How to Succeed as a Big Law Summer Associate

Your potential playground

This is the second essay in a series on “Big Law” firms from the perspective of a former Big Law associate. Click here to read the first essay on how to break into Big Law. Click here for the third essay in this series, which discusses how to succeed as a first-year associate in Big Law.

After proceeding through the gauntlet of on-campus recruiting and callback interviews, you’ve obtained an offer to become a Big Law summer associate. Perhaps more importantly, you’re in a great position to obtain an offer for full-time employment after your summer associate program. You should take some time to feel proud of yourself: many law students would kill to have the opportunity presented to you. Congratulations!

Now, it’s time to think about how to make the most of your summer experience. Summer associate programs aren’t the same as in the early to mid-2000s. True, there are still boozy networking events and group activities. But having said this, there will be work that you’ll have to complete. Often, you’ll encounter simple research assignments, writing projects (usually internal memos), and pro-bono and other non-billable work.

Still, many full-time Big Law associates feel that the most fun they have in Big Law is during their summer program. There’s a reason for this. Summer programs are not only designed for you to sell yourself to the firm, but for the firm to sell itself to you. Summer associates have lighter schedules compared to full-time associates. They’re given simpler “work” (which is typically written off).

At the end of the day, summer associates are taken to nice restaurants and bars so that the firm can sell the lifestyle of a full-time Big Law attorney. And perhaps the best perk: the compensation. For the length of the summer program, you’ll be paid the same salary as first-year associates. You can use the cash to pay off some of your loans or to spend it as you see fit.

It’s definitely a fun summer. However, you must keep in mind that life as a first-year associate will not be like life as a summer associate. The pay will be the same, but you will be working much longer hours, will be under much more stress, and will have to quickly learn how to actually practice law. It goes without saying, but legal practice is much different than law school.

During your summer, I’d focus on whether you actually like working with associates and partners at your firm. The work will, generally speaking, be similar regardless of the particular firm. Since you’re going to be spending so much time with your colleagues, you should feel comfortable with them and the firm’s culture. It may be a bad sign if you don’t feel comfortable when the firm is actively trying to sell itself.

By becoming a summer associate, you’re on the fast track to obtaining an offer to become a full-time associate. Summer associate offers continue to hover around 95%, so you should be in good shape as long as you sufficiently complete your work and don’t make any serious social faux pas.

My Experience

I was a summer associate in summer 2013. My firm hosted a great summer program for my class. It was a typical program in that we rotated among the firm’s major departments. An assignment coordinator ensured that we would be given work, but not too much work. I shared an office with another summer associate, which was beneficial since we could consult each other if we had questions about work.

Along with our work, we participated in our fair share of summer activities which included bowling, a cooking class, and a baseball game. Attorneys would frequently invite us to small group lunches or dinners. I found these events to be a fun way to get to know attorneys in a less formal setting. Everyone is more relaxed. With that said, you’re still being evaluated, so you can’t completely let your hair down.

I was also lucky to take advantage of an opportunity to work in my firm’s London office for three weeks. It was an awesome experience since I was able to gain a different perspective on my firm’s cross-border work. Before starting your summer associate program, I’d recommend speaking with your firm’s recruiting office to see if there are any unique programs that you can pursue. If the opportunities are there, I’d seriously consider them.

I felt comfortable enough with my firm that I accepted an offer for full-time employment. My summer experience ultimately worked out for me, as I began work as a full-time litigation associate after graduating law school.

Six Tips to Succeed as a Summer Associate

Considering my experience as a summer associate and as a participant in numerous summer programs, here are some actionable tips so that you can make the best impression as a summer associate.

  1. Be Proactive and Get To Know People: Your chances of obtaining a full-time offer will increase as you develop good relationships with attorneys in the firm. Lucky for you, firms generally make it easy for you to meet attorneys since there are a good number of summer events. As a full-time associate, I often looked forward to the summer since I could meet the summer associates while participating in fun activities. Even if you don’t enjoy “networking” or consider yourself an introvert, you need to break out of your shell and approach people. The lawyers want to meet you, hear about your background, your interest in particular practice areas, and your general interests outside of the law. Just be yourself.
  2. Consider a Potential Practice Area: While it’s difficult to determine your specific practice area after only eight to ten weeks in a summer program, you’re going to want to have some idea of what you’d like to do. At the end of the summer, an individual from your firm’s recruiting department will most likely ask you to rank the practice areas that most interest you. You’ll then be placed in a practice area that fits your interests and the firm’s needs. I’d argue that if you feel strongly about a certain practice area, it’s better to speak up. Once you are placed in a practice group, it’s difficult to change. You specialize and the barriers to transitioning become prohibitive.
  3. Manage Expectations: I’d argue that one of the most important skills for summer associates (and lawyers generally) is managing expectations. The most obvious application is when you’re completing assignments for associates or partners. While your assignments usually won’t be as time-sensitive as those given to first-year associates, you need to communicate with your supervising attorney. Tell him or her about your summer schedule and when you think you’ll be able to complete the assignment. If the assignment is going to take longer than expected, notify the supervising attorney. He or she will be grateful if they are kept in the loop.
  4. If You’re Confused, Ask For Clarification: This is an important one. There will be times where you don’t exactly know how to complete an assignment. It’s especially true if you’re working in a practice area where you’ve had virtually no experience (tax law, for instance). If this is the case and you’ve consulted treatises (and perhaps your fellow summer associates), you need to speak with your supervising attorney. Explain the situation, the steps you took, and what you are confused about. It’s better to ask for help now instead of delivering work product that is completely off the mark. Full-time associates will have to fix the mistakes, and it’ll cause a big mess. Avoid this situation by speaking up before the problem grows.
  5. If Choosing Between Work and Events, Lean Towards Events: I made this mistake when I was a summer associate. I felt like I needed to skip some invitations to lunch or dinner since I wanted to do as well as possible on a pending assignment. I understood the importance of networking, yet I didn’t want to hand in shoddy work product. If I could go back, I wouldn’t turn down these lunch or dinner invitations. Instead, I would stay late or come in early to finish the assignment. Going back to my first tip, it’s critical to develop solid relationships with your firm’s attorneys. You should do everything you can to avoid turning down invitations to lunch or dinner.
  6. Don’t Embarrass Yourself: It goes without saying, but being a summer associate is like being on an extended job interview. You’re going to want to be on your best behavior and you’ll need to present your best front to associates and partners. You’ll be attending events where alcohol is freely served. If you wish to partake, just be sure to act like an adult. If you’re interested in seeing what not to do, check out these posts from Above The Law.

As long as you do your work, attend summer events, put on a good impression, and don’t embarrass yourself, you should be in a good position to obtain a full-time offer. The macroeconomic environment does play a role, but you obviously don’t have any control over this. But by leveraging all of the elements in your control, you’ll likely achieve a good outcome.