May is a month of transition for many people, including those on the way to becoming lawyers. Graduating law students move from law school to bar study, and 1L and 2L students take a break from classroom studies to work in summer positions‑whether they be summer associateships, law clerk positions, internships, or externships. All of these, and many more, can be terrific experiences. Today’s column offers some practical advice on how continuing law students can get the most out of these experiences.
A couple of foundational principles to consider: First, the majority of summer legal positions that law students undertake are not designed to lead directly to full-time employment: while summer associateships in large and mid-sized firms often do carry expectations of future employment, other kinds of positions generally do not. Yet law students should not underestimate the value of such positions. They offer invaluable experience, credentials, and connections to players in the legal community—all of which savvy law students can leverage into tangible employment benefits down the line. Second, most legal employers or hosts are looking for more than a “smart” or “hard working” student. These two traits are table-stakes‑they get you in the door, but are not enough to distinguish yourself. What else are summer legal employers or hosts looking for? Someone who demonstrates professionalism. Someone who is resourceful. Someone who demonstrates initiative. Someone who takes ownership of projects. Someone who is efficient. Someone who is both a team player and a problem solver.
Students might rightly ask “But how, precisely, can I meet this standard?” Here are ten practical tips to guide law students, regardless of the particular venue of their summer experience:
- Exhibit a positive, enthusiastic attitude. One of the benefits law students bring to their employers or hosts is energy and excitement. Practicing lawyers feed off of this vibe, so be enthusiastic, curious, and positive. If you bring an upbeat and energetic attitude to your summer experience, your employer or host will respond positively in turn.
- Don’t be afraid to come in early and stay late. Yes, we know that some of you will be told not to “work too hard.” But really, when was the last time you heard of someone being thought less of because she worked too hard? If you have a project to get done, consider staying late and get it done. Employers and hosts alike value your ability to meet deadlines. If you need to stay late to meet a deadline, err on the side of doing so.
- Be focused on the larger unit or organization in which you are working even as you take care of your own business. Law school is, in many respects, an “individual sport.” This is (rightly) changing in some ways, but it remains true that in law school you often can do well on your own without needing to team up with others. Summer legal positions, by contrast, tend to be team focused. During your summer, ask yourself whether there are things you can do to help the people around you, not just at higher levels but at your own level and below. This attitude will make a very positive impression.
- Do (and show!) your best work. Don’t hand in “drafts.” A common problem for law students is they misunderstand when a law firm partner or other senior person says “give me a draft.” What they really mean is “do your best work, but I understand that you are a law student and because it won’t be perfect I will need to work on it after I get it.” But that doesn’t mean that they will overlook flaws in logic, in organization, in research, in writing or even in typos. Assume that you are handing in a final product, and polish it—substantively and stylistically—accordingly.
- Communicate and interact in a manner appropriate for your audience. Not everyone communicates in the same way. Younger lawyers are more likely to rely on e-mail communication; some might even send texts for some short work-related messages. Older lawyers tend to prefer face-to-face communication or phone calls. Observe how others in the office communicate, and match your own style with theirs whenever possible. When in doubt, always err on the side of more formal communication with lawyers. And if you’re unsure of what mode of communication someone prefers (e.g., email versus phone call), ask!
- Seek out new work assignments and new work experiences. Avoid relying exclusively on assignment systems to fill your work plate. If you have an interest in handling a project in employee benefits, for example, touch base with the chair of that department and introduce yourself. If you are working with a judge for the summer, and are spending a lot of time observing trials and want to generate more written deliverables (which is always good), ask if you might help by drafting some orders or opinions. Be proactive in building your resume.
- Request feedback, actively but tactfully. Lawyers are busy, and they’re not all great managers. When you turn a project in, they might not give you much of a sense of how useful it was, and why or why not. If feedback is minimal, how about saying: “I wanted to check in and make sure you found my memo helpful. For future reference, is there anything I could have done to make it better?”
- Show respect for everyone, including clerical staff. You’d be surprised how often law students (and lawyers) break this rule. Be polite and kind to everyone in the office, especially the legal assistants, personal assistants, mailroom staff, etc. All of these folks probably have good relationships with the senior professionals in the organization, and they will share their opinion of you—good or bad—with the higher-ups. If the judge’s assistant likes you, the judge may be more inclined go out of her way to say great things about you down the line. Take advantage of that tendency.
- Get to know as many people as possible in the office. It’s easy to get into a rut, working (and socializing) with the same few people. Expand the number of people you meet during the summer. You never know who might be able to help you later on. The attorney sitting in the office next door might become the firm’s next hiring partner. The judge who sits on the same floor as your judge might hire you as a clerk someday. Meeting more people gives you more potential future allies. As one of our former students once said: “You never know where your help is going to come from.”
- Always maintain a customer-service mindset. During your summer, continually ask yourself: “How can I add value here?” It’s easy to focus on how this is an educational experience for you, and to dwell on how you might gain from it. But remember, employers and hosts are focused on their own problems and concerns. If you worry about those too, you will earn their respect and gratitude, and they may work harder to help you in the future.
If you follow these simple tips, you will do well this summer. Enjoy the experience!