Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Summer Associates

Inside Straight: On Summer Associates

My daughter — you remember her — recently chose her job for the summer after her first year of business school. She was so earnest and diligent about it; it makes a Dad proud.

Choosing a summer job is a huge event in the life of the student: This is, after all, the place where you’re likely to work for at least the first several years of your professional career. A summer job is a big deal.

But consider how things look from the other side of the table: Yet another crop of summer kids appears at your firm for a fleeting moment and promptly vanishes, perhaps to return 15 months later when there’s a chance one of them might help in a real way with some case. Or maybe they won’t come back. Or be any good. Could you remind me again what city I’m flying to tonight, and what motion I’m arguing tomorrow?

Don’t get me wrong: A fair number of lawyers pal around with the summer folks, because (1) those lawyers enjoy spending time with the newcomers, (2) it’s important to the firm to recruit the summer class effectively, and (3) the firm has a budget for entertaining summer associates, and you might as well get your fair share of free lunches and drinks after work.

Eating lunch with a summer associate isn’t a bad deal. But work with one of ‘em? That’s a very different story….

After I’d been practicing law for 15 or 20 years, I no longer had time to work with summer associates. The summer folks don’t realize this, but it’s quite a burden for a senior partner to work directly with a summer person.

If I work with a “real” associate, and the associate does bad work, I can solve the problem effortlessly. I hand the crappy draft to a trusted colleague and say, “Davey, here’s a crappy draft. Can you make it right and get it back to me in a couple of days?” Presto! We’ve spun straw into gold, and it didn’t keep me from the pile of work sitting on my desk.

(Note that I didn’t say that I’d give the crappy draft to a “senior associate” or “junior partner.” The “trusted colleague” is not necessarily the older person; it’s the person who’s able to spin straw into gold. Sometimes that means having more senior lawyers revise the work of junior colleagues, but I occasionally asked talented associates to revise crappy drafts produced by my partners. I can handle political problems; I can’t file bad briefs. And I really want to get home tonight.)

You’re nice people, but senior partners don’t want to work with you.

Suppose I work with a summer associate? The work will almost surely be unusable. It generally takes experience, training, and repetition to produce good quality work, so virtually all summer associates produce pretty mediocre stuff. Once in a blue moon, a summer associate would surprise me — but not often.

When a summer associate gives me a crappy draft, I can’t ask someone else to make it right; that would be bad recruiting. So I’m forced to edit the thing myself, retaining some semblance of the original so the kid won’t leave my office in tears. I must then sit down with the kid for 60 or 90 minutes explaining all of the edits and concepts like “organizational structure,” “topic sentence,” “passive voice,” and other stuff that no one learned in school. A busy partner has neither several hours to spare nor the patience to have that conversation yet again with yet another young person, for the umpteenth time in umpteen years. (I later wrote a book (affiliate link) in part to solve that problem, so new lawyers could read the book, and I wouldn’t be forced to explain the same things, over and over again, to each new lawyer who walked through my office door.)

Before I left big firm life, I always chose to work directly with one summer associate on one project each summer, deeming that to be my duty to the firm. But one was it; I just couldn’t spare the time (and self-torture) to work directly with the masses.

On the other hand, as I said at the outset of this column, even crotchety old partners who won’t work with summer associates will nonetheless happily join the kids for lunch. It makes the partners feel like they’re helping the recruiting effort, and even inexperienced lawyers (or students) can be pleasant lunch companions. If you’re about to start a summer at a law firm and would like to have lunch with senior lawyers, don’t be shy; just ask. If the senior partners are in town and free, they’ll typically be glad to join you.

(By the time I was 50 and had written The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, summer associates had me confused with someone who (1) mattered and (2) might make an interesting lunch date. They’d creep up to my secretary’s desk and timidly ask, “Do you think it would be possible for three of us to have lunch with Mr. Herrmann?” My secretary would bust a gut laughing: “You want to have lunch with Mark? Ha! We can probably arrange that! I’ll tell him not to bring a PB&J in a brown paper bag for lunch tomorrow.” [No prophet is revered in his own home.]

At lunch, the summer associates typically shared far better stories than I did. There was, for example, a summer associate who had grown up in Akron and later played college basketball. He had been home from college one summer playing a pick-up game with a bunch of his contemporaries in a local gym. A tall, scrawny 12-year-old boy asked if he could join the game. The college guys were a little afraid that the kid would get hurt, but they decided to let him play. The kid dominated; his name was LeBron.

I can’t beat that.)


Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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