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Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I am just starting as a summer associate. Are there things I can do to stand out in a positive way?

A: Sure. You know the basics: Be nice to everyone. Do error-free work. And stay out of Above the Law. But to stand out in a good way, you need to do things that others may forget. Here are some things to consider:

Take Initiative. You will go to social events and complete projects. But if you really want to shine, seek out people to meet and projects that interest you. Firms want to know that you really want to work there. Popular practice groups may not be able to take on all of the associates who want to join. But showing enthusiasm can give you an edge. Ask questions and show that you want to learn as much as you can. Ask if there are ways you can be more helpful on projects. Try to suggest approaches to legal problems that show you used your brain. Then confirm whether your work was useful and on track. Ask for suggestions about how to improve. And look for ways to show that you incorporated feedback into subsequent projects.

Taking initiative to meet people will also serve you well. When I was a senior associate, I served on a committee that was responsible for summer associate activities. But in the crush of work, I was scarce in the first few weeks of the summer. About halfway through the summer, one of the summer associates walked into my office unannounced. He sat down and with a big grin said, “Why don’t you meet any of the summer associates?”

I paused and filtered the first thought that came into my head. But then I realized he was right. Firms invest significant resources in summer associate programs – and everyone has an obligation to help make them successful. After I got over my annoyance from being interrupted, I admired the summer associate’s gumption.

I don’t recommend his specific approach – it was high risk. The point is that people at the firm do want to meet you. But you may need to take steps to make that happen. Try to say hello and introduce yourself in the hallways. Seek out the friendly introverted lawyers that other summer associates may not meet. And before social events, read the bios of a few key people who are likely to attend. They will appreciate the extra effort, and you will have something to talk about right away.

Show Appreciation. Studies have shown that not many people thank their colleagues. This may be even more true at law firms where the pace is fast and excellence is expected. And since you are being recruited, it might not occur to you to thank people for the events and perks. But thanking (if it’s sincere) is a nice gesture, and will earn you points. Look for opportunities to show genuine appreciation: If a partner and her spouse host a dinner, thank both of them at the end of the evening. A follow up e-mail can make an even bigger impression – if you do it quickly. And thank the recruiting staff. Yes, planning activities is part of their job. But did they just do the bare minimum? No. You’re welcome.

Think Beyond the Summer. Toward the end of summer, ask other lawyers for their suggestions about things you could do in your 3L year that will make you better prepared for practice. This may take some finesse, because you don’t want to suggest that you are certain that you will get a full-time offer. But showing an interest in continuing to learn about the firm’s clients and the firm’s work will make you more likely to get an offer. 

For more summer associate tips, take a look at my recent chat for Ms. JD.

Good luck!

Join the conversation by submitting questions on Twitter @Babysharklaw or here. Get the new Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks here.

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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