is imperative, but you also must "fit" into the firm and make a solid impression. Before becoming a summer associate, many students have little exposure to law firm culture. Students sometimes try too hard to fit in. They overcompensate for their shortcomings despite the fact that everyone has them. Be yourself, never forgetting that the firm hired you because they liked you. The following are some overlooked guidelines that should help you succeed as a summer associate. Some of this advice is the same as for first-year summer associates, but it is worth repeating:
  1. Ask and ask some more. If you don't know how to do something, even the simplest task, ask. It's better to obtain guidance than to guess at how things might be done. Everyone, in any company, faces this problem when they start a new job. Don't photocopy a box of 200 documents just because you think the client might want it. Ask first. The client and the firm will appreciate your inquisitive mind.
  2. Treat the support staff with the respect they deserve. In many firms, the support staff knows as much about the practice of law as experienced attorneys. Getting on their good side can only help you. You'll be amazed at what some of them know.
  3. Learn the politics early on. Even the smallest firms are embroiled with office politics. Remain neutral at all times, but learn how the ball bounces in your court. Learn who the gossipers are, stay away from them, and avoid hearsay.
  4. Don't get in over your head. If you're asked to do something that is too much for your level of experience, say so. Many attorneys will assume you know how to do what you are asked unless you tell them otherwise. It's harder to get out than to stay out.
  5. Don't compete with your classmates. Nothing can ruin a summer program (for everyone) quicker than competing with your peers. Summer programs are not horse races. The students who fit in and can do the work should receive job offers. No one gets brownie points for one-upmanship.
  6. Quality is better than quantity. Don't take on too many assignments so that you can't deliver the goods. No one is holding a bean counter, tallying each assignment. It is far better to complete a few really good projects than to produce folders of mediocre work. Everyone will remember the poor assignment you produced.
  7. Don't let yourself fall between the cracks. Every summer there is always one student who tends to get lost and is less visible than the others. Make sure you stay afloat. If you are physically tucked away, out of the mainstream of firm activity, you may be forgotten. It is up to you not to let this happen.
  8. Don't become known only as a social or party animal. There is ample opportunity during the summer program to kick up your heels and have a great time--and you should. But don't become known as the Holly Go-lightly of the summer program. Make sure the firm sees your serious side more often than your playful side.
  9. Establish multiple mentors--partners and associates. Develop bonds with several attorneys over the summer. Too many students have been led astray by associates or partners who fed them incorrect information or were not liked by others in the firm. Since you won't know enough to decipher who the "in" and "out" people are, bond with several people just to be safe.
  10. Learn how to research before you become a summer associate. Former summer associates often reveal that their initial research skills were less than satisfactory when they first became a summer associate. Many had to quickly come up to speed, spending much of their free time learning how to research. Take advantage of your law school resources prior to joining a firm for the summer. This includes becoming proficient on LEXIS and Westlaw before the summer program begins.
  11. Don't burn your bridges. No matter how much you like or dislike your firm, maintain good relations. The legal community is just too small to make enemies or leave a black mark this early in your career. Trust me. As a good example of what not to do, consider the story of one summer associate who didn't like the firm he clerked for one summer. He collected business cards from the partners throughout the summer. At the end of the summer, before he left for school, he decided to visit a local "all men's club," where he proceeded to hand out the partners' business cards he had collected all summer. Needless to say, the partners were not amused. Fortunately for the firm, the local legal press failed to pick up the story. I hope this student never runs into any of those partners later in life.
Emily Post, the Law Student-Summer Associate Etiquette 101

Doing the legal work is often much easier than figuring out how to be socially and politically correct in a law firm, especially if you only have eight or ten weeks (or less) to make a positive impression. While the rules vary from firm to firm, big city to small town, east to west, and north to south, there are some general rules that you should follow, adapting them to your particular environment.

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Dress for Success

Dressing for work is no different from dressing for interviews. The challenge is making that impression last for an entire summer. While your appearance alone won't make or break your chances of getting an offer unless you always appear slovenly, it's an important piece of the puzzle. It's easy to do this right.
  1. Arrive at work every day dressed and ready to go. Don't commute in your jogging clothes, maintaining your closet on the back of your office door, making your transformation in your office to summer associate. Come to work ready to work. Put your makeup on or shave at home.
  2. Always look neat. A slovenly appearance gives the impression that you may be sloppy in other areas of your life as well. Look as though you have your act together, even if you don't. This means taking care of the details that you may think others do not notice--some people will always take notice. Make sure your socks match. Shine your shoes. Wear clean and smooth panty hose. Shoes should match your outfit. Wear minimal and conservative jewelry. Keep your hair neatly cut. Wear clean ties, and keep a spare in your office in case the one you're wearing gets dirty. Your shirts should be pressed, preferably by a dry cleaner. And don't wear too much perfume or aftershave. Carry breath mints with you to avoid bad breath. The difference is in the details.
  3. Look well dressed. You don't have to shop at Barney's or have a trust fund to look well dressed. Invest in a few good suits, and wear them repeatedly. No one is counting how many outfits you have or if you have worn that suit three times already this week. Look like a professional at all times. Women can wear dresses as well as suits. No one expects you to wear a navy blue suit to work every day.
  4. Follow your dress code at any events where firm members are present. This includes Saturday afternoon baseball outings, sailing parties, or informal cookouts at associates' homes. You should be as neat in your informal attire as in your weekday wardrobe. Try to be yourself in your dress habits, but if in doubt, opt for the conservative. Partners may not approve of earrings on men, micro minis on women, or the grunge look. Leave these at home, and save them for time spent with your friends completely outside your work environment.
How to Address Higher-Ups

You should always know the proper way to address the more senior attorneys in a firm. While each firm is different and some are more formal than others, always assume that formality is the rule, not the exception. Address most attorneys by their last name until you are told otherwise. Associates will want to be called by their first names, as will many partners, but they will appreciate the respect shown to them.

Many firms now have various classes of attorneys (of counsel, staff attorney, local partner, etc.), and initially you may not know what these classes mean. There was a very influential former government official in one firm who was classified "Of Counsel," so a summer associate assumed that he was not as important as a partner. The student proceeded to call this attorney by his first name, joked with him, failing to treat him with the respect he would grant a partner. This display of disrespect really irritated the attorney, who was accustomed to being treated as a dignitary, and it left him with a sour first impression of the summer associate. Never assume anything when addressing other attorneys until you have all the facts. Even then, respect and courtesy never go out of style.

Get Involved in Firm Activities

One of the most important things you can do is to get involved in firm activities during the summer. Interest is the sincerest form of flattery. And attorneys think that students who are not involved are less interested than their more involved colleagues. While you don't have to go to every breakfast meeting, every training session, or every event a firm sponsors during the summer, you should make a conscious effort to get involved on a fairly regular basis, attending all major firm events. There are always some firm members who make note of who is and is not present, and you probably won't know who those people are.

If your firm has a summer sports league such as softball, volleyball, Frisbee, or golf, make an effort to join a team. While you don't have to be minor-league quality to participate, this is an excellent opportunity to mingle with people strictly on a social basis and get to know those attorneys you may not have the opportunity to work with. Informal team sports can be a lot of fun as well. Some firms also view sports as a way to see if you are a team player.

Don't Date Others in the Firm

In my opinion, summer associate dating is never a good idea. Believe it or not, mere is often more interoffice romance going on during the summer than many think. Find others, outside the firm, to date during the summer. Don't mix your business and personal life while you are being evaluated for a future position. While I may sound old-fashioned, this practice leaves a negative impression. If you think you have met Mr. or Ms. Right during the summer, hold off until you complete your internship with the firm. Firms always seem to find out about interoffice dating, even if you think you are keeping it a secret. Just say no from the very beginning.

Keep a Positive Attitude

Some firms, especially in the large metropolitan areas, report that larger percentages of summer associates are coming into their firms with major attitude problems. For example, one firm recounted how several members of a recent summer class complained bitterly all summer, no matter what the firm did. They wanted to work for more partners. They wanted to be treated like associates instead of summer associates. They wanted to do different types of work than they were doing. Even though this group complained most of the summer, they managed to produce quality work. But you cannot imagine how relieved and happy the attorneys and the staff were when the summer program ended and Beavis and Butt-head went home. Summer associate was becoming a four-letter term in this law firm. Do not take the summer program concept for granted, and leave your complaining at home!

Act Interested in What You're Doing

Whether you're completing a work assignment, going to a trial with a partner, attending an administrative hearing or having dinner with several associates, put up a positive front. Firms are reluctant to give offers to students they think will not accept them. Show enthusiasm, without going overboard, for what you are doing, even if you have to brush up on your acting skills. Learning to get along with all types of people in an unfamiliar environment takes time and patience. Argumentative summer associates don't fare very well. Learn to adapt, even if it means holding on to your tongue. One summer associate who spent his entire summer at a major East Coast firm was so overbearing that when the attorneys saw him coming down the hall, they shut their doors and got on the phone. No one wanted anything to do with him. Needless to say, he had a very lonely summer and did not receive an offer, and even years later, no one was willing to give him a recommendation.

Have a Good Time, but Not Too Good a Time

You're supposed to enjoy your summer as well as work hard. But keep everything in moderation. The story of one student's escapades illustrates my point.

I'll call the star of my story William. William liked to party, and party he did. Unfortunately, the partners had no clue about William's primary goal for the summer--to have a good time. He was a first-year and decided early on that this summer he just wanted to have fun. William decided that he would worry about securing a job when he became a second-year student. One of William's anecdotes involved his house-sitting for a partner. He was supposed to take care of the partner's home for a week. The partner came home early to the horror of finding his wife's bronze statues lining the lawn (she was an artist) covered with the family underwear. When the partner made it to the office (luckily without having cardiac arrest), he found William smugly wearing one of his ties as well. William had borrowed the partner's clothes as well as his statues. Needless to say, William wasn't invited back the following summer, and if some of the members of the firm had gotten their way, he would have been banished from the state, not to mention the bar.

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