I was fortunate enough to have two summer associate experiences at Blank Rome LLP, the first one much different than the second, but both were positive and life-changing.
For my very first summer assignment as an incoming 2L, I was paired with one of our firm’s most seasoned partners—who is incredibly smart and handles very complex matters—and within the first few minutes of our meeting, I realized that I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. My vigorous note-taking during that meeting was actually me just writing down a long list of words to Google.
I was too scared to ask any dumb questions. I recall the words “procurement” and “sunshine law” and I think I blacked out after that. I sheepishly returned to his office an hour later and admitted that I actually did have several questions for him, nervously laughing as I asked, “So … what does this mean?” Luckily, he laughed in return and kindly explained the assignment over again, this time breaking it down to a middle-school comprehension level.
Rough start, but can’t get much worse, right? Wrong. My second assignment was to draft an answer to a complaint. The complaint couldn’t have been more basic and bare bones, and some of the junior associates wisely advised me to use a prior draft as a sample.
So I did just that, wrote out the answer, and sent it off. I actually thought it came together pretty nicely. That is, until I realized that I left the sample’s case caption information on it and the third response said “Demied” instead of “Denied.” Ugh, but I proofread it 10 times! A quickly learned pro-tip #1: You may catch more typos reviewing a printed hard copy versus on your computer screen.
You Can Mess Up and Still Survive
My takeaway from these seemingly embarrassing moments: you can mess up and still survive. And, your assigning attorney knows that you might not—and likely do not—know what you are doing at first.
The learning curve can be steep, but rewarding—the summer associate experience is what you make of it. After rising to a level of (minimum) competence my first summer, I came back my second summer with a game plan, ready to go.
By the end, I was drafting full motion briefs and contributing in real, meaningful ways. Another learned pro-tip: if you establish great relationships and goodwill as a summer, you can hit the ground running as a full-time associate.
I would also encourage all summer associates to use their own experiences to learn more about themselves as future attorneys. Are you finding that you like litigation or transactional work? What kinds of tasks do you enjoy doing? Which do you despise? Who do you like working with? Why? Having such a short amount of time to make a good impression can be scary, but take comfort in knowing that many of the attorneys that you will be working with have been in your shoes.
Essential Tips for Success
In my opinion, becoming a successful summer associate is a blend of three essential things.
First, take initiative. Make a comprehensive checklist of questions to ask the assigning attorney before you meet to discuss your assignment, so you don’t forget anything and can limit unnecessary follow-ups.
Second, communicate well—communication is everything and will prevent a bad situation from turning worse. If you are lost, be honest about it instead of plowing ahead in the dark and giving the assigning attorney something they never wanted.
Third, pay (strong) attention to detail. I personally felt like I couldn’t contribute as much substantively as a summer, but could contribute value in other ways: If I was working on a litigation matter, I would learn the local rules that applied; if I was asked to review documents, I did so very carefully (and in print!).
This leads to my final pro-tip: make sure you always know and understand the purpose of your assignment. For example, if you are asked to research X issue of law, make sure you know why you are doing it and in what context. What is the ultimate goal? Sometimes, you might get an, “Oh, you don’t need to know about the case facts—just do this.”
My go-to response was to politely ask where I could find the complaint or the motion we were responding to, just for my own curiosity. More often than not, putting your assignment in context will help direct your research or whatever assignment you have been tasked with—and that’s how you learn how to become a (good) lawyer!
Some parting advice: start out slow and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Prioritize social events, even if they’re on Zoom now. Be kind and considerate to all colleagues, including both attorneys and administrative professionals. Always maintain your professionalism; and last, use your time wisely—it flies.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Serena S. Gopal is an associate in Blank Rome’s Philadelphia office, and previously served as a 2018 and 2019 firm summer associate. She concentrates her practice on general litigation matters. She received her law degree from Villanova University School of Law.