FOR SUMMER ASSOCIATES ONLY — REPRISE

Everywhere you turn, there’s advice for summer associates — even on table manners.  Last year, I weighed in with this heresy: scrutinize the attorneys in your firm as closely they’re evaluating you. Who among them leads a life you’d want?

Even so, in a tough employment market where loan repayment schedules beckon, practicality reigns. Start with some basics:

1.  You want a full-time job offer. (It’s silly to call them “permanent” anymore.) After three days at the firm, you might have concluded that the place isn’t for you. But an offer to return is a useful ticket to wherever you want to go. Interviewing as a 3L, the most important question you’ll get is: did you get an offer from your summer firm? If so, it means others have signed off on you and your work; you’re a less risky proposition. If not, the road ahead is rougher, especially if you’re interested in a different big firm.

2.  You want to like the place. The job pays well; you’ll probably find some people you like; there are worse ways to start a legal career than as an associate in a big firm.

3.  Point number 2 means that you have confirmation bias. That is, you embrace input that reinforces what you want to believe. Be aware that you’re processing your summer experience accordingly. If you think you want a big law career, you’ll discount observations contrary to that premise. Among other delusions, you might view yourself as the exceptional candidate who survives to the equity partner finish line. It’s possible, but only about ten percent of your entering big law class actually will. In many firms, the percentage is much lower. As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things.”

With that backdrop, now what?

1.  Do your best work, but ask for clarification when needed. If you develop doubts about a particular task, ask the assigning attorney before spending hours on a frolic-and-detour.

2.  Befriend young associates. They can offer practical advice while providing a window into the firm and its lawyers. Burdened with their own confirmation bias, they’ll also be among its most enthusiastic boosters. All firms put their best public faces on their summer programs. If you encounter jerks or malcontents, remember this: the really bad apples are out of sight until you’re gone.

3.  Listen to non-lawyers; treat them as real people. Secretaries and staff reveal a firm’s culture. There’s also a practical reason for being nice: they know the place; you don’t.

4.  Don’t take on more work than you can comfortably handle. Many assigning attorneys don’t really know how long a project should take. I counseled summer associates to avoid taking on new tasks until they’d’ brought earlier ones to conclusion. But even that guideline isn’t fool-proof. Sometimes, a project thought to be completed can reappear through a “follow-up” request.

5.  Related corollary to point number 4: moderation in all things. The prevailing culture of most firms makes it easy to take on lots of work to demonstrate your “productivity,” which is what big law mislabels gross billable hours. But it’s far better to complete all of, say, seven summer projects well than to do ten good jobs and two mediocre ones.

6.  Don’t make waves, but watch for the underlying currents. Take a close look at senior associates and partners, especially those at the top who set the institution’s tone. Discounting their pep rally presentations, how many behave like the lawyer — and the person — you want to become?

Finally, when it’s time to complete The American Lawyer summer associate survey, pierce through your own confirmation bias and tell the truth. Future classes will thank you.

As for table manners, does it really matter if a recruit passes the bread to the right or the left? I hope not. Of course, no one should ever be a pig, but every good attorney I know would say this: give me a promising young talent over a lesser one with impeccable etiquette every time.

I can teach anyone how to hold a fork.

3 thoughts on “FOR SUMMER ASSOCIATES ONLY — REPRISE

  1. Great post; great advice.

    But Summer Associates should always remember the story of the young man who was contemplating the life he would lead and silently prayed that God provide him with some proof of whether heaven or hell really exists so that he could make ethical decisions accordingly. He was shaken awake in the middle of one night by Satan himself in full regalia who said to him “God told me that you wanted to know if there is really a Hell, so I will personally give you a tour of the nether world.” Satan took him in to the dark side and showed him a lavish non-stop party; beautiful music playing, servants tending to any wish of the participants, a groaning board buffet of the most delectable food, pleasures of every sort in an endless elegant series of quiet side rooms and broad smiles on the face of each resident.

    “Now you know,” said Satan.

    The young man then led a life of debauchery, sin and lust. At his end of days he was taken again to the Dark Side, but this time, all he saw was fire, brimstone, torture and pain. He eagerly sought out Satan demanding an explanation. Upon confronting Satan, he reminded him of the vistas of delight he had previously been shown and demanded Satan provide an explanation for the stark differences.

    “Ah,” said Satan, “then you were just a tourist.”

    My own advice is as you get to know the associates and other support staff, find out what life is like when you’re no longer a tourist. And stay away from the firms where it sucks to be an associate (http://kowalskiandassociatesblog.com/2011/04/18/it-shouldn%e2%80%99t-suck-to-be-an-associate-at-a-law-firm/ ).

    Jerry Kowalski

  2. All absolutely correct. And if you have multiple offers, #6 of the second set of advice is a good guide as to which to accept. Even if you view your stint at the firm as just something for your resume (which can sometimes change), that is the firm that will teach you how to practice law better.

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