At the kickoff of every summer program, one of the first questions at orientation is, “Do you have any advice on how to become a successful summer associate?” While there are hundreds of different ways to frame the question and the answer, the core concern remains the same.
This article answers the question within the framework of a summer clerkship. But whether you are embarking on a summer associate position at a firm, a summer clerkship at the courthouse or an internship at a legal aid clinic, there are three universal truths that can make or break the summer: (1) relationships matter; (2) deadlines matter; and (3) work product matters.
The most important aspect of a successful summer clerkship (and a successful career) comes down to building relationships and creating a strong reputation in the community. The best possible outcome for any summer associate at the end of the summer is to have several people say, “I want to work with that person.” The summer associates who follow these tips will stand out from their peers:
1. Get to know (and work with) as many attorneys as possible.
When it comes to making hiring decisions based on practice group needs in a particular office, typically the practice group looks for a consensus on which summer associates showed potential for success in their area. Therefore, the best scenario for any summer associate is to have as many lawyers as possible in that group know who the summer associate is and, hopefully, have worked directly with that individual.
You can take your career into your own hands by reading attorney bios on the firm website (or their LinkedIn page), reaching out directly to attorneys with whom you would like to work and asking if there is anything you can help them work on. Then, once you find a practice area (or two) that you truly enjoy (e.g., corporate, real estate, trial, etc.), you can focus on working with as many lawyers in that area as possible in a meaningful way. Even if a firm has a particular manner for doling out project assignments, summer associates who ask for work they are interested in will stand out in a positive way.
2. Show an interest in the work you are given and in the assigning lawyer’s practice area, industry and client base.
Once a summer associate receives an assignment, the real work begins. Never underestimate the importance of showing genuine enthusiasm for learning something new about both the work and the assigning lawyer. Do not be afraid to ask questions about the assignment, the practice area and the industry involved in the project.
Even if you decide an area is not the best fit for you, jump into the assigned project with both feet. After that you can shift to other work that peaks your interest.
3. Meet lawyers outside your practice areas of interest.
Do not just focus on a small group of lawyers who do the type of work that you want to learn. Get to know as many lawyers as possible in the office. Ask people to coffee or simply walk the halls and knock on doors to say a brief hello. It never hurts to have as many supporters as possible communicating to the decision-makers in the office that you should receive a job offer at the end of the summer.
4. Get to know the paralegals and the staff, too; they are the backbone of the office.
Lawyers need a team. From paralegals, to professional assistants and office services (to name just a few), everyone works together to serve the clients. Therefore, it is not only important to be polite and respectful of everyone in the office but also to learn their names and engage with them. The staff often can help you navigate the office or even the logistics of an assignment.
5. Bond with the other summer associates.
An often overlooked source of support comes from your fellow summer associates. Be sure to spend time getting to know your peers. The goal at the end of the summer should be that everyone gets a permanent job offer and you all become coworkers.
6. Show up and participate.
Barring illness or major life events, attend everything you are invited to. Be mindful that the firm is investing a lot of money (and time, which is money) in you and your career by hosting lunches, dinners and other events throughout the summer. The whole point is for you to get to know people in the office. Therefore, take the time to attend the events. If you cannot make the event, let someone know and try to follow up on what was missed: “How was the dinner? I’m sorry I missed it, but I would love to grab a coffee with you and catch up on what I missed.”
And, although the whole summer is essentially one very long job interview, have fun and be yourself! Not everyone is expected to be the social butterfly at the party. Law firms are made up of lawyers with all types of personalities. It would be a bit overbearing if everyone needed to be the life of the party. So if all this talk of meeting lots of lawyers and attending events is giving you anxiety, just take a breath and remind yourself that the firm hired you. So be yourself.
No matter what the assignment is, you must meet the deadline. It is a much better practice to meet the deadline or turn in an assignment early because everyone your work impacts (e.g., partners, associates and clients) is also juggling several demands on their time.
The business of law revolves around deadlines — sometimes client-imposed, court-imposed, or both. And it is not acceptable for a lawyer to miss a deadline, regardless of seniority.
If an assignment is taking longer than you anticipated, or if you think you may miss a deadline for whatever the reason, let the assigning attorney know early so that everyone can pivot accordingly. Maybe the deadline can be extended or maybe you are heading down the wrong track on the assignment and the assigning lawyer can redirect you. In any event, it is better to avoid surprising anyone at the last minute.
Work Product Matters
Lastly, your work product must be strong. No matter what practice area you are interested in, communicating clearly and succinctly is key. Before you turn in an assignment, put the work down for a day if possible so you can approach it again with fresh eyes. Then, print it to proofread it. (Reading it backwards starting with the last sentence is another good trick to ensure that you do not gloss over any details.) It is easy to miss small errors when reviewing a document on the computer. And turning in an assignment with errors, no matter how small, will be distracting to the reader and will signal an inability to pay attention to detail. (For example, always check that you have correctly spelled the client’s name before you turn in your project.)
Your work product will be the primary source upon which the firm will base its hiring decisions. Therefore, take the time to read and revise your own work before you turn it in.
Enjoy Your Summer!
Any summer associate who keeps these three core principals in mind will have a successful summer. But do not forget to enjoy the summer!
Megan Schmid is a litigation attorney in Holland & Knight’s Houston office. Ms. Schmid focuses her practice on federal and state trials and arbitrations involving energy, real estate, commercial landlord-tenant, financial and lending institutions, partnership disputes, business torts, construction and general business and commercial litigation.