(Hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend! And pardon the abnormally long spell between posts. After a couple of weeks of family weddings and international travels, we’re back at it!)
What is success for a summer associate? Getting the offer? Seeing Hamilton without paying a dime? Not ending up on Above the Law? There are many measures of success. But we think only two—one internal, one external—really matter.
The Internal Metric
On the internal front, a successful summer is one that leaves you in a position to make the critical choices that will define the trajectory of the early stages of your career. That can mean everything from deciding whether or not to accept an offer (i.e., choosing the right firm) to picking the right practice group or deciding whether to request placement in particular city/office.
For most people most of time, the marquee decision will be picking the right practice group (which is why we started our Tips for Summer Associates series where we did—if you haven’t read the series kickoff post, we’d encourage you to do that carefully now.) But everyone’s circumstances are unique. The key point—the takeaway that cuts across those idiosyncratic circumstances—is that you need to put yourself in a position to make the important, and right, decisions for you. And that requires forethought and deliberate engagement.
It’s immensely easy to get caught up in the summer experience and just go with the flow—a passenger on a frenetic ride. There’s a lot going on. And there’s an endless amount to learn everywhere you look—every new matter, every new task, you could spend your whole summer soaking up experiences and knowledge and still have very little of the information and exposure that YOU need to answer the specific questions that apply to you.
Think about it this way: sometime in the fall, you’re likely going to need to fill out a form for your firm (a) formally accepting your offer, (b) choosing a practice group (or, at least, a general practice category (e.g., litigation or corporate)), and (c) requesting placement in one of the firm’s offices (and possibly expressing a preference for a future office rotation). Would you feel comfortable filling out that form out today? If not, why not? And what information do you need to make those consequential decisions?
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Actually think about what you need to know, and begin seeking it out, deliberately, today. And stay focused. There’s intense competition for your attention, and the summer moves fast. Don’t wait.
The External Metric
If this were Family Feud, and we surveyed 100 random people as to what constitutes summer success, the number one answer would almost certainly be getting the offer, likely followed by getting good reviews, etc. But those tangible achievements are relatively meaningless in practice. Everyone expects you to get the offer. And no one will remember or care about your actual summer reviews. But the thing your future colleagues WILL remember—and, therefore, the thing that’s actually important—is their general impression of you.
Former Summers (i.e., you lawyers out there)
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As mushy and nebulous as it sounds, summer success, externally, is about cultivating a strong impression among your future colleagues. So how do you do it? There’s no magic formula, but—in our experience—the impression you create as a summer is 99% attributable to your attitude.
When you’re a summer, no one expects much from you substantively. But the less you bring to the table on the tangible side, the more you should bring on the intangible. And intangibles don’t depend on your experience, knowledge, or actual ability to contribute to a matter.
There’s a lot of information sprinkled throughout our Biglaw Basics series on having, and communicating, the right attitude as a junior associate. All of that is squarely applicable to summer associates, as well. But here are a few characteristics that are particularly important for summer associates (and are the qualities that often left me with positive impressions of summers in my years at the firm).
No one expects summers to get their work 100% right (or even 50%, for some more complicated tasks), which everyone knows—including the summers. But there’s a palpable difference between summer associates who, realizing that fact, decide to embrace their role’s limitations and disclaim true responsibility for their tasks or matters and those who nevertheless dig in and try to overcome those same limitations and be reliable, committed members of their teams. Who treat the firm’s clients like their clients. Who treat the projects to which they’re assigned like their projects. In sum, there’s a noticeable difference in the level of seriousness with which different summers approach their work. And being on the right side of that contrast—particularly in the face of knowing that much of one’s effort is likely to be relatively fruitless—leaves a powerful and positive impression.
That doesn’t mean you can’t wholly embrace the fun aspects of the summer experience. You should. (And our last post details, in part, why that’s so important.) Everyone expects you to have fun, and it’s perfectly fine—and expected—for you to be excited about the social events. But you can tell the difference immediately between the summers who act like the offer is in the bag and the point of the summer is to have a good time versus those who are truly there to learn and contribute. Which brings us to your next quality.
Particularly when you’re not yet in a position to carry meaningful water on the work front, your level of enthusiasm is one of the biggest drivers of the impression you’ll leave with your teams. It not only communicates the seriousness we were discussing above, but it carries a flood of positive intangibles with it. You may not realize this as a summer, but working with summers often comes at a cost to busy associates. Looping you in and bringing you along takes a good amount of time and effort (often with little return) on their part—time and effort which are always at a premium. Most associates are very happy to do it, but—speaking from experience—it makes all the difference when it feels like the summer is excited to be there and grateful for the opportunity.
Finally, it may sound silly, but a friendly demeanor is one of the best ways to leave a positive impression with your teams. When all else fades over time (a recollection of your work, details of specific interactions, even perhaps the memory of your name), an impression of a positive, friendly air persists. It’ll be the thing that the largest number of your future colleagues will remember when they see your face again in a year or two. Don’t get so caught up in “work mode” that you forget to be pleasant and approachable. Smile, shake hands, say “it was nice to meet you”—exhibit all of the little hallmarks of a friendly demeanor. They’ll serve you well.