Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks:  Practical advice for new lawyers

Q: What do I need to do to succeed as a summer associate? Are there differences between what I need to do as a summer and a first-year associate?  

A: Over the summer firms want to figure out whether you will be pleasant to work with and whether you are likely to contribute to the firm’s long-term success.

Here are some tips for a successful summer and some of the differences between succeeding as a summer associate and a first-year:

  1. Focus first on your end-of-summer review. Think of your stint as a summer associate as an eight-week interview. At the end of the summer, the associate review committee or similar assemblage will meet to discuss your performance. Your photo may be displayed on a screen. The participants will discuss your work and whether you would be a good “fit” at the firm. They will also talk about your demeanor and if you got along with other lawyers and staff. Other topics will include how hard you worked and if you seemed enthusiastic about joining the firm. Lawyers also care about whether you took initiative and were eager to learn. At the start of the summer, reflect on what you want people to say about you at the end of the summer. Remember those things as you complete projects and interact with other lawyers over the next few weeks.
  2. Be professional. This may seem obvious, but lapses are common. As a summer associate, professionalism is particularly important. Because you are only in the office for a few weeks, people have to make judgments with limited information. Those judgments can go far beyond any single slip up. For example, if you chew gum, dress too casually or wear headphones in the office, some people may question your diligence. Err on the side of formality. Wear a suit, at least until you get a good grasp on the norms for office attire. And don’t take causal Friday literally. If this is your first professional job, read Donna Gerson’s book, The Modern Rules of Business Etiquette. Finally, few things undermine professionalism like booze. Socialize with your colleagues, but mind the tap.
  3. Meet people. Again, because of your limited time at the firm, this can be more important as a summer than as a first-year. Social events are part of your eight-week interview. You should meet as many people as possible. The more voices that advocate for you, the better. Before social events, read bios of other lawyers in the firm. Conversations are easier if you already know something about the person you are meeting.
  4. Watch Amy Cuddy. You need Amy Cuddy. Everyone needs Amy Cuddy. But summer associates really need Amy Cuddy. Social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, is an Associate Professor at Harvard Business School. Her engaging TED talk on how the body influences the mind has been viewed more than 26 million times. The talk provides important advice on how people can configure their bodies to reduce their own stress and make a better impression. Her teaching on body language helps people perform their best in evaluative situations. Your summer associateship is an eight-week “evaluative situation.” Watch Amy’s TED Talk here right now.
  5. Look before you leap. Pay attention to judgment. This is related to the topics discussed earlier. You need to get in the habit of pausing momentarily and thinking about the impacts of your actions – before you take them. Ask yourself if your action will result in the outcome you want. If not, consider changing course. In some situations it may help to look at things from the perspective of another person. Before you turn in work, imagine that you are the assigning lawyer. Then ask yourself if, as the assigning lawyer, you would be happy with the work you are about to submit.

The next column will also cover tips for summer associate success. In the meantime, keep your questions coming by submitting them here.

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). 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 new lawyer career success at law schools and firms nationwide. Some of the questions in this column come from those presentations. Readers may follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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