Keys to Succeeding at Your First Legal Job

Each May brings with it the arrival of summer associates to law firms across the country. Law firms have been preparing for months by planning events, assigning mentors and collecting assignments for these carefully chosen groups of second-year law students.

During the first few days of work, summer associates will learn how the firm functions, who-runs-what department, and how they distribute their work. The goal of these orientation programs is to help summer associates integrate into the firm quickly and smoothly.

After managing seven summer programs at two major New York City law firms, I have identified 10 specific tips that I would like to share with you to help you make a successful transition from law student to lawyer.

10 Steps for a Successful Summer

Use your Resources
In law school, if you asked your classmate about a question during an exam, you would have been accused of cheating. In a law firm, asking a fellow associate for a copy of a memo she wrote on a similar issue to what you are working on, and incorporating it into your assignment will get you complements for using resources effectively.

Ask Questions
In law school, what matters most is the end product – whether a note for a journal or an exam. In a law firm, you will be judged as much on the process as on the product. By asking questions of the attorneys you are working for, you can get the information you need to produce a legal product that will best meet clients needs. In addition, asking good questions will show that you are grasping the issues and will impress your partners and associates.

Watch the Details
You may get assignments this summer that are more administrative than legal. Partners will not trust you with substantive legal matters until you have proven yourself and mastered tedious details. Make sure to proof all of your work before turning it in. If you can not spot your own typos, then have someone else review your work – use your resources such as secretaries, office-mates, mentors and paralegals.

Communicate Regularly
Don’t think that by disappearing into the library to research and write a masterpiece memo you will emerge a successful summer associate. You must keep those you are working for informed of the progress of your work. Leave them e-mails, voice-mails or notes summarizing your findings and informing them as to your progress. Keep them aware of any findings you uncover that are beyond the scope of the specific issues they identified as important to the case. By taking responsibility for the communication, you will get and give those you are working with the information needed to produce outstanding legal work.

Never Give Answers Off the Top of Your Head
In law school if the professor asked you a question and you gave the wrong answer, other than the embarrassment, nothing too terrible happened. In a law firm, if you give a partner the wrong answer and he uses this information to advise a client, malpractice can occur. If you are unsure of the answer, say “let me double-check that and I will get back to you shortly.” While you may be embarrassed at not knowing the answer on the spot, taking the time to research the question and getting the right answer is crucial to both the client and your personal reputation.

Learn From Others
Use your summer experience as an opportunity to learn how other attorneys made their career decisions. If you are unsure as to whether you should be a litigator or a transactional attorney, ask others how they made their determination. By understanding the decision-making process others use, you will have a better framework for your own decision-making. Additionally, by observing other lawyers you can gain a lot of knowledge that will enable you to be an effective attorney.

Identify the Stars in the Firm
Each firm has its own unique culture. One of the best ways for you to determine what your firm values most is to analyze the characteristics of the attorneys who are considered the “stars.” Since you are encouraged to meet many lawyers over the course of the summer (usually over lunch) use these conversations to identify the traits that are shared by those who are recognized as successful in your firm. Once you identify the characteristics that your firm holds in high esteem, you have a model for what it takes to be successful.

Form Good Professional Relationships
One of the greatest things about being an attorney is that you are now a member of a select group of professionals. The people you meet this summer, including your fellow summer associates, will be your colleagues for a long time. For example, a general counsel I spoke with recently told me that he now gives an attorney he met in his summer program years ago $100,000 per month of legal work, and this general counsel did not even return to work at this firm after graduation!

Try New Things
This summer is a great time to try new challenges. If you always knew that you would be a litigator, then try a rotation in the tax department. First of all, you might find that the actual work is much different from your law school professor’s version. Second, if you are 100% sure of what you want to do after graduation, then this is your last chance to be exposed to something different. Finally, the lawyers you meet in these other departments can be very helpful to you when you start practicing full-time.

Befriend the Staff
You will meet many attorneys this summer, but don’t forget the support staff. If you make these people your friends, they can help you get your work done. Go out of your way to be kind and considerate.