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.


You’re thrilled, and understandably so.

In an impossible job market, you came up a winner. The summer associate offer rate for all firms dropped to its lowest level since NALP started gathering such statistics 17 years ago. But you worked hard, got good grades, and listened to tips from hiring partners describing what they wanted in a new lawyer.

You scored big. In compensation, it’s a summer job like none you’ve ever had. Your most pressing concern is whether there will be a repeat of last year’s dip in the full-time job offer rate for summer associates — 69% compared to 90% in 2008. So now you’re heeding advice that ranges from proper attitude to correct attire. At least there is some encouraging summer associate etiquette news. According to one biglaw hiring partner, “indiscretion happens with alcohol, but people understand that. You usually have to knock a partner out cold for it to be a career-ending event.”  Whew! That’s a relief.

Anticipating a favorable next step, you hope that your full-time job offer at the end of the summer is real. You don’t want to wind up like the more than 60% who planned to start their careers at large law firms immediately upon graduation this year, only to be deferred into 2011 and 2012. You can’t bear to think about some of your predecessors who received offers of full-time employment after their successful 2008 and 2009 summers, only to see them revoked outright a few months later.

You’re focused on making sure the firm likes you. There’s no time to consider other things — including whether you like the firm.

Here’s a suggestion: think about those other things now, even if only briefly.

At a recent Cubs game, I was talking with a fellow biglaw refugee. He’d practiced in a large law firm — not mine — for more than 25 years before retiring two years ago.

“What questions should today’s biglaw summer associates ask?” I began.

“It depends on what they want,” he suggested. “They probably fall into one of two categories. The first group consists of those wanting good training, needing a decent salary to pay off their student loans, and planning to do something else when that debt is gone. A second group wants to make a career at a big firm; they think they’re in for the long haul.”

“OK, so what should someone in the first group investigate?”

“That’s easy,” my friend responded. “Mentoring. How is the training? Will they have opportunities to develop skills that make them better lawyers?”

“How about the second group — the ones who think they want a large law firm career?”

“For them, it boils down to a simple question: who among the equity partners has a life that they’d want? If they can’t identify such a person, that’s a big problem. If they can, then they have to dig deeper.”

“Such as,” I pressed.

“Such as, how did the senior attorney do it? Is he or she an oddity? Did the partner succeed under a biglaw model that no longer exists? Most large firms don’t resemble what you and I joined 30 years ago. Your new book says it all.”

“And to get at that issue,” I added, “they should search for answers to these questions:

1. Excluding laterals, how many new equity partners did the firm make this year?

2. How many years did it take them to get there?

3. What was the size of their original associate class?

4. What happened to everyone else?

If the chances of capturing the brass ring are about the same as winning the lottery, at least they know the ground rules. The answers will reveal the culture and working environment of the place.”

“Yep,” he said. “And whether it’s conducive to a happy life. Your new book covers that one, too.”

But some aspects of life seem destined to remain unsatisfying; an hour later, the Cubs lost — again.