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Things to Do Before You Start Your Summer Legal Job

published May 29, 2023

By Author - LawCrossing
Published By
( 85 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
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1. A few weeks before you start...

a. Don’t treat your office like it has cooties. Get in there ahead of time and get to know people.

If you have the chance—for instance, you’re going to school in the city where you’re going to work in the summer, or you can spend Spring Break there—use a little bit of your time wisely, and get to know some of the people you’ll be working with. One law school career services director told me about a student of hers who did this to brilliant advantage. “He got accepted into the summer program of one of the biggest, most prestigious law firms in the country. As soon as he got his summer offer, he called and scheduled a lunch with a partner he’d hit it off with in his call-back interview. He told the partner, ‘I really like the firm. I want to get your guidance on some dos and don’ts before I start my clerkship.’ The partner was very appreciative; he just loved it, and he spent the entire lunch giving the student tips on exactly what he ought to do during the summer. “Afterwards, the student contacted another partner with whom he had a similar background. They hit it off, and he asked this partner for the ‘ins and outs’ of the firm, telling him, ‘I want to start my clerkship off right.’ This partner was just as delighted as the first one. He told the student, ‘Why don’t you come in to the office. I’ll have my assistant introduce you to more people.’ He did that. He also called several other lawyers at the firm and asked if he could stop by for a casual visit. They all invited him in.”

As the career services director commented, “This guy is all set. The partners all talked about him, commented on his initiative. He’s coming in a step ahead of everybody else, because he’s already shown them his enthusiasm for the job. That impression will take him a long way.”

If you plan on doing something like this—and I strongly encourage you to try it—there are a few things to keep in mind.

1) Think of the people you met during your call-back interviews to find a likely “target.” In every set of interviews, there’ll be people you connected with better than others. Call them. They’ll be delighted to see you.

2) Don’t assume that if you do lunch, it’ll be their treat. It probably will be, but it’s a serious faux pas to make that assumption. Instead, offer to take them out for coffee or explain that because you’re still in school, you hope they won’t be offended if lunch is Dutch treat. They’ll appreciate your good manners.

3) Learn the names of support staff people when you visit the office, and repeat their names back to them. “It’s great meeting you, Joe/Edith/Maureen.” When the student in the anecdote did this, the support staffers told him on the way out, “We look forward to working with you.” As I’ll explain in great detail later in the book, the support staff at any employer can make you or break you. Be sure you are appropriately respectful and friendly with them!

4) Observe how the lawyers dress. We’ll talk a lot about wardrobe later on, but the best way to answer the eternal “What do I wear?” question is by seeing what everybody there wears already. You want your wardrobe to fit in, not stand out, and looking to see what people wear to work is the best way to do that!

5) Write down everything you learn about the lawyers and support staffers you meet—their hobbies, spouse’s and children’s names, whatever you can find out. (Of course, don’t do this during your visit. Wait until you get home.) Refer back to those notes during your summer, and ask them about little Johnny’s school play, or the trout fishing in Alberta. When you take a personal interest in people you meet, you’re exhibiting the kind of people skills that will make you a star.

6) When you get to the firm, let the lawyers who gave you the pre-clerkship advice know that you’re heeding it. “Partners love it when they give you advice and find that you’re following it,” commented one recruiting coordinator.

b. Make sure your employer knows about any potential conflicts of interest you have.

One thing you have to do is to make sure you don’t have any conflict of interest problems with your summer employer. I’m not talking about between you and the employer; you’ve got a big conflict there. You want to have a summer vacation, and they want you to work. I’m talking about legal conflicts of interest between your summer employer and anyone else you might have worked for during law school, or even before. As one recruiting coordinator said, “Conflicts of interest are a really big deal for law firms. Summer clerks don’t often realize that. We must clear any conflicts before a summer clerk starts to work for us.” One law school career services officer director points out that, “If the employer doesn’t come forward with the issue, you should. It’ll reflect on your professional judgment. If you’ve worked in a legal capacity previously, you have conflict potential. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I’d love to work on that. I worked on the other side at X.’”

If you don’t tell your summer employer about all of your prior work before you start, you may find that your summer clerkship is delayed or suspended entirely. If they know about any potential conflicts well before you start, they can work on getting the appropriate waivers so that your summer will go smoothly. Not appreciating conflicts of interest is a big, bad judgmental boner. You don’t want a strike against you before you ever set foot in the office!

One law firm told the story of a summer clerk who had spent the spring before his summer clerkship clerking for a small local law firm. It turns out that this little firm was working for the opposing party in a very litigious matter his summer employer was involved in. As the recruiting coordinator described it, “It was extremely unlikely that either side would sign a waiver. The summer clerk hadn’t told us about his work during the spring, and worse than that, he hadn’t told the other firm that he would be joining us for the summer, so that the conflict could have been avoided in the first place! It wasn’t until the day he arrived that we learned about this other work. We couldn’t let him start working for us until the conflict was resolved. He wound up sitting at home for two weeks while we scrambled to get the appropriate waivers from both sides. Fortunately, the case settled and the conflict resolved itself, so he could come to work for us.”

Don’t rely on matters settling in time for your clerkship. Be sure to keep your summer employer informed of any work you do before you start the clerkship—and tell any school year employers who you’ll be working for this coming summer!

c.  Think about what you want out of your summer—and write it down!

Make out a list of questions and areas of interest before you start your clerkship, so you can refer to it over the summer to remind yourself of some of your goals.  You don’t want to ruffle feathers as you gather information, but there’s no question that you can learn everything you want in a subtle way over the entire summer. Among other things, you’ll want to find out how the firm is governed, who its clients are, which are its vibrant practice areas. If you have a particular interest, you want to write it down so that you’ll make sure to try and get assignments from partners and associates in that area and ingratiate yourself with them. And you want to pay attention to the culture. For instance, if you want to have a family, look and see how many people have children, and how issues of juggling the workday and parental leave are handled.” It’s easy to get wrapped up in a clerkship when you get to your employer, and forget all about why it is you wanted to be there in the first place. Having a list of “summer priorities” that you can check off ensures that you won’t make that mistake!

d. Get administrative details straight

Sometime before you start, contact the employer—either the recruiting coordinator or the office manager or the person who hired you, depending on the employer—and ascertain the following:

(i) Your start date;
(ii) What time you should arrive;
(iii) How to get to the office;
(iv) Where to park, if you’re driving;
(v) What you need to bring with you for your first day (for instance, valid Social Security card, driver’s license, signed papers and/or documents);
(vi) Your salary or stipend (if any);
(vii) How you will get paid (that is, weekly? Or biweekly? Or monthly? You’ll need to plan accordingly);
(viii) Any reimbursements for transportation to the clerking location. Don’t assume that the employer will pay for the car, train, hotels, and the like! Generally, firms will pay for legally-deductible round trip mileage.

If you haven’t had a chance to visit the employer or you don’t remember from your callback interviews—it’s also worthwhile to ask what you ought to wear. With the onset of “business casual,” no resource other than the employer you’re going to work for can give you a definitive answer on what’s appropriate to wear to work. Don’t be afraid to ask! They’ll be delighted that you cared enough to inquire. And they’ll be impressed with your business savvy in realizing the importance of looking like you “fit in.”

By the way, if you are spending your summer in a public interest work-study position, don’t assume that your employer understands how work-study functions. One student arrived at her public interest summer job, figuring they knew they were responsible for half of her hourly rate. They refused to pay. She was left with having to volunteer for them or scramble for a new job with the summer already underway. Moral: Confirm logistics and work-study contracts early!

e. Get your personal stuff together—your finances and your housing.

Make sure you’ve got your personal life in order. You’re probably going to be very, very busy. You don’t want to worry about details of your private life while you’re clerking. And just as importantly, you don’t want to give your employer the impression that you don’t have your life under control! One lawyer told the story of a summer associate who showed up the weekend before the summer clerkship started, without a dime in her pocket. When she tried to get into her apartment, she discovered that she needed to pay the first and last months’ rent as well as a security deposit. She didn’t have any cash, and she didn’t have a local check to cover the rents and deposit. Frantic, her solution was to call the recruiting coordinator, at home, to ask to borrow a thousand dollars. The lawyer commented dryly, “She didn’t make a very good first impression.”

Apart from getting your finances in order, you also need to sort out where you’ll live, if you’re going to be clerking somewhere else. If you are clerking for a large firm in another city, call the recruiting coordinator to find out how housing is arranged. Do you have to find your own apartment, or does the recruiting coordinator help you find something suitable? If you’re going to lean on the recruiting coordinator to help you find something, give them as much lead time as you can, because finding short-term leases in a lot of cities is pretty difficult. You don’t want to get a reputation for being a pain in the neck before you even get there. (Actually, you don’t want one ever. But if you’re going to get that reputation, put it off as long as possible.)

You also need to smooth the feathers of anyone in your personal life about the time commitment you’re going to make. No matter whether you’re working for a large, medium or small firm, government employer or public interest employer, your work has got to be your first priority for the summer. It will have to take priority over your other interests and commitments. You’re probably not going to work huge hours, but there are going to be unexpected time commitments no matter where you work. If you go to a large firm, there will be social events that you’ll be expected to attend, and if you have a significant other, that person will be invited, as well.

So if you have a family or a boyfriend or girlfriend, explain that it’s very important to your career to make an excellent impression on your employer, and that may mean changed or cancelled personal plans. I realize this might make you cringe, and no decent employer will expect you to live your work, but they will expect a serious commitment from you for the summer. Arrange your private life so that you can show your employer, by your actions, that you value the opportunity to work with them.

If you find, during the summer, that the commitment you make isn’t one you could make long term, then you’ve learned something very valuable: this isn’t the employer for you! The time commitment for someone who’s already graduated from law school is always considerably greater than it is for summer clerks. If it’s a time commitment you aren’t willing to make, what a blessing to find out before you’re there on a “permanent” basis!

2. The day before you start...

Get plenty of sleep. You’re going to have a big, big, big day tomorrow. You’re going to learn a lot, and you’re going to meet plenty of people— maybe more than you’ve ever met in a single day in your entire life. First impressions mean a lot. You want to be able to greet people bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. You need to be able to smile. A late night pounding kamikazes doesn’t bode well. More than one recruiting coordinator lamented summer clerks who fell asleep during orientation. “People don’t forget things like that,” commented one of them.

Other than getting some rest, you should also call to find out if there’s anything you need to know at the last minute. One firm tells the story of how, for one year’s summer clerkship class, Queen Elizabeth’s yacht arrived at the waterfront location where the firm’s main office is located—on the very day the summer associate orientation was to take place! While almost all of the summer clerks made it into the office before traffic was totally jammed, one unfortunate summer clerk didn’t realize the Queen was coming to town. She got caught in traffic, while the other clerks got to attend welcoming ceremonies for the Queen.

3. Your first day—a “Hair On Fire” day...

a. What to take with you

You’ll want to refer back to your notes on how to get to the employer, where to park (if you’re driving), and what to bring with you by way of identification and paperwork.

You’ll also want a notepad or notebook to write on, because you’ll certainly be going to some kind of orientation and you’ll need to take notes. If you’re a woman and you’re wearing a skirt, take along a spare pair of pantyhose. Whether you’re a man or a woman, carry your work stuff in an appropriate vessel. A backpack isn’t appropriate for a professional job. You need a portfolio or computer-type bag that looks professional. (They don’t have to be expensive. Nobody anticipates that you’ll be walking into your summer clerkship with a thousand-dollar briefcase. Get a dark-colored leather, vinyl, or nylon one.)


One firm told a story about a summer clerk who showed up on his first day carrying a canvas bag with the word "VIAGRA" printed in large letters on the side, a promotional giveaway kind of thing. For all of the lawyers he visited that day, he made sure to sit with the bag on his lap, with the "VIAGRA" facing toward the other person. Needless to say, word of this spread around the office like wildfire. One of the lawyers was deputized to talk to the clerk about the bag. He called the clerk into his office, pointed to the bag, and said, "We know you didn't mean anything by it, but it's really kind of a questionable thing to bring to work." The clerk responded that he had debated about bringing it, but decided that "it would be a good ice-breaker." The lawyer commented: "It wasn't."

b. What to expect

1. A lot of administrative stuff. Read what you’re supposed to read, and sign what you’re supposed to sign!

You’ll get an avalanche of information. You’ll almost certainly get a copy of the employer’s handbook, or some kind of a handout or notebook containing the employer’s policies. Don’t blow it off. Read it as soon as you can, so that you don’t wind up asking a question you didn’t have to ask.

You’ll also have to sign a lot of things and handle a lot of details. It’s routine. You’ll get on to the “good stuff” soon enough!


Summer clerk at a large West Coast law firm. He shows up on his first day two hours late, so everybody at the office is pissed off from the start.

The other summer clerks had already signed all of their paperwork without incident. When this clerk is given the same stack of papers to sign, he challenges one of the forms. Tm not going to sign this." The problem is, it's a condition of employment. The recruiting coordinator looks over at the managing partner, who is clearly displeased. The form in question involves the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The firm has clerks sign it so that they can check to make sure that the clerk's name and Social Security number match—a practice shared by just about every large law firm in the country. But this clerk gets it into his head that they want him to sign the form so they can check his credit, and he won't sign it.

When the recruiting coordinator explains the purpose of the form, he demands that language is stricken from the form such that they can't check his credit report. Immediately the recruiting coordinator and managing partner are thinking, "What the heck is this guy hiding?"

He makes it through the rest of the forms without incident, but the managing partner is seething. The new clerk goes on to other orientation activities, and, thinking the better of it, visits the recruiting coordinator that afternoon. He's a bit sheepish. "I guess I came off a little harsh this morning,” he says. "The managing partner doesn't seem too happy with me." When the recruiting coordinator says that he's right, he nods and says, "Why don't I have my law school dean call him to smooth things over?"

As the recruiting coordinator says, "From day one, everybody has this picture in their mind: 'This kid's a pain in the butt.'"

2. Expect to feel overwhelmed

When you enter any new situation, expect to feel chaotic. You remember how you felt on your first day of law school. It’s that same set of butterflies residing in your stomach now. It’s normal. For many of us, our law school summer clerkships are the first time we’ve had a job that rises about the “you-want-fries-with-that?” level. It’s important to remember a couple of things that will make you feel better.

First of all, every single person you meet, every person you work with, was once in your shoes. They know what it feels like to be you, and so on some very basic level they can empathize with you.

Secondly, don’t put pressure on yourself to dazzle every-one you meet with your wit and intelligence from moment one. As one employer explained it to me, “Your most important first assignment is to listen carefully”

Thirdly, don’t put your foot in your mouth from the moment you get there. Don’t make any flip comments. At one firm, a summer clerk walked in, looked around, and loudly proclaimed: “So what does a person have to do to fit in around here?” He was stamped with the “arrogance” label before anybody had a chance to get to know him!

So—take a deep breath, smile, greet people in a friendly way, absorb what’s told to you, and don’t expect any more of yourself at the outset than that!

published May 29, 2023

By Author - LawCrossing
( 85 votes, average: 4 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.