Tips for Summer Associates:  Intro

In just a few short weeks, the halls of Biglaw (as well as the dining rooms of your city’s swankiest restaurants and possibly even the hiking trails of Iceland or the seats of the Richard Rogers Theatre…) will be flooded with a new crop of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed rising 3Ls (and some lucky rising 2Ls) looking for a first glimpse of their lives to come.  (Or, at least, a glimpse at an incredibly well choreographed, chimerical facade layered on top of that life by experienced recruiting staffs.  But hey—take advantage.  Summering can be pretty awesome.)

If they’re anything like we were, right now, those Biglaw-bound law students are probably too busy frantically pulling together outlines and catching up on thousands of pages of reading to worry much about their upcoming summer.  But as the finals get taken and the papers get handed in, their attention will refocus on impending start dates and the excitement—and growing apprehension—will begin to build.

Let’s face it:  most law students (former paralegals excluded) have no idea what they’re getting themselves into when they walk into a large law firm for the first time.  There’s probably no population in the Biglaw orbit, therefore, more in need of some practical tips and guidance than incoming summer associates.

As a result, we here at B&B have decided to pull together a few “Tips for Summer Associates” posts—covering topics such as how to pick the right practice area for you and how to take full advantage of all summering has to offer, while still setting yourself up for future success upon your return to the firm.  (And yes, maybe even a few words on actually SECURING that offer for super-anxious summers out there.  Pro tip:  try not to kill anyone.)

We also want to hear from YOU—both prospective summers with burning questions and our usual readers, most of whom went through this rite of passage themselves years ago and have watched the process unfold several times since from the law firm ranks, who will have their own tips and words of wisdom to impart. 

To that end, we’ve started a new Q&A forum for “Summer Associate Questions” in The Issues List.  (I know—we’ve let TIL fall by the wayside a bit in recent months as we’ve been focused on other things.  But this is the perfect opportunity to reinvigorate our forum.  Providing a safe (and anonymous) space to ask some questions and crowdsource a set of practical tips for an audience in need is exactly what TIL is for.)  And we need you!

Old Hands:

Take a moment and share one quick tip or word of advice for the incoming summers.

Prospective Summers:

Ask the community questions and let us know what you’re most curious about.

On to the tips! 

Today’s Topic:  Picking a Practice Area

The type of work you end up doing is important for a huge number of reasons—not least of which is helping to shape the universe of likely exit opportunities down the road.  A few summers arrive at firms knowing (or, at least, thinking they know) exactly what they want to practice when they return to the firm.  But most of us had no idea what Biglaw lawyers actually did before we arrived (particularly in those mysterious non-litigation departments).

For most Biglaw-bound law students, the summer is your first and only real opportunity to learn about the different practice areas available to you before you begin making choices that will alter the trajectory of your career.  It’s incredibly important, therefore, that—amid the frenzy of trainings, summer lunches, and social activities—you stay focused on putting yourself in a position to pick the practice area that’s best for you.  Here are few thoughts to help you along the way.

Tip 1:  Have a plan from the outset, and seek out as many different types of work as possible. 

There’s a lot going on during the summer.  It’s easy to get distracted by all the trappings of the program and wake up halfway through the summer having barely scratched the surface of what you had hoped to achieve.  (It happened to me and many, many others I know.)  One of the best ways to avoid that pitfall is to have a concrete plan from the outset of what type of work you want to see and begin fulfilling it on day one.

Before you arrive at the firm, spend some serious time thinking about the kinds of work you want to see and why.  Make sure you understand the various practice areas that your firm offers (at least the major ones) and try to develop a sense of the work they do and whether that’s of interest to you.  Make a list of the ones that look most intriguing and be prepared to express (tactfully) a clear desire to those responsible for summer staffing (usually the summer coordinators) to work on at least one matter relating to each area over the course of your summer.

(Two pro tips: (1) The summer coordinators have their hands full playing cruise director while also trying to ensure that all of the summers are getting their fair share of substantive exposure.  Don’t make their lives harder.  Trust me—you want to be on their good side.  Expressing clear staffing preferences is a good thing and can be helpful—making it easier for them to get you what you want/need.  But don’t be a pain or overly demanding.  As with staffing conversations throughout your associate career, I think the best results tend to come to come out of conversations where you express first (with a positive attitude) that you’re happy to help out wherever you’re most needed, but then make clear that you’d appreciate the chance to work with so-and-so or on such-and-such a matter at the first opportunity.  (2)  If you’re particularly interested in a certain group or practice, figure out who the key partners are in that group and seek them out.  Tell them you’d love to learn more about their practice and have a chance to work with them at some point during the summer.  They’ll usually be flattered you’re interested, happy to give you an earful about why they and their practices are so great, and then will just cut through the red tape and pull you on to their next relevant matter.)

Even If you think you know what group you’d like to enter (e.g., you’re pretty sure you want to litigate), I’d recommend developing and pursuing a similar plan.  Getting some hands-on experience in your group of choice to make sure it’s what you expect is important, but it’s also valuable to cast a wide net and try different things.  You may be surprised by what appeals to you in practice.  And even if nothing alters your original plan, your summer may be the only time to get an up-close-and-personal look at the other practices out there.  You may be surprised how often seeing that one credit transaction up close during your summer, for example, will come in unexpectedly handy one day.  Firm policies permitting, the summer is your chance to flit across all the groups and gain hands-on exposure that will be hard to come by once you’re assigned to a niche full time.  Don’t waste it. 

Tip 2 – Try to see behind the curtain. 

As a summer, it’s not always easy to get a sense for real associate life.  Not only are there are a host of summer activities vying for your attention, but it can be a challenge to get fully integrated into the teams to which you’re assigned.  Honestly, it’s not easy for associates to incorporate new—and temporary—team members in a meaningful way (particularly when they likely don’t have many skills or much experience to offer), and some tend to assume that summers are there to have fun more than anything else, and they see letting you coast by with cosmetic assignments as doing you a favor.  That said, most lawyers I knew were very happy to make genuine effort to bring summers into the working-group fold if they thought a summer was genuinely interested.  Make it clear to your teams that you’re there to contribute, not party, and you’re committed to learning as much about the relevant practice as you can.  And actually walk the walk.  Think of yourself as a full-blown team member and act like it.  When you get staffed, treat the matter like the very serious project it is, learn as much about it as you can, and fully own any responsibilities you’re given.  Be responsive, helpful, and commit to adding value.  (We’ll delve into the best ways for summers to do this in future posts.) 

(Pro tip:  One of the best ways to get a sense for what associate life is really life is by being a party to all of the email traffic flying back and forth on a matter.  Tell your supervising lawyer that you’d appreciate being copied on any email where it’s appropriate and ask if you can be added to any group email lists that exists.)

Tip 3 – Go to school on others’ experiences. 

No matter how how many matters you’re able to join and how integrated into those matters you’re able to become, at the end of the summer, you’ll probably feel like you’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what you need to know to select the right practice group.  Throughout the summer, therefore, I’d highly recommend you work to supplement your direct experiences by collecting those of others, making it a point to ask the associates you interact with (on matters, at summer lunches, etc.) about their lives.  Ask they why they chose their practice group, and whether it turned out to be what they expected.  Ask what they like about it and what they don’t. 

Note, many associates will have some standard, automatic responses to these sorts of questions—a product of making small talk at dozens of recruiting events over the years.  You need to get beyond those scripted responses to more candid, spontaneous reflection.  In my experience, the best way to generate that is by getting specific and asking pointed questions (similar to what we talked about in our “Getting the Right Feedback” post).  So instead of asking an associate if she likes her practice area, ask instead for the one thing she likes least about her group or, if she had to choose another group, what would it be and why.  I think it’s always educational to hear whether folks would have made the same practice-group choice again if they had it to do all over again.  If you can push past the rote responses to reach genuine answers and thoughtful reflection, you’ll be amazed how valuable those conversations can be to your decision-making process.

Tip 4 – Pay attention to the personalities.

We began by noting how important the type of work you end up doing is for your career.  But when it comes to the quality of the time you’ll spend at the firm itself, few things are more important than the personalities of the people in your group.  These are the folks you’ll be in the trenches with—through 100-hour weeks and stress-fueled all-nighters—and few things are likely to be as central to your job satisfaction on a daily basis than the quality of your intra-group relationships.  You’ll be amazed how different groups within firms—just like different firms themselves—tend to attract different personalities and how much a personality fit can affect your happiness.  During your summer, when you’re working on a matter in a new group, take a minute and look around the room at your potential colleagues.  Ask yourself if you could see yourself working alongside them, day in and day out.  Do you enjoy talking and working with them?  How do they seem get along with one another?  Do they seem happy (for lawyers) and supportive?  Do they appear to be genuinely and intellectually interested in what they’re doing, or are they just going through the motions?  It’s not always easy to find genuine passion for the work in the halls of Biglaw, but it’s out there; and when you find it, it’s a blessing. That passion is infectious, and the positive attitude it generates permeates entire teams and carries you through the rough work patches better than anything I know.  Pay close attention to the way group members interact with one another.  It’s not a cosmetic consideration—it’s important.