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Acing It as a Summer Associate: Foley & Lardner’s Whitney Swart

June 3, 2021, 8:00 AM

My first day as a summer associate in Foley & Lardner’s Washington, D.C., office, I arrived covered in sweat with only about 30 seconds to spare. It was one of those excruciating summer days where it was 90 degrees by 9:00 a.m., and I was not yet accustomed to commuting on the Metro train and by foot.

In stark contrast, on my first day as a first-year associate, there was no sweating and no commute. It was December 2020 and remote work was the new normal. Reflecting on these experiences, I’ve developed some advice for summer associates about to enter this year’s programs, remote or in person.

Insecurity Is Normal, But You Are Competent

The experience of being a summer associate can be nerve-wracking and full of insecurity. You want to impress the firm and hopefully make it the place where you launch your new career.

Personally, I remember not being certain that I deserved to be at Foley. My path to the firm had been unconventional. Most of the young associates in my office had come from D.C. law schools, but I hailed from Notre Dame in Indiana. Moreover, I received my first interview not through an on-campus interview, but instead through networking.

I had a bit of imposter syndrome, wondering if I had been hired by mistake. But I quickly realized that my work was valuable to my superiors.

While it was true that I had (and still have) a lot to learn, it’s well understood by those who are mentoring and training you that you are at the firm to be taught. Be humble and receptive to criticism without being self-deprecating or letting insecurity cripple you.

Find Your People

The people you work with can make or break any job. What made my summer associate experience so great was bonding with the other summer associates, as well as with attorneys at the firm.

There were countless days when one of my fellow summer associates would walk into my office, shut the door and recount something embarrassing, stressful, or funny that happened to her at work that day. We bonded so quickly and easily that now, even though we’ve only known each other for two years, we are going to be in one another’s weddings.

Granted, this sort of connection can be more difficult to build when you are working remotely. As a remote first-year associate, however, there have been a multitude of occasions when I have felt lost, stressed, or frustrated and I have called or sent an instant message to a third-year associate in my department. She’s been there to listen and provide advice in a way that has been invaluable to me as a new associate.

Calls, IMs, and video chats will never be as good as a hug and an in-person coffee date, but they are still vital to thriving in the workplace. Embrace these types of tools to create relationships, even if you have to do it virtually.

Be a Person

I don’t see the primary purpose of summer associate programs as training students to be good attorneys. Instead, a major goal of the experience is to introduce you to your colleagues and help you become integrated into the firm. This purpose is not accomplished if all you do is “talk shop” all day.

Sure, you should focus on work and be professional, but when you are at social events or virtual hangouts, remember to be a person. You don’t have to pretend your hobbies are reading SCOTUSblog or listening to NPR (but if they are, good for you). Share (appropriate) stories about your favorite vacations, funny experiences, or family and friends.

For example, I became well-known around the firm for the fun fact that I went to clown camp and became a certified birthday clown. That story, and accompanying photos, served as an ice breaker for me and endeared me to many people with whom I was building relationships.

If They Ask You for an Opinion, Give It

One of the assignments I had as a summer associate in 2019 was to draft a blog about a recent U.S. Supreme Court case. The senior counsel for whom I was drafting the blog was well known at the firm as one of the best writers in our department. I was a bit intimidated by how smart and competent she was.

When she and I talked through my draft, however, she asked for my thoughts on some of her comments. I respectfully pushed back on some of the things she proposed where I disagreed. I later learned that she was really grateful that I did that, and that through this discourse we were able to improve the article.

Not everyone has the confidence to honestly provide their opinion when facing superiors, however, if they ask for your opinion, they want you to provide it. Don’t be afraid to do so.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Whitney Swart is a first-year associate in Foley & Lardner LLP’s Washington, D.C., office, where she is a member of the Business Litigation and Dispute Resolution Practice group. She was a summer associate for Foley & Lardner in 2019, during her 2L summer at Notre Dame Law School.