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How to Determine if the Law Firm Where You Were a Summer Associate Is a Place in Which You Really Want to Work

published November 24, 2016

( 47 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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Your summer clerkship isn’t all about you impressing the employer. Not by a long shot. It’s your best opportunity for figuring out whether or not you want to work for this employer when you get out of school. It’s a courtship. But ultimately, you’re asking questions and making decisions. You shouldn’t ever feel that your summer clerkship is one-sided. As a good consumer, you’ve got to do some judging as well!
You need to use your summer to answer four basic questions:

  1. Will you like the work?
  2. Will you like the people?
  3. Are you comfortable with what will be expected of you?
  4. Will this job help you get what you want out of your life?

If the answers to these four questions are all “yes,” then congratulations! You’ve found the place to start your career. If the answer to any one of them is no ... look very carefully at what you’re giving up to make sure that you won’t resent it. Because if you do resent it, you’ll burn out quickly and perform badly.
We’ll talk about all four of those questions. But we’ll start out by talking about how you find the information you need to answer these questions— because it’s not obvious!
1.            Figuring out what the employer is really like
Inevitably, what you read in an employer’s brochure or on their web site won’t tell you what they’re really like. All you find there is what they want you to know about them, the image they want to create. That’s relevant, but it’s far from the whole story. You’ve got to do a bit more digging to learn the truth.
If you’re at an employer large enough to have a summer program, you’ve got a further impediment: You’re not experiencing what life is really like working there. You can figure it out—I’m going to show you exactly how to do that—but it won’t be laid out for you. Every employer with a summer program will tell you the same thing: they wish they were in a position to be honest with you during the summer, to give you the kind of work and the kind of hours and the kind of pressure you’d get as a new associate. They know full well that their retention rate for permanent associates would soar; because new permanent associates would know what it’s like and stay longer. But they’re caught between the Scylla and Charybdis. If they’re honest, they get slammed in outside reviews of their summer programs, which reward things like the interesting nature of the summer projects, reasonable hours and the social program, as opposed to the realism of the work. They want you to accept their offer, and just as importantly, go back to your law school saying good things about them, so future students will accept their offers as well. So that backs them into dishonest programs, which resemble summer camp more than a real lawyerly life.
The summer clerk at one prestigious law firm’s summer program told me that at his firm, they made sure that the summer clerks never had to work past five o’clock or so. There were lots of social events to get them out of the office before dinnertime, and the junior associates at the firm joined them for some of these events. One day, there was a softball game between the summer clerks and the junior associates. After the game, everybody high-fived each other, saying things like “See you at the office tomorrow.” The summer clerk said, “The clerks were given the definite impression that the junior associates were going home after the game. But it turns out that I’d left something at the office, so I headed back down there to pick it up. When I got there, all of the lights were blazing. I was confused. When I got to my hallway, I started noticing that a lot of the junior associates that I’d just played softball with were back at their desks, working away! One of them came out, and asked me nervously, ‘What are you doing here?’ I immediately got the impression that this was something the firm didn’t want us to see—new associates working late at night. To tell you the truth, I was more angry with the deception than I was with the fact that they were there. It made me question what else they were lying to me about.”
You could argue about this kind of deception, but there’s no escaping the fact that sometimes it happens. No matter where you spend your summer, you rely on the same sources to get at the truth: your own observations, and what people there tell you when they’re not speaking “officially.”
a.            To get the inside skinny, rely on the junior lawyers who work there.
In order to get the inside skinny, you’ve got to rely on the people who work there. As the law firm Wyatt Tarrant advises, “Establish relationships with associates. You can find out valuable, otherwise unattainable information about the firm from the junior associates.” As this suggests, “You can’t isolate yourself within the summer clerk group. A summer is a short time to learn the flavor of a place, but it can be done.”
You have to watch and listen for cues when people don’t realize they’re giving them to you. Pay special attention when people have had a few drinks, or they’re otherwise outside the office and relaxed. When people relax they let their guard down, and will frequently let slip things that they wouldn’t say if they were sitting behind their desk at the office, fully alert.
b.            Watch what they do and how they behave. That tells you more than what they say.
Almost any employer will tell you that they’re collegial, that they’re really just one big family, that they’re interested in you balancing your life. Maybe they are. But if they tell you that, and then you observe that all of the lawyers call each other “Mr” and “Ms.,” eat lunch in their offices alone, conversations at social events seem forced, they don’t smile much, they work behind closed doors, and that the people who are applauded the loudest are the ones who bill 3,000 hours and make the most personal sacrifices, what do you suppose the truth is? Now mind you, I’m not saying that the truth is bad. If you’re more of a loner and you prefer formality— and some of us do—that might be your kind of place. My point is that you can’t figure that out based solely on what people say. Watch what they do—because that will tell you what you’ll have to do to fit in.
2.            Will you like the work... and the clients?
Pay attention to the kind of projects that you would do as a permanent hire, your ability to change your specialty if you decide you don’t like what you’re doing, the kinds of clients you’ll serve, and whether the work suits your emotional make-up.
When it comes to the projects themselves, be aware that at a medium- to-large firm summer program, the work you get is not the work of a permanent associate. The summer program gives students an insight into the culture and atmosphere of a firm, but the work isn’t realistic. It can’t be. The goal is to give summer associates a variety of experiences. By necessity they get sound bites. The work they do doesn’t have the time pressure they’d have as permanent associates. So it’s not a real working test.
To get an idea of what you’d be doing as a permanent hire, pay attention to people who are already in that role. Ask them about the projects they’re working on. Find out about openings in specialties in areas that interest you, and find out how the permanent hires got there. Did they get hired directly into those areas? If they didn’t like what they started out doing, how did they make the change—and were they allowed to change at all?
Another work-oriented issue to pick up clues about is the future viability of the employer. If you’re working for the government, I’d say your odds are pretty good. But for private employers—if your employer isn’t going to be around for any reason, then it doesn’t matter how much you like the work. There isn’t going to be any of it. No one will come out and tell you these kinds of things, but look for evidence of how vibrant the employer’s business is. Are all of the major rainmakers getting long in the tooth? If so, who will replace them when they imminently retire? Do you hear rumblings that a major rainmaker is going to leave the firm? At one law firm, the atmosphere was so chaotic and the business was so out of control that they didn’t even realize they had summer clerks who hadn’t shown up for a week! If you start picking up clues like these, don’t ignore them. They could have a significant impact on your early career.
When it comes to your employer’s clients, pay special attention to whether these are the kinds of people/organizations you feel you can, or want to, represent. Remember: you take the king’s dollar, you do the king’s bidding.
Hiring partner at large firm talks about a new associate: "We brought in a guy who'd been a summer associate with us. He expressed an interest in being a litigator, so we put him in the litigation department. One of his first assignments concerned a case that one of our clients, a gun manufacturer, was involved in. This guy refused to do the assignment, saying that he was morally opposed to guns. We couldn't believe it. One of my partners grumbled, 'He's not morally opposed to the paycheck.'"
Former summer clerk, large firm: "In law school, I bought everything we were taught about how everybody deserves representation, you have a professional duty to be a zealous advocate—I was down with that… or so I thought. My first assignment was a contract case. The guy we were representing had been divorced several years earlier, and in his divorce, his wife had agreed to give up her claim to ten million dollars’ worth of stock that he owned as long as he would leave it in a will to their ten-year-old daughter. He was coming to us now and saying, 'Get me out of this. I want to sell the stock and spend the money.' Scumbag! But I bit the bullet and did the research, wrote up a memo with a strategy for him. Then my next assignment involved a school district that had fired a schoolteacher for refusing to do hall duty. It turns out that the real reason they fired her was because her husband, who had also been a teacher at the school, had brought in a teacher's union. They fired her to get back at him. So they wanted us to come up with an argument for them that her refusing to do hall duty was the same thing as being on strike. It was a pretty lame argument, but I did some research on it and wrote up something credible. Then we went to the hearing with an arbitrator, and I'm sitting there looking at this teacher. She's a nice woman, and clearly a dedicated teacher. And I thought to myself, 'What the hell are you doing?' I went to the john and cried and cried and cried. When we got back to the office, I told one of the permanent associates about it. He was totally shocked. He said, 'That bothered you?' I realized at that moment that to succeed there, I had to be more like him. I didn't think I could do it. When I got back to school in the fall, I put a lot of time into looking at firms that did things I really thought I could get behind. I found a small civil practice and talked to them a lot before deciding to join them. I'm not always wild about the clients we have and the cases we take, but at least I don't feel like I'm doing something evil."
Before you take a permanent job with any employer, find out about the kinds of clients you’ll be representing, the kinds of cases you’ll take. While I’ve heard very isolated instances when people have been able to be “conscientious objectors” with a particular client, you can’t count on it. Even if your employer lets you opt out of a particular assignment, it’ll call your judgment and commitment into question. This isn’t just a matter of being selfish, by the way. It’s human nature not to do well on things we don’t like. If you hate your work, your performance will suffer, and that doesn’t do any favors for you or your employer.
3.            Will you like the people?
No matter where you work for the summer, you’ll have an excellent opportunity to see whether or not you like the people you work with. As Dickstein Shapiro’s Paul Bran says, “The real question for summer clerks to ask themselves is this: Do you like the people? Some people are constituted for doing battle, some for negotiating or researching. Find a practice where you fit in.” The firm Kirkland & Ellis agrees: “Although to a certain extent the type of work you do matters, it is largely who you work with that sustains you in the practice of law over time.”
The kinds of questions you want to find the answers to are these: Are the people formal or laid-back? Are they hard partiers or not? Are they aggressive shouters or do they prefer a lower-key atmosphere? Are they the kind of people you’d like to chat with over the water cooler? Simply put—do you like them?
Keep a couple of things in mind. First of all, while some employers have a distinct “personality,” there are offices where there’s a huge range of personalities, and the key there is whether you’re happy with that kind of diversity or whether you’d prefer to work with people who only think like you.
Secondly, be brutally honest with yourself about the kinds of people you like to be around, and how flexible you are. I talk to a lot of students who say, “If I’m a Democrat and they’re all Republicans, how am I going to convince them to hire me?” “If I’m gay and they’re all conservative heterosexuals, how can I get a job with them?” “They all like to go out drinking together after work, and I’m a teetotaler. What should I do?” While there’s almost always some way to get an offer, my first question back is: “Why would you want to work there?” Maybe you like heated political discussions and enjoy it when everybody is attacking you on your political beliefs, but if you don’t, you won’t like a place where everybody has values that are diametrically opposed to yours. And if you’re gay, sure you can hide it—but are you going to want to do that in the long term? With the drinking—are you going to want to go to a bar every night with your cohorts, watching them get trashed while you sit nursing a Coke? Sometimes you’ve got to change your focus from “How do I make them want me?” and focus on “Do I want them?” If you don’t get along with the people, you won’t enjoy working there. It’s as simple as that.
While you’re at work, pay attention to the little hints into how formal the place is. One lawyer told me about his first job, where he was sitting in the library in his suit and tie. It was a hot day, and he loosened his tie. A partner walking by admonished him, “We don’t loosen ties here.” Do the name plaques on office doors say “Mr. Bunny” and “Mr. Duck,” or “Bugs Bunny” and “Daffy Duck”? Do people formally address one another? Are the senior partners imperious and untouchable, or do they muck in? At one law firm, a woman who wound up being an associate there was walking through the office during her interviews, and came across a person she thought was a janitor, mopping up some spilled coffee from a hallway carpet. He got up and introduced himself. She was shocked to find that he was the firm’s managing partner, and that since he’d spilled the coffee, he cleaned it up. Obviously not a formal place!
You should also watch for how people at the office treat each other. One lawyer told me that “I’ve worked for firms in the past where the attorneys would treat each other, associates, and staff members with disrespect. They were rude and discourteous. They’d shout and swear. If they’re that way with each other, it’s not likely they’re going to treat you any better.” On the same note, you might clerk at an office where everybody is very aggressive, and their normal mode of communication is to yell at each other. If you’re not into that kind of verbal fencing, you’ll hate it there. One lawyer told about starting his career at a firm that had high-tech clients and billed itself as a cutting-edge practice. But on his first day, he tried to run something through a laser printer outside his office, and was officiously warned by the secretarial pool manager that only secretaries were allowed to use the laser printer, and if he ever tried a trick like that again, he’d be fired. He got out of there in a hurry.
One lawyer told how "Our firm is a very introverted place. We don't wear our egos on our sleeves. We don't yell at secretaries. We had a summer clerk one summer who just flat-out ignored that. He stood out in all the wrong ways. He was abrasive. He'd make provocative, off-the-cuff comments. When we took the clerks on field trips, he'd make little comments under his breath. In a more freewheeling office, that would have been fine. But he wasn't paying attention. That's not the kind of behavior that got positive attention for the junior associates, and he should have paid attention to that, he should have gauged the environment before he started acting up. Partners started asking each other, 'Is this guy trying to deliberately jinx himself?' His mentor sat him down and said, 'Listen. You've got to ease up on this kind of behavior,' and explained to him what he'd done that had struck people the wrong way. The clerk was totally surprised. He said, 'I had no idea I was being perceived that way.' His only real mistake was not paying attention to the behavioral norms at the office and trying to fit in with those. Regardless, he didn't do himself a favor. He didn't get the benefit of the doubt on his work. He had one strike against him."
4.            Are you comfortable with what will be expected of you?
Pay attention to what the new permanent hires in your office have to do. This is particularly true of business generation and hours.
With business generation, if you’re at a private firm, you need to find out how soon you’ll be expected to generate business. If you’re at a large firm, business generation won’t be an issue for several years; in the early days, hiring partners at large firms tell me that clients are more of a distraction than anything else! If you feel that your best asset is your sales ability and you’re not so fond of researching and writing, you may find yourself strongly disappointed being a new associate at a large firm.
If you’re at a smaller firm, you need to find out how soon they expect you to start developing your own book of business. Ask people there how they got started bringing in clients. Watch and see what they do, and see if you’d feel comfortable doing the same kind of thing. If you’re very outgoing and you like being involved in community activities, you’re born to bring in business and you stand to make a ton of money as a lawyer.
Another big expectation that you have to deal with is the chunk of time your employer will expect. In the section called “Econ 101,” we will discuss the impact of huge salaries on hours. As a general rule of thumb, the more you get paid, the more you have to work. But that’s hardly a hard-and-fast rule. Find out ahead of time, by listening to what people say and observing the hours they work, to see what the real time requirements will be. And be honest with yourself about the commitment of time that you’re willing to make. This is an area where it’s just excruciatingly difficult to be perfectly honest, largely because it’s hard to tell the toll long hours will take on you until you actually work those hours. Your first reaction is probably what most people’s is, when faced with the prospect of a big paycheck: “Hell yes! Count me in! Damn the torpedoes!” But working late nights and weekends wears you out faster than you realize. If you have children—or plan to have children—you won’t have to miss many bedtimes with them to figure that you’re making a sacrifice you don’t want to make.
An issue related to hours is to check and see how much people at the office socialize together. If they go out a lot, do you like that idea, or do you prefer to keep your social life separate from your work? If you perceive that people at work spend a lot of time outside of work together, check with more people to make sure that you’re getting an accurate snapshot of what’s expected. It might be that the few people you’ve talked to are the primary socializes, or there are successful lawyers there who skip the socializing. What you most want to see is what’s applauded—if people who keep to their own social lives get plum assignments and move ahead, then the socializing isn’t a requirement.
5.            Will this job help you accomplish what you want to do with your life, whether it’s professional opportunities or a good balance between your work and private life?
You have to pay special attention to whether working with this particular employer after you graduate will give you the life you want. There are a few things to consider in relation to this.
a.            If you intend to have a family (or have one already), watch and listen to see how your employer deals with family issues.
There’s no question about it. Kids are demanding. Wonderful and demanding, but demanding. If you have them or intend to have them, will your employer work with you—or against you? No matter how you cut it, it’s tough to balance work and family life, but some employers make it a lot easier than others. Look around the office to see how your employer feels about family issues. Do people speak in awe of the female lawyer who comes back to work two days after giving birth? How about the lawyer who rearranges his schedule to see his kid be the tooth in the school play? Do many of the women lawyers have children? (I hate to have to say this, but the number of men who have children isn’t too relevant. Men have always had kids and jobs, so it doesn’t tell you much about the family-friendliness of the employer—at least according to a lot of the female attorneys I talk to.) Do people on reduced schedules still get some choice projects? Do you see kids’ art up in the offices of the lawyers? Do they have a room with toys in it where kids can play if Mommy or Daddy has to work on a weekend?
Listen to the lawyers there and see where they place their priorities. If they speak with favor of the lawyer who comes back to work right after a heart bypass operation, against the advice of his doctor, they’re not going to look too favorably on you when you ask for paternity leave. Get a feel for whether what you feel important matches what your employer considers important! As a lawyer at the Williams Companies commented, “No matter how good a job looks on your resume and no matter how good the training, it’s not worth it if you’ll be unhappy. You can never get those years back—especially if you have a family!”
b.            If you’re considering coming back after graduation for particular professional opportunities, pay attention to what those opportunities really are.
Of course, it might be that what you want most from your job is opportunity, and the idea of hours or balance are things that you’re willing to jettison. Then you want to look at the kind of responsibility you’ll get, and when you’ll get it. Look at what happens to lawyers who leave the employer. Where do they go? Does working for the employer enhance their future employability? If you want to be a politician, working as a prosecutor is an obvious stepping stone. Or perhaps there’s a particular specialty that enthralls you. Get to know people in that specialty at your office, and see: Is that practice area vibrant and growing? Is it really what you thought it was like? If you’re considering going back to your summer employer permanently because of the opportunities, make sure those opportunities are really there before you jump in!
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