Above the Law

If this is your 2L summer at a Biglaw firm, then you’re probably reveling in a copious number of three hour lunches and nightly open bars, courtesy of the firm’s unofficial summer wallet. However, as a summer associate, this is also your time to make a lasting impression on the firm where you’ll most likely settle down for the next several years of your legal career.

I’ve conducted an unofficial interview with Lady G, a fifth-year associate at a certain Biglaw firm in Manhattan, whereupon both shall remain anonymous for the purposes of this interview. She has kindly offered tips on how to be a stellar summer associate, based on her experience serving as an assignment coordinator for the summer associate program and working with summers in general.

How big is the summer associate program at your firm?

Pretty big, I would say 100+ associates divided into six teams. Each summer gets matched with an associate mentor and a partner mentor.

Could you describe your role as an assignment coordinator for your firm’s 2011 program?

I was one of three assignment coordinators for the corporate law department. Each summer associate provides Human Resources with a list of interests, which I use to match associates with a list of available assignments. For example, one of the summer associates indicated an interest in entertainment work, so I matched the associate with a financing partner who was working on several media-related deals.

Do the summer associates get any particularly cool opportunities or are their assignments more run-of-the-mill?

Our firm engages in a lot of Canadian cross-border securities work. We often pick a few Canadian associates for the summer program and one of the partners would ask if one of those associates would want to travel to Canada for due diligence work. I think that’s great on-site experience.

But obviously you don’t have to be Canadian, there are still numerous opportunities to gain substantive experience. Do a research assignment – that’s a good way to work directly with a partner who will usually have legal questions that need to be answered. A partner will want a summer associate to do the job because their research skills are fresh.
If you’re interested in corporate law, try to get assigned to at least two or three active deals. Summer associates can get heavily involved in a deal, even though they may not be seeing the process from start to finish. It’s a chance to work on a team.

Do you recommend sticking to one practice area for assignments or taking whatever comes along?

It depends. When you’re coming in as a summer associate, you’ve had no real life work experience so most likely, you don’t have an idea of what interests you. I think it’s good to be open-minded at this point. Don’t turn down an assignment because it sounds boring. You never know, it might take an interesting turn. Plus the reality is that when you become a full-time associate, you’re not going to always have control over the kind of work that you have to do. Take advantage of your summer at the firm – be proactive and talk to the assignment coordinator to find what interests you. They know how to get you on the right deals!

So how much work should I be doing if I’m a summer associate?

Don’t spend all your time working! You want to put yourself out there to see if you get along with everyone at the firm and make connections that go beyond work relationships. That’s something you can’t figure out if you’re working all the time. At the same time, you should say yes if an associate or partner asks you to work on a deal, for the reasons that I already mentioned.

Is it important for summers to attend all the social events?

Yes, try to go to all of them. The partners aren’t going to make you do work and skip out on a firm-organized event. If you can’t attend because you do have an assignment deadline that night, let the person in charge of the event know that you did want to attend but you have work to do. That way, you’re still putting your best foot forward.

[Interviewer’s Note – Enjoy the social events but remember to behave yourself. Don’t do anything that might land you on the front page of ATL!]

Any tips on how to take advantage of mentor relationships?

Make the first move and invite your mentor to get coffee or lunch. Get to know him or her on a personal level and feel free to ask questions about what it’s like to be an associate. In general, you want to talk to as many people as possible about their experience at the firm and learn how they try to find a work-life balance.

Find people who can be your mentor when you come back as a full-time associate. Your mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be the one assigned to you by the firm. And if you don’t feel like you’re getting something out of your relationship with your mentor, seek out people and develop relationships organically. Don’t limit yourself.

What do you consider to be desirable qualities in a summer associate?

I personally like when a summer asks a lot of questions that reflect their interest in knowing and understanding what’s going on with a deal. If you don’t ask questions, how will we know whether you’re learning? The partners and associates want to include you.

Also, it’s all about attitude. An ideal summer associate is willing to learn, take the initiative to get to know a deal and be a team player. Be responsible and responsive. Overall, you want to be someone I can see myself working with and relying on in the future. Lastly, diligence is important. You can’t be expected to know substantive law and thus actual knowledge isn’t as valued as all the qualities just mentioned.

Is there anything extra that a summer associate can do to get noticed by the firm?

Nothing comes to mind right now, but remember that you don’t want to get noticed for the wrong reasons. For example, if there’s someone counting on you to be there or an assignment that’s supposed to be done and you drop the ball, people can take note of that negatively.

Finally, can you share any valuable observations from having worked for five years at the same firm?

You won’t automatically get the work that you want to do. First you have to prove yourself consistently and get recognized by the senior associates and partners. Once everyone is clamoring to have you work for them, that’s when you will get higher quality work and the kind of work that made you decide to become an attorney.

If you have any specific questions that weren’t addressed in this interview, feel free to leave a comment below.

Sunny Choi is the 2013 Writers in Residence Coordinator for Ms. JD. She is a former participant in the Writers in Residence program, where her monthly column Legally Thrifty focused on beginners personal finance advice for law students and professionals. A graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, she currently practices commercial litigation and creditors’ rights while freelance writing and blogging in her spare time. She can be reached at [email protected]