By Kristine Cherek • May 05, 2016•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Law School, Choosing a Career and Landing a Job, Internships and Clerkships
Each May, the best and brightest law students from coast to coast descend upon the nation’s largest law firms to begin a summer-long adventure. If you are among the chosen ones, congratulations are in order. Your resume made it through the initial culling of the herd. You sailed through the on-campus interviews. You successfully navigated the callback interview process. You were selected from literally thousands of applicants who initially sought a spot in the firm’s summer program. You can now call yourself a summer associate.
Years ago I stood where you now stand. I was a summer associate at one of the nation’s largest firms. I remember the feelings of excitement and fear that permeated my mind in the weeks leading up to my arrival at the firm. I knew I would need to work hard and prove my worth. Beyond that, though, I was pretty clueless about what to expect and about what occurs behind the scenes of a BigLaw summer program. I am here to share at least some of those secrets with you. And I know of what I speak, at least on this topic.
I finished that summer with an offer for post-graduation employment and, after graduation, I spent the next eight years of my career at that firm. As a mid-level associate I was invited to join the firm’s national recruiting committee which oversaw the recruiting process and made the hiring decisions for summer associate and entry-level attorney positions. I also ran the summer program in the firm’s largest office for two years. In other words, outside of the almighty billable hour I lived and breathed nothing but law firm recruiting. And I loved it.
What follows is a combination of my advice for how to succeed as a summer associate, some words of wisdom, and a few unbelievable but unfortunately true tales. These tales were taken from a variety of sources: from my own experiences as a summer associate, from my years in recruiting, and from the experiences of my close friends who are or were involved in recruiting at other firms. In other words, I can attest that these things really happened because my close friends or I personally witnessed them. Otherwise, I know, I would not believe some of it myself.
Read on, take or leave my advice as you please, and enjoy these tales of triumph and stupidity.
First, the Obvious Stuff: This is a Summer-Long Job Interview
The ultimate goal as a summer associate is to receive an offer for post-graduation employment. NEVER put this out of your mind. As a summer associate you have a relatively short period of time in which to convince the firm you can do the substantive work, you can be relied upon, you can handle competing demands on your time, and you are the kind of person the attorneys want to work with everyday. You have a lot to prove in a few short months. Treat every day like it is a job interview. Because it is.
Do Not Overindulge in “Adult Beverages”
There will be alcohol. There will be a lot of alcohol. There will be alcohol at recruiting events, happy hours, baseball games, dinners, cocktail parties, and everywhere else. Have a drink. Let me say it again: have ONE DRINK. Make sure people know you can handle social situations where alcohol is present. Learn to drink a glass of wine (or beer, or other drink) very slowly. You do not want to be empty-handed, but, you also do not want to be the person who needs an Uber ride home.
There are so many drunken summer associate escapades that could be shared here. I will stick with the most outrageous one which, unfortunately, is completely true. It occurred at a firm-sponsored happy hour at a local tavern. A few summer associates took advantage of the free-flowing (and free) drinks. Things were calm while most of the attorneys were present. Later in the evening, however, the party got out of control.
One of the summer associates got incredibly drunk, got into a fight with another patron of the tavern, broke some things and caused measurable damage (including, but not limited to, ripping a toilet off the wall and smashing it onto the bathroom floor). The police were called. After initially giving a fake name and claiming to be a summer associate at a rival firm, the summer associate finally succumbed to his reality. In the days following the incident word spread like wildfire, not just within the firm but within other firms around the city.
Please do NOT be this guy. Please do not be the guy (or lady) whose drunkenness and foolishness becomes the topic of conversation around town. Please do not be the smart person who does a really stupid thing.
Follow the Rules and Edit Your Wardrobe
What you wear does matter. If the firm has a written dress code, follow it! You would be surprised how often summer associates (and attorneys) treat the dress code as if it is a mere suggestion. If there is no written dress code then err on the side of dressing professionally (i.e., a suit) until you get a feel for what the attorneys wear on a regular basis. It is always better to be overdressed than underdressed.
Some of the rules may be arbitrary or questionable. But rules are rules. If a summer associate cannot follow the simplest of tasks by adhering to a dress code, one has to wonder if that summer associate will overlook some other silly little rule, like what size font must be used in a court filing. Do not give the attorneys any reason to doubt your attention to detail and ability to follow mundane rules!
Leave the Clubbing Clothes At Home
This one also seems obvious, I know. But I need to state it anyway. Do not wear your favorite nightclub-appropriate outfit to a firm event. This is true regardless of how casual the event is or who is (or is not) attending. I recall one young female summer associate whose clothes became the topic of far too many conversations. She had an affinity for stiletto heels, tight miniskirts, and low-cut tops. While her attire at the office was not terribly out of line, she had a tendency to show up for social events in clothes that could best be described as an only slightly more demure version of something Nicki Minaj might wear.
I am not suggesting one needs to hide one’s true self to be successful at a large law firm. I am not suggesting one needs to purge his or her closet of all the fun clothing. But I am suggesting one needs to know his or her audience and dress accordingly. There is a time and place for your Kardashian Kollection outfits or Yeezy attire, and that time and place is NOT a firm event.
“I’m Alex from Harvard. And You Are From WHERE?”
Please do not be this person.
The hiring committee is acutely aware of your resume and academic accolades. Anyone else who cares where you attend law school will already know from what institution you hail. The attorneys and staff at the firm will have been given ample introductions (e.g., biographies, pictures, etc.) to the incoming summer associate class. If they care about law school pedigree, they will already know yours. If they do not care and you constantly remind them, it will not do you any good.
“My Dad is a Partner at Wachtell”
Please do not be this person, either. We (the hiring committee and the attorneys) do not care about your parents’ accomplishments. We are interested in YOU, your accomplishments, and your potential. Name-dropping rarely results in a positive impression.
Similar iterations include: “My dad is the CFO of the firm’s biggest client,” “The Estate Planning Team handles my trust fund,” “The managing partner of the firm is my dad’s golfing buddy,” and “My mom is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.” If these things are true and if they matter at all to the firm, the powers that be will already know of your connections.
Presidential Election? What Presidential Election?
I get it. This a Presidential election year and we are in the midst of a divisive and wild campaign season. It seems everyone is talking about politics every place I go. My best advice is this: just don’t do it. Do not engage. Be polite and steer the conversation to another topic.
When I was a summer associate, the chairman of the firm held a very prominent position on the Republican National Committee. Of course none of us knew this at the time. We did not find out this important tidbit until one of my fellow summer associates took it upon himself to bash the Republican platform at a cocktail party. Did I mention the cocktail party took place at the chairman’s home? Did I mention there were pictures on the walls of the chairman with not just one, but several, former Presidents of the United States? The chairman was kind enough to invite the summer associates into his home and, in return, a summer associate openly bashed the chairman’s political views.
Know your audience, people. Unless you are talking with Ivanka Trump (and you are a loyal Trump supporter), do not share your opinions on the Presidential candidates with anyone at the firm.
Tattoos, Piercings, and Body Art, Oh My!
I get it. Millennials live in a different world than the one in which I (of the 40-something generation) grew up. As I look around the law school where I now teach I realize that tattoos, nose rings, cartilage piercings, and other body art and piercings are ubiquitous. But that is not true within the walls of the nation’s largest law firms.
Remember that some of the attorneys you will work with are the same age as your GRANDPARENTS. You are asking these people to hire you, teach you, mentor you, introduce you to their clients, and compensate you extraordinarily well. You need to play by their rules if you want to be in their game.
If your grandparents would disapprove of your killer tattoo, ear spacers, or the sparkly stars dangling from your navel, you can assume at least some of the partners will similarly disapprove. Remember this is a summer-long job interview. Wear clothing that covers any tattoos. Take out the nose ring. The same goes for the ear spacers, tongue stud, and cartilage jewelry. I remember one female summer associate who viewed each social event as an opportunity to wear a different crop top which displayed her ever-changing inventory of navel jewelry. Do not be this person.
Again, I am not suggesting one needs to suppress one’s true self to be successful at a large law firm. I am not suggesting one needs to change who one is to conform to some other generation’s ideals. But I am suggesting one needs to know his or her audience and act accordingly. A job interview is not the time or place to test the limits. If you want that illusive offer of employment you need to play by their rules.
Do Not Be a Sexist or a Racist
This is just good advice for how to be a decent human being. But it also applies to the summer associate experience. You see, not even an Ivy League education and a federal judicial clerkship can redeem a sexist or a racist.
Let me tell you about one summer associate who hailed from an Ivy League law school. Let’s call him Mike for purposes of anonymity. Mike had secured a post-graduation clerkship with a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals. For those who are not familiar with the hiring pyramid of the nation’s largest law firms, Mike held the Holy Grail of credentials: Ivy League education, Law Review, and the most prestigious judicial clerkship outside of the U.S. Supreme Court. As you might imagine, Mike was not lacking in confidence. He was, however, lacking in common sense and basic human acceptance. Unfortunately this did not become apparent until well into the summer program.
On several occasions Mike made veiled comments about race and ethnicity to his fellow summer associates. At first those on the receiving end dismissed Mike’s comments as small-minded or just annoying. For example, Mike once asked a colleague (a female summer associate of Indian descent) why she was not having curry for lunch. One comment might not make a racist. However, once the summer associates began comparing notes it become obvious this was not a one-time occurrence.
Mike was not afraid to share his views of women in the workplace either. I overheard a discussion between Mike and a female summer associate. While the years have diminished my ability to remember the exact wording, Mike said to the female summer associate something along the lines of, “I don’t know why you are working here anyway. You are taking away a spot from a guy.” Somewhat stunned, the female summer associate replied, “What are you talking about?” Mike went on to say, “You are just going to work for a few years until you get married and have kids. You shouldn’t be taking a spot away from a guy who would actually build a career at this firm.”
That’s right, people. This actually happened. There are people - intelligent, educated, law students - in this world who find it appropriate to pass judgment and lodge insults at others based on gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual preference. I think the only federally-protected class of people Mike did not insult that summer was the elderly. Needless to say, the summer did not end well for Mike.
Get the Offer, Even if You Don’t Want It
Obtaining an offer for post-graduation employment is critical even if you are having a miserable summer experience and would never consider returning to the firm. If you enter the 3L hiring market I promise you will hear these words in every interview: “I see you spent your 2L summer at X firm. Did you receive an offer?”
Firms, and in particular BigLaw firms, respect one another’s hiring processes. If a firm decided against hiring you after getting to know you for an entire summer, it is tough to convince another firm to take a chance on you in the 3L market. You do not want to bear the scarlet letter of not having received an offer. Even if you hate your 2L summer associate experience, put a smile on your face, do great work, and get the offer. Then and only then you can turn your attention to other possibilities.
Lastly, Remember Everything Counts!
Everything you say and everything you do during the course of the summer could impact whether you receive that all-important offer. Every assignment you complete will be carefully scrutinized, of course. But the hiring decision does not start and end with your work product. Your conduct at social events will be discussed. How you treat the support staff will be noticed. How you interact with the other summer associates will be reviewed. Your professionalism (or lack thereof) will be evaluated. Be cognizant of everything you do and everything you say, even to the most junior associates. They are not your friends. They, too, are evaluating whether you have what it takes to become one of them.
Now go forth, work hard, get the job offer, and don’t become a smart person who does stupid things!
Follow me on Instagram @kcherek and on Twitter @kristinecherek