A How-To Guide For Summer Associates

It’s June, which means summer associate classes are firing up at law firms across the nation. Eager young law students will be getting their first tastes of the actual practice of law.

It’s been 18 years since I was a summer associate, and I can still picture the room my group sat in for our first orientation session. That first taste of the legal practice is so exciting, surreal, nerve-wracking, and elating that it sticks with a person long after the memories of their first years of actual practice have blurred together.

The legal world looks drastically different today than it did when I started out nearly two decades ago, but some parts of the summer associate experience will probably always remain the same. In that spirit, please allow me to offer some advice to all those future attorneys out there taking their first steps into the practice.

Relationships are the point. Nothing is more important this summer than the relationships you’ll build. That comes from the very heart of the nature of our business. At its highest level, the practice of law isn’t about manufacturing widgets or moving materials around. It’s about listening, understanding, and communicating. Building relationships is the foundation of every legal practice, and that starts now. You’ll need a network of peers who trust one another, seek advice and perspective from one another, and maybe one day send business to one another. You’ll need to cultivate relationships with senior associates and partners who can provide you with work, legal insight, institutional guidance, and mentorship. You’ll need to develop rapport with staff, the ones who keep the ship afloat and know where the bodies are buried. If you want this firm to become your home once you’ve got that JD in hand, make its current members excited to bring you back.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Summer program days tend to be filled to the brim with coffee runs, training sessions, networking lunches, group excursions, happy hours, dinners, and so many other activities. It can be a lot of “on” time. Summer programs pack a lot in because they want to give you opportunities to succeed. Try to give the program everything you can. These next couple of months are a time to invest in your career, and hopefully plant the roots you need for a more balanced experience once you’re back as a full-fledged associate.

Take it slow, prove you can grow. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t know much of anything yet, legally speaking. No one is expecting you to walk in ready to counsel clients or wow a courtroom. Your initial assignments are about answering three questions: Can you research effectively? Can you write effectively? Can you work with others? There will rarely be pressing deadlines on the projects you’ll be handed, so take your time and do it right. Double-check the law, triple-check your cites, and make sure everyone you work with comes away trusting that you’ll eventually give them the right answer. And when you get feedback, listen hard and take it seriously. If we can trust you to listen and follow advice, we know we’ve got someone who can grow into an amazing colleague.

Keep an eye out for real life. I know this will come as a shocker, but being a summer associate is different than practicing as an associate. As a summer associate, you’ll spend as much time socializing as you will reading case law and statutes. In some respects, it’s like summer camp for future lawyers, but with better food and a paycheck. But most of the people you’ll be interacting with will be in the nitty-gritty of the practice. Pay attention to their experiences. Are they getting in early and staying late? Are they firing off and answering emails at 2 a.m.? Try to understand the culture of your firm before you’re asked to live it for yourself.

Do lots of things, but don’t overdo anything. Summer program activities can sometimes be loose, relaxed, casual affairs, but never lose sight of the fact they all function as part of one extended job interview. This isn’t college anymore. Read the room, be mindful of your colleagues, and don’t do anything that’s going to make anyone question whether they want to share a masthead with you. When in doubt, slow your roll and cool yourself off.

Experiment. There will be an expectation when you come back as a first-year attorney to pick a practice and commit to growing in that direction. There is no such expectation right now, which means now is the time for experimentation. Maybe you’ve wanted to be an M&A attorney since preschool, but why not take an assignment in IP if the opportunity comes up? Worst-case scenario, you confirm it’s not for you and get a peek into another practice area that gives you a better understanding of how the legal world works. But sometimes you end up finding an unexpected passion or a surprising mentor who reshapes the entire arc of your legal career. Maximize your opportunities for exploration and serendipity while you can.

I’m still close with many of the people in my summer associate class. These next few months will be an intense experience, and you’ll do best if you’ve got people to go through it with together. As I said at the top, it always comes back to relationships in this business — and you’re about to be gifted some of the most important of your entire career. Take care of your people, and they’ll take care of you too.

You’re only a summer associate once — or maybe twice if you’re fortunate. Make the most of it.

GoodnowJames Goodnow is the CEO and managing partner of NLJ 250 firm Fennemore Craig. At age 36, he became the youngest known chief executive of a large law firm in the U.S. He holds his JD from Harvard Law School and dual business management certificates from MIT. He’s currently attending the Cambridge University Judge Business School (U.K.), where he’s working toward a master’s degree in entrepreneurship. James is the co-author of Motivating Millennials, which hit number one on Amazon in the business management new release category. As a practitioner, he and his colleagues created and run a tech-based plaintiffs’ practice and business model. You can connect with James on Twitter (@JamesGoodnow) or by emailing him at James@JamesGoodnow.com.

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