How to Succeed as a Summer Associate: Advice to Help Turn Yo

by Vault Education Editors | July 02, 2010

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Today, we're posting an excerpt from Law School Podcaster's new podcast, "How to Succeed as a Summer Associate: Advice to Help Turn Your Summer Law Job into a Permanent Position." We'll hear from Wendy Siegel, Director, Recruitment and Marketing, Office of Career Services, New York University School of Law; Kara E. Nelson, National Director of Legal Recruiting, Foley & Lardner, LLP; Elie Mystal, an editor of www.abovethelaw.com; and Sabina B. Clorfeine, co-author of The Summer Associate's Guide to a Permanent Job Offer. Without further ado:

Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I'm Althea Legaspi.

Congratulations. You landed a summer associate position. Now what? Each year, as law students finish their spring term exams, 1L and 2L students around the nation head off to start summer clerking jobs with private law firms, government agencies, or not-for-profit organizations. If you've been lucky enough to score one of these coveted positions, you want to know what you can do to turn it into a permanent offer of employment after you graduate from law school.

Well, there was a time when being a summer virtually guaranteed a job at a law firm after graduation. But the times, they are a changing. The economy has impacted Big Law's landscape and it's had an effect across-the-board in all sectors of the legal employment market. This means all law students with summer jobs will, in some ways, need to approach their internships differently than in the past. But fear not...

Happy law firm summer associateLet's begin by examining the current climate for summer associates. Gone are the days when a summer associate could just assume that after the bar exam they would start working with the firm or employer they summered with as a 2L. Recently, many summer associates found themselves with offers for permanent employment that were later deferred, withdrawn, or without any offer at all after graduation.

However, many firms have now tweaked their summer associate programs reducing the duration of their programs and/or the headcount of their summer class. This can be good news for current summer associates. Foley and Lardner's National Director of Legal Recruiting, Kara Nelson, explains: "The economy has definitely impacted summer associate programs. For us, I think, the biggest change has been the size of the summer program. Two years ago, we had 177 summer associates across the entire firm, so all of our offices. This summer, we have 35, so that's a dramatically smaller number of people who are working here. It also means, I would hope, that there is room for everybody."...

So then, what are some sound strategies to employ as a summer? Siegel adds being positive can help a summer stand out. "I think first and foremost, it's all about the attitude and approaching all assignments, every assignment with enthusiasm and, again, that positive attitude. You really should be careful about criticizing or any negative commentary at all about partners or associates or any administrators at the firm or any client. Following that, I think that quality is really job number one in terms of associates. They really need to focus on the quality of their work, checking their work, handing in a perfect work product that has been checked over many times, that is error free and your very, very best work. Students should not leave it up to their supervisor to be proofing their assignments and to having them make any minor corrections. That should all be done when they hand it in. I think students should also feel more free to ask questions because sometimes students don't know their deadlines and therefore, they really can't meet them. So if someone is not giving them a deadline, they need to ask."

Having the right attitude applies to more than just the work itself. Nelson imparts this advice on a must-do list. "Being respectful and professional to everyone with whom they interact within the organization. So that means, the assistant to the person working in the copy center to the corner office partner, treating everyone with respect and being courteous because it takes everybody to operate the law firm successfully and so I think they need to definitely be sure to be respectful and courteous to everyone."

Nelson also says most of their summer associates can expect between seven to ten projects depending on the project size. However, the work load may vary from firm to firm. Depending on where summer lands and given the economic conditions, there may not be enough work to go around or there may be more than what's traditionally been expected of summers in the past. Either way, www.abovethelaw.com editor, Elie Mystal, says one skill is key. "Yes. Well, I think that communication, communication. And then when in doubt, more communication. I think that a lot of summers in this market need to be very proactive about going out, trying to find work, trying to generate relationships with the associates and partners at the firm even while they're just there for a few weeks over the summer to try to get some kind of actionable assignments that can show their skills. It might not be client work in this kind of market. It might be, hey Mr. Partner Man, I see that you have an interest in this and you're writing a book on that or you're writing a note on this, can I help? Can I research? Can I do something to make myself useful to you? I think that's a strategy that we know that a lot of summers have been trying to employ. And the whole game is to just make yourself look useful at a time when firms are really critically wondering whether or not they can utilize junior associates at all."

Law firm summer associate working hardWhether summers find they may have taken on too much work or don't have enough or are concerned about making a deadline, the co-author of The Summer Associate's Guide to a Permanent Job Offer, Sabina Clorfeine, who's also Sempra Energy's Senior Counsel, says communicating in person rather than via email is paramount. Why? "Well, I think that you can explain yourself more fully if you're sitting with that person and they can understand exactly what amount of work that you've done. Sometimes on email, I think tone tends to come across a little bit differently and it may not come across that, hey, I've been really working on this project for a while and I'm diligently following up on it. So, I think that sometimes calling someone and speaking to them and saying I've done--I've followed down these avenues of research and I'm stumped or I need to do this much more. I have to look outside the jurisdiction or perhaps I have to look in an area I'm unfamiliar with, that may redirect you in a different direction rather than just receiving an e-mail from someone saying I'm not going to finish this on time."...

While most summers will work independently on assigned projects, making oneself a part of the team will also play a role on how summers are evaluated. Mystal says there are a few things to avoid in this arena. "When you look at being a good part of the team with people that are more senior to you, I think it again goes back to just the availability or 'eager-beaverness'. You want to be the person that people can count on. You want to be a no-drama summer associate. You don't want to be a person that's constantly bringing up drama or issues or whatever when you're with the senior people. They say jump, you say how high? 'No' is not a word that should be in the vocabulary of a summer associate. 'It's too hard' should not be in your vocabulary. 'I don't know the answer to that,' not really in your vocabulary. What should be in your vocabulary is 'I don't know the answer to that yet. I will find out immediately. Yes sir.' Those are the words that you want to use. As a summer, when you're talking with the senior people and especially partners, that's going to make you look like a valuable member of the team."

...As this may be the first professional-type experience summer associates have, feedback, both positive and negative, is part of the workplace. Siegel says all feedback is educational. "Students really need to embrace any feedback that they get and really take it in, digest it and try to incorporate it. Even if they disagree, really generally getting feedback from a supervisor and you need to really think long and hard about whether you need to sort of moderate your behavior as a result of this feedback. I think that supervisors are hoping to provide feedback to students who are open minded and have that positive attitude, again going back to that, and who are interested in taking affirmative action to improve their skills and who understand that this perhaps first legal job is a learning experience. Students, I think, also need to recognize that feedback can be formal or informal and they can seek it out if they feel like they're just not getting any, which is very common. Sometimes, it's really overlooked sometimes by a supervising attorney. They can try and they can ask."

...We've gone through some of the 'Must Dos'. What about things to avoid? Clorfeine includes this in the list of Don'ts: Don't date anyone in the firm. "So, I would say keep your dating life separate from your firm life."

And while budgets for social events have been slashed from what they once were, there are still events to attend. It's a good idea to heed Mystal's advice lest you end up a subject on their www.abovethelaw.com website. "Stay sober. I mean, one of the wonderful things about our site is that if a summer associate is going to get too drunk and do something silly, we're probably going to hear about it and we're probably going to have the whole story about it. Summers have been better, I think, through the recession of keeping their alcohol intake at a reasonable level, but you'd be surprised how many people, despite all of the warnings and indications and what have you, will go out to summer associate event and get hammered and then do something crazy."

All sage advice indeed. Landing that summer associate job or any summer law job is an important step in the right direction for your career in law. Summer law jobs provide an opportunity for students to get a feel for what it's like to work as a lawyer and for your summer employer to see how you perform as a lawyer. Make the most of your opportunity. Remember, you're being recruited and you are competing for a job. Keep in mind the tips offered by our guest experts and approach your internship with a positive attitude, professionalism, and savvy, and you may be well on your way to securing a permanent position.

Check out Law School Podcaster's full show, "How to Succeed as a Summer Associate: Advice to Help Turn Your Summer Law Job into a Permanent Position," and Vault's blog, "Bad News for the Law School Class of 2010: No Jobs until 2012."

Law School Podcaster LogoThis post is authorized by Law School Podcaster, your premier broadcast source for law school applicants and students. Law School Podcaster delivers relevant information and advice through regular audio segments for those planning to apply for a JD and for savvy law students seeking success in law school and beyond. Topics include everything from a behind-the-scenes view of the admissions process to post-law school job opportunities and current market trends. Guests include law school deans of admission and career services, law school faculty, LSAT test preparation companies, law school admissions authors, law school admissions consultants and more. On each segment, we go in-depth on a particular topic of interest to a law school applicant and interview relevant experts to help make your application process more efficient and successful and to help you gain acceptance to the right law school for you.

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