Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I went straight from undergrad to law school, and I am wondering if you can give me some pointers about being a successful summer associate?

A: Yes. You got an offer because you convinced the firm that you are smart, personable and willing to work hard. The summer is your chance to show the firm that it made a wise decision. Here are some tips to help you do that:

Be strategic. The summer will go by quickly. Make the most of it by first assessing your goals. One key goal is to get a full-time offer. So consider what you want people to say about you at the end of the summer; plan accordingly. You may also want to explore particular areas of the law or meet certain people. Whatever your goals, you will get more out of the summer if you proceed with a purpose.

Go all-in. You need to try to meet as many people as possible over the summer and learn as much as you can. Ask to work on challenging projects, ask questions when you don’t understand, and ask for feedback on your work. Try to meet new people at events throughout the summer. And build relationships with a couple of people that you will stay in touch with during your 3L year. The skills you learn over the summer and the relationships you build can help you throughout your entire career.

Respond quickly. If another lawyer asks for a status update on one of your projects, respond quickly. That lawyer may have gotten an inquiry from a client. And even if the check-in is just routine, the other lawyer has to keep thinking about the status until you respond. As time passes without a response, curiosity can turn into concern. Even if you are behind or sidetracked, the other lawyer needs to know.

Mind the money. Show that you understand the firm is a business. Be careful to track all your time on projects. It can be tedious and frustrating. But it is critical. The time that attorneys track and bill keeps the lights on and pays for your salary, along with everything else. Get in the habit of checking to see if you have accounted for all of your time each workday. Knowing how you spend all your time will help you catch time that you may have worked but didn’t track.

If you think you spent too much time on a project, resist any temptation to record less than the actual amount of time. As a summer associate, even your “billable” time probably won’t end up on a bill. But the firm will pay attention to your time records. If you cut your time, the firm may think you are not working hard.

At the risk of taking some joy out of life, I also encourage you to pay attention to the expense side of the equation. Make sure you heed the firm’s policies about reimbursements. And let the firm lead in providing perks. If you find yourself competing to rack up reimbursements or asking for things that don’t have a business purpose, you have likely gone too far.

Stay out of Above the Law. Large firms carefully cultivate their reputations for being smart and steady. Even as a summer associate, you are part of a firm, and your actions reflect on that firm. One purpose of summer associate programs is to filter out students who might bar the brand. Enjoy the parties and the perks, but remember that everyone around you has a phone. And many of them have in their contacts.

Good luck!

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 2010). Grover specializes in programs to help millennial 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 for millennial lawyers at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Some of the 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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