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If you have your sights set on starting your career in BigLaw, you likely have clear expectations for your summer associate experience. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced change, including to summer associate programs and their accompanying interview processes, and it might seem intimidating to account for these changes while doing your pre-interview employer research. Callback interviews will give you the opportunity to learn how each firm managed its summer programs in 2020 and gain a better understanding of each firm’s plans for the 2021 program. Here are three important questions to ask potential employers to help you make an informed decision about where to work next summer.

Question 1:  How will a virtual summer program compare to an in-person program?

It may not be clear to firms at this time whether it is safe to have an in-person summer program in 2021. A firm should be able to outline the key ways in which a virtual program will differ from an in-person program, however.

In assessing whether a virtual program will accomplish the same goals as an in-person program, consider asking about the following key areas.

Meaningful Attorney Interactions

One of the main goals of any summer program is for you to get to know the lawyers at the firm and have them get to know you. Connecting in a meaningful way while working virtually can seem daunting, but regular contact with smaller groups will help to build connections. Ask prospective firms how they fostered connections during the 2020 summer program and what they will implement in 2021 if the program is virtual again. Think about the types of events and opportunities that fit your networking style—especially in a remote situation. For example, if you find it difficult to interact on large video calls, seek out firms that incorporate small-group and one-on-one opportunities as well. Search for the dynamic that will best help you get to know the firm’s culture.

For our 2020 program, Willkie provided summer associates with several opportunities to facilitate such interactions, including mentor pods, summer integration groups, one-on-one meetings with department heads, and virtual lunches. Summer associates were also invited to join programming hosted by our affinity groups. Smaller group meetings were scheduled at least weekly with topics distributed in advance to foster engagement and interaction, and summer associates had opportunities to meet with firm clients and alumni to gain a broader understanding of our business.  

Professional Development

Professional development comes in many forms, but the two primary opportunities are training programs and client work. When evaluating training programs, ask about the differences between in-person and virtual training opportunities. Consider looking for a firm that invests in your success by offering you more specific, in-depth training in the practice area(s) you may want to join, rather than only providing high-level department overviews. For the 2020 program, Willkie adapted our long-standing mock summary judgment workshop and a corporate negotiations seminar to an interactive virtual format that provided summer associates with a hands-on learning experience and opportunities for meaningful collaboration with their peers.

When it comes to client work, focus on what exposure you will have to life as a junior attorney. Will you have real, challenging work opportunities and receive meaningful feedback? Learn how work assignments are made during the summer program. Is there an assignment system, or are you on your own to get work assignments? Do summer associates have regular contact with the assigning partners? Are you able to request work in particular practice areas? 

Feedback is vital, whether you are working virtually or in person. Unfortunately, in-person and spontaneous interaction can be limited when you’re working remotely, but opportunities to learn still exist. Is seeking informal feedback encouraged? When an assignment is complete, will there be opportunities to discuss the supervising attorney’s comments? Asking these questions during your interview can give you a clearer picture of the firm’s plan and whether it fits your expectations.

Firms also typically provide formal evaluations at least once during the summer. Understanding how the firm will offer formal feedback is important. How will the meeting be conducted and what mechanisms are in place to make sure their summer associates understand what they did well versus what they can improve upon?

Interactive Social Events

Our attorneys often tell us that the personal and professional connections they formed during their summer programs have lasted throughout their careers. It is important that the firm has a plan in place to create opportunities for you to build relationships with your fellow summer associates.

Firms may choose to host virtual events, ranging from online cooking classes to virtual game nights. These larger-scale programs will provide some interaction, but be sure to inquire about whether the firm also supports opportunities for the class to interact on a more regular basis in a casual setting. Will there be any summer-associate-only events? How and how often will you connect? Ask the firm for examples of events they hosted in 2020—and which of those events they thought were most successful—to get a sense for the kinds of activities the firm may offer in the future.

Question 2:  As a summer associate, how can I maximize my experience (whether the program is remote or in-person)?

Before you get waist-deep in interviews, take some time to determine what you want to gain from your summer experience. Many students are looking to gain a better understanding of life in BigLaw and increase their networks. Others may be focused on determining what areas of law best match their interests and skill set. Firms can provide opportunities for you to explore these issues and create meaningful connections with practicing lawyers both inside and outside the office. Ask if there are opportunities for you to get reacquainted with the attorneys you met during the interview process. How can you meet firm leadership? Can you work on matters with attorneys in other offices? Will there be opportunities to interact with clients or alumni at the firm?

While it is natural to have periods of downtime between work, training, and events during the summer, you may notice it more during a virtual program. Understand what opportunities are available to you beyond work assignments. Will you be able to:

  • attend other internal training programs?
  • take on pro bono work?
  • try out practice areas that did not initially interest you?
  • accept assignments outside of the formal assignment system?
  • get to know the professional staff and administrative structure of the firm? 
  • shadow lawyers on calls, appearances, and client meetings?

The key to a successful summer is to get as much exposure as possible to the people and the work at the firm. Showcasing your flexibility and willingness to try new things will increase your value and put you on the path to success, especially in a virtual setting.

Question 3: What steps will the firm take to foster and maintain its culture in a virtual setting?

Firm culture is a big factor in choosing a firm, so you may want to ask what steps the firm is taking to foster and maintain its culture while everyone is working remotely.

At Willkie we know our collaborative, friendly, open-door culture helps us attract and retain top talent, so when we moved to a virtual environment, we amplified our wellness programs, increased communication, and continued to foster frequent social interaction.

We developed an online enrichment program called Engage@Willkie for members of the Willkie community and their families, which hosted activities such as children’s story time, fitness programs, baking, wine-tasting, arts and crafts, doing the NY Times crossword puzzle together, and virtual museum tours. Additionally, we host an ongoing speaker series featuring presentations on various relevant current topics, including racial injustice and stress management. Individual departments have also hosted virtual happy hours and trivia contests. Firm leadership sends regular, firmwide updates, and the Chairmen addressed the summer associates and hosted a Q&A session where no question was out of bounds. Willkie also holds regular open forums to brief attorneys and staff on firm happenings.

Firms have been working remotely for more than eight months, and every day, there are new opportunities to rethink how to connect and engage with each other. Embrace the innovations, offer suggestions, engage in the summer associate experience, and ask questions. With a positive approach, you can contribute to the ever-changing world of BigLaw.