By Katherine Larkin-Wong • June 24, 2013•Firms and the Private Sector
This article first appeared in the June 24, 2013 issue of The Careerist. It was authored by Grover Cleveland and Katherine Larkin-Wong. A Seattle-based lawyer, Cleveland is the author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks. Larkin-Wong is a litigation associate at Latham & Watkins LLP and President of Ms. JD.
Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, has dominated recent conversations about women in the work force with her book Lean In—Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. We were struck by how many of Sandberg’s “lessons” apply to lawyers generally (both men and women) and to summer associates specifically. Here are 10 essential tips from Lean In:
1. Treat your summer job as a forever job—even if you’re not certain you want to stay for the long haul. Sandberg writes that women shouldn’t opt out of their careers before they have to. A similar idea applies to summer associates. We cringe when summers tell us that they’re just at a firm to pay off student loans and they don't plan on staying. That could be true, but the best thing that you can do for yourself is to give it your all.
Think of your summer job as the first date in a long-term relationship. That will drive you, make you consider how your actions might affect you long term, and push you to put your best foot forward. Being fully engaged will also make the work more interesting. Remember, the legal world is a small world. Just because your summer firm may not be your forever firm doesn’t mean that the reputation you earn there won’t follow you.
2. Be assertive; take challenging assignments. Leaning in means being assertive and taking initiative to get the most out of your few short weeks at the firm. Meet as many people as possible and seek out challenging assignments. Think about the types of projects you would like to work on and be assertive enough to let people know that you're interested. That doesn't mean turning your nose up at other projects. It does mean being proactive about expressing your desire to do challenging work. Always think about how you can be more helpful on a project.
When you get a project, own it. Your goal should be to complete the work in a way that the assigning attorney could send your work directly to the client. As a summer associate, that is not likely to happen. But make that your goal, and your work will stand out.
3. Seek out feedback. Sandberg emphasizes the importance of getting and seeking honest feedback. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to ask for feedback on your work. Try to incorporate the feedback into your work over the course of the summer. The more you show your willingness to learn (a key ingredient for a successful young associate!), the better your summer will be. A good way to get feedback is to ask the senior lawyer to show you the final product and explain any changes to your work.
4. Smile and be friendly. Sandberg also highlights the importance of smiling and being friendly. Firms want to know that you are smart and diligent, but they also want to know that you will be pleasant to work with. Law firms can be stressful places, and there is little room for surly behavior or a big personality. As discussed below, demonstrating confidence is important. But arrogance as a summer associate is verboten. So be nice to everyone. That does not mean being chummy, because you always have to maintain a professional demeanor. But you should assume that lawyers and staff members will be asked about their impressions of you.
5. Display confidence. Sandberg emphasizes confidence in the workplace, and that's particularly important at law firms. Many summer associates are surprised when asked to defend the conclusions in their work. As a summer associate, you may not be confident about much of anything. Sandberg suggests that if you don’t always feel confident, work to project an air of confidence anyway. If you let other lawyers see you sweat or lose control, that by itself can undermine others’ confidence in your abilities. Keep Calm. Carry On.
6. Focus on the firm's needs. Sandberg recounts the story of Lori Goler, an eBay executive, who wanted to work at Facebook. Goler said she considered talking about all the things she was good at and all the things she liked to do. But Goler figured that everyone was doing that. So instead Goler asked Sandberg to name her biggest problem and offered up ways that Goler could solve it. Sandberg said her jaw dropped, because despite having interviewed thousands of people up to that point in her career, no one had said anything like that. (In case you are wondering how the conversation turned out, Goler now leads Human Resources for Facebook.)
Remember, clients hire lawyers to solve problems. That entails far more than research or drafting documents. Keep your focus on the client’s problems (which are the firm’s problems) and how you can help solve them. By the end of the summer, the firm needs to be able to conclude that you will be capable of helping to solve its problems—and that you will do so enthusiastically.
7. Don’t ask questions where you can look up the answer yourself. Sandberg counsels against asking "lazy" questions. Sandberg recounts being irked every time interviewees ask about the culture of Facebook because there are literally thousands of articles on that very topic. Similarly, if you ask a senior partner to check information that you could easily verify yourself, you are not demonstrating initiative, and your request will not be well received.
8. But don’t spin your wheels for too long. First, ask this threshold question: Is your question a “lazy” one, or is it something that’s over your head? If you’re finding yourself running up against a wall, don’t be afraid to say so. You’re not expected to know it all. As a professional development manager at a law firm wisely commented, “It is okay not to know. It is not okay not to learn.”
You have to ask questions to ensure that you understand your assignments and stay on track. When you get an assignment, ask for precedent and any resources (treatises, etc.) you should review. Put in a good-faith effort to find the answer.
Then it’s all about how you ask for help. Be prepared to explain what you’ve done and what you’ve learned, and describe, succinctly, your question. This is especially true if you find yourself stuck on a project that was not supposed to take so long. If you are stuck, ask.
9. Excel, and you will get a mentor. Your firm is likely to assign one or more mentors to help you navigate your summer. Firms are generally careful about selecting mentors, but don't be disappointed if you don’t “click” with your mentors.
Assigned mentors might not be sufficient. You need to cultivate relationships that develop naturally with people who are willing to invest in your future. In Lean In, Sandberg cautions against asking others to be your mentor. That can be as awkward as an assigned mentorship. Instead, she argues that the best way to get a mentor is to excel. That will make others want to invest in you and see you grow. And it gives them the confidence that you will be able to handle more (complex) work, which will ultimately make their lives easier. If you want someone to invest in your career, you need to earn that investment.
10. Acknowledge others. Sandberg didn't offer this lesson, but she showed us. Sandberg’s acknowledgments section is more than 10 pages long. She is careful to give personal details about everyone involved in the Lean In project. This is an excellent model to follow during your summer. Get to know everyone in your office—attorneys, staff, even building security. Be sure to acknowledge those who made your summer great, from the recruiting staff to the secretarial pool to the attorneys who invested in your summer experience. Say thank you often—better yet, do it with a personal touch.
Bonus Tip: Lean out from the booze. Sandberg does not talk about liquor (at least that we can recall). But we need to talk about alcohol, because the most epic summer associate meltdowns almost always involve drinking. For firms, summer associate activities serve a dual purpose: They assist recruiting by generating goodwill and help firms with screening, because they provide an opportunity to observe summer associates in a variety of settings. Free booze is awesome. But if you overimbibe, the hangover can be long-lasting.