Across the nation, many 1L and 2L students have just started or are ready to start summer clerking jobs with private firms or government entities. For many, this is the first opportunity to see the practice of law up close and personal. No more teachers, no more books--just loads of real world, worker bee experience! And for those at big private firms, there is also the lure of huge paychecks.
For those summer associates or clerks who have come back to school after being out in the work force, the shift from school mode to work mode may not be that difficult. But for many students, especially those with little or no work experience, the shift can be a tough one. And given that you are vying for a permanent offer, the stakes are high. You want to put your best foot forward, not put your foot in your mouth.
So here are a few pointers for making your mark.
1. Always be on time this summer. For everything. Everyone else can be late to functions or late in turning in assignments or completing their billing sheets, but not you. You are Ms. or Mr. Reliable. At a big firm, you are going to be a Billing Unit, making the firm money. So show some efficiency and dependability, people. Being on time may not always help, but it certainly will never hurt.
2. Make sure you understand each assignment. There is skads of advice on the internet about how you are supposed to talk with the assigning attorney--you receive instructions, and then relay them back to make sure you understood them. Follow that advice.
2a. And once you have the assignment, try to find out what the assigning partner or associate is like. Do they generally say what they mean and mean what they say? Or (more likely), do they have unspoken rules or expectations? Succeeding in practice is learning to adapt to the expectations and work styles of others, so start doing it now.
2b. If the assigning attorney is not clear in his or her instructions, use the extrapolation method to figure out what is expected of you. "Whatever you think you need to do" is not proper instruction for a summer clerk (or junior associate, for that matter). But it is common. I heard it regularly in practice. Try positing certain approaches for the lawyer and see how she reacts, and narrow things down from there to get to an approach that you understand and that satisfies the lawyer.
2c. Your evaluations will be based largely on how closely your work product matches what the lawyer was expecting from you. I guarantee that regardless of the quality of your work product, your work will be given higher marks if you come back with something the lawyer was expecting. THIS IS TRUE REGARDLESS OF WHETHER THE LAWYER PROPERLY CONVEYED THESE EXPECTATIONS TO YOU! The summer associate who turns in brilliant work that was a reasonable interpretation of what the attorney said--but was not what the attorney wanted--will most likely get lower marks than the summer associate who turns in a more average performance but put the work in the expected format or form. And this is why point 2b above is so important.
3. Find a mentor. It might be the person formally assigned to you as a mentor, or it might not. But find someone you can ask sensitive questions. Be careful here--better safe than sorry. You might even decide there is no one you feel comfortable turning to at the firm. (That should tell you a lot about whether you want to work there, shouldn't it?) If that's the case, call one of your friends or professors.
4. Treat every draft you turn in as a final work product. This point is absolutely critical. First impressions are enormously important, and you are wanting to show your prospective employers that you are very, very good. (And that you can spell.) So if someone tells you "just give me what you've got--don't worry about what shape it's in," DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM! Smile, nod, and turn in as perfect a product as possible.
5. Realize that being a summer associate is "law practice lite." Most summer associates today know this, and few if any firms anymore try to pretend that new associates get weekly boat cruises and museum tours. Instead, firms like to talk about giving their summer clerks a "real feel" for the practice of law. But having said that, they will still give you more interesting work than the full time associates, let you sit in on conference calls you cannot bill (THAT almost never happens in practice), and take the time to explain what's going on in a project or deal (so that you think the firm is a really nifty place to work). Remember that this does not happen once you are full time. Just something to keep in mind.
6. Really, really pay attention to your gut feelings about the firm. If it feels like a good place to work, it probably is. If it feels like a nasty, joyless place, it almost certainly is. People can hide anger or misery, but they can't easily fake joy. So if a place feels dreadful, don't go there full time--or if you have to, just go in with your eyes open.
So good luck this summer. I had a blast as a summer associate and did get a feel for law practice--with late nights, unreasonable deadlines, and everything. (And a few baseball games thrown in for good measure.) If you have any questions or comments about your summer experiences, I'd like to hear about them, either as a comment posted to this site or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.