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ANALYSIS: Six Ways to Shine as a Summer Associate

May 24, 2022, 9:00 AM

Transitioning from the classroom to a law firm can be nerve-racking. I remember walking through the firm doors on my first day as a summer associate not too long ago, eager to get started but unsure of what to expect.

Over the past two years, we saw a lot of changes to law firm summer associate programs due to Covid-19 restrictions. As firms switch back to in-person programs, it’s important to keep the following six tips in mind to kickstart your summer and make the most of the next three (or so) months.

1. Build relationships with everyone.

Relationship building should be a key focus—if not the focus—of your summer. Now, don’t get me wrong—the legal work you do is just as important. But at the end of the day, it’s the relationships you make that will drive your career.

The summer is the perfect time for you to start building career-long bonds and to focus on creating a broad network, especially now that you’ll be back in-person. Forming connections will allow you to find the right team, which should not only be the best fit work-wise, but a good personality fit as well. The legal assignments you receive during the summer—as well as the ones you receive once you’re an associate—will be demanding, so having people you trust and respect in your corner is crucial.

It’s also extremely important not to limit these relationships to attorneys and your fellow associates. While building attorney relationships is central to your success at the firm, some of the most significant people at the firm aren’t always the attorneys themselves, but rather the legal support staff and legal operations professionals.

Oftentimes, the legal support staff knows the ins and outs of the firm better than anyone else. They know how to navigate the department, can help introduce you to some of the top senior attorneys and partners, and, quite frankly, are there to make your job easier. I therefore can’t stress enough how valuable of a resource the support staff can be. So be sure to focus your time and energy on building these relationships as well.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

While there are many opportunities for success during the summer, there are also many opportunities for mistakes to happen. Rather than assume—or pretend—you know what you’re doing, be sure to ask any clarifying questions up front, or as soon as they arise. You never want to be that person who turns in the wrong assignment or misses a deadline simply because you didn’t ask a question or clarify an issue at the start of a project. Remember that it’s okay to not know what you’re doing because most of your fellow summer associates are in the same boat.

Questions can only work to your benefit and provide you with learning opportunities throughout the summer. There are truly no “right” or “wrong” questions to ask. The only wrong move you could make would be to not ask the question at all.

A few examples of questions to keep in mind as you receive assignments are: What is the desired due date? What is your preferred method of communication? Do you have any specific expectations? How do my assignments rank in priority? What is the deliverable format? Is there anyone else in the firm with whom I should be coordinating?

3. Request feedback.

Turning in an assignment doesn’t mean you’ve crossed the finish line. Even though it might feel like the hardest part is over and the late nights have finally come to an end, there’s one more crucial step: requesting feedback.

This should happen for every assignment—no matter how small or large the project is. You should never assume that no feedback is essentially good feedback, as attorneys are busy and will often not make the time for a feedback session until asked. Scheduling this feedback session will allow you to better understand your strengths and weaknesses, while also securing some one-on-one time with an attorney.

And as the summer comes to an end, be sure to set up general feedback sessions with the attorneys with whom you worked closely. Last summer, we provided four tips on preparing for these feedback sessions and knowing whom and when to ask.

4. Find a mentor.

Whether your firm assigns you a formal mentor or not, the importance of establishing a mentor-mentee relationship during your summer can’t be overstated. Having a mentor can make adjusting to firm life much easier because they can help with goal setting, relationship building, and growing your overall confidence as a future attorney.

You also don’t need to limit yourself to only one mentor. Having two or three will allow you to learn from the perspectives of different practice groups, seniority levels, backgrounds, and more.

If you’re not assigned a mentor or would like to have an additional one, the following tips can make the process of asking an attorney feel less intimidating:

  • Set clear expectations about the assistance you’re hoping to receive up front.
  • Always be respectful of the attorney’s time.
  • Confirm that you will put in the work on your end as well.
  • Clearly explain why this attorney in particular would make the best mentor for you.

5. Take initiative and be proactive.

Throughout the summer, it’s important to immerse yourself in as many opportunities as possible. Never assume that you have an offer waiting for you. There’s likely someone in your program going the extra mile, so don’t sit back and let the summer bypass you. In addition to seeking out assignments, be sure to keep track of current cases, get to know your clients, insert yourself into pro bono opportunities, and keep up with legal news.

We all know attorneys are busy, so it will be on you to reach out to schedule meetings and keep the channels of communication open. Attorneys will likely be more than happy to put 30 minutes on the calendar to grab coffee or meet for lunch. And make sure to schedule this time with the legal support staff as well. People are itching for human interaction after the pandemic—so take advantage of it!

6. Take care of yourself.

Never forget that your health—whether physical or mental—matters! Law students have been known to struggle disproportionately with anxiety and depression when compared with other graduate students, but unfortunately, few seek help.

We’ve also seen a recent increase in burnout in the legal profession, making it extremely important to recognize your limits early on. The challenging assignments, in conjunction with the busy social calendar, can take their toll on anyone. While you may feel it’s necessary to attend every event (and if you can, do it!), talk to the attorneys and skip an occasional one here or there if you feel the need to get yourself back on track. And remember, most firms have become more in tune with the challenges new attorneys face and now offer resources for those seeking help.

Related content is available for free on our In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being page. Bloomberg Law subscribers can find additional content geared toward firm associates, including practical guidance, workflow tools, surveys, and more on our In Focus: Core Skills – Litigation and In Focus: Lawyer Development pages.

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