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: The prior column covered the importance of professionalism and Amy Cuddy. Here are some more important tips for succeeding as a summer associate, including, remembering that law firms are businesses.

  1. Remember that the firm is a business. With the focus on fun, it can be easy to forget that law firms are businesses. But social events, your salary, and even the air-conditioning, only exist because lawyers at the firm provide legal advice to clients who will pay. The billable hour has taken some body blows, but it is still the way most large firms charge for legal services. In other words, no billable hours, no air-conditioning. That is why you should stay late at the office if you need to. And get in the habit of tracking and recording your time every day. Partners get reports of lawyers and summer associates who are late in reporting time. Stay off that list. And resist any temptation to record less time than you actually spent on a project. Cutting your own time is self-destructive.
  2. Take time for technology training. Your summer is likely to be packed with programs and events. You also have to work. But you should still set aside time to meet with legal research representatives or firm librarians to hone your legal research skills. If you are proficient – and efficient – with online legal research and other key technology, you will be more valuable to senior lawyers and the firm.
  3. Assume that learning “opportunities” are mandatory. During the summer, the firm may announce that summer associates have the “opportunity” to attend a court hearing or visit a client. Do your best to participate. The firm may not say that an activity is mandatory. But firms want to know that you are eager to enhance your skills. To paraphrase a former president, “A lawyer’s time and advice are her stock in trade.” Firms also want to know that you care about the work they do. Hand-on learning opportunities may take you away from billing. That is okay. For summer associates, learning is at least as important as billing.
  4. Be nice to everyone. Being nice to everyone is good advice for life, but it is particularly good advice for summer associates. The firm is likely to ask staff members about whether they think you would fit in. Their responses matter. Networking guru, Diane Darling, recently reminded me of how Paula Boggs landed her position as general counsel of Starbucks: The CEO called the mail guy at Paula’s law firm for a reference. (As an aside, Paula Boggs now leads a band of the same name.) Good goes around. Thank lawyers for giving you work and thank staff members for helping you with work.
  5. Ask about ways you can spend your third year to prepare for practice. For bonus points, ask for suggestions about preparing for practice during your last year of law school. New graduates often think they are ready to practice law. Their employers often disagree. As the end of the summer approaches, ask your mentor or other lawyers about skills they think you should learn before you return. Then work to attain those skills once you are back in school.

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 submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.




Spot on, as usual, Grover! Thanks for sharing!

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