Success and the summer associate: what’s a law firm to do?

A lawyer dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter isn’t really sure what to do with the guy because they never get lawyers in heaven. So he makes a deal with him that they’ll let him spend a week in hell and then one in heaven and then decide where he’d like to spend eternity.

So, the lawyer goes to hell. Gets off the elevator and there are all his friends. They’re having a great time. The Devil is a nice guy, his minor minions are carting around drinks. They play poker, go out and golf, basically live high on the hog for a week.

Then he gets on the elevator and winds up in heaven. He spends a week there and it’s fine, but not real exciting – floating by on a cloud, playing a harp, etc.

So at the end of the week he comes to St. Peter and says “You know I never thought I’d say this, but Hell was just a lot more fun. I’d like to go to Hell.”

So he gets back on the elevator and the doors open in Hell and now there are lakes of fire, and his friends are covered in boils, and the Devil is a jerk, and the demons are sticking him with pitchforks. And he says “I don’t get it, when I visited before you were so nice and we had a great time. What happened?”

And the Devil replies “Ah, then we were recruiting you. Now you work for us.”

This often-circulated joke always makes its guest appearance about this time of the year.  There’s a perception, which has some truth behind it, that big-firm summer associates don’t actually work much; instead, they’re wooed over fine dining and fun outings, presented with interesting work assignments, and welcomed with open arms by everyone at the firm…. And when they return as first-year associates, everything has changed and they’re working heavy hours on dull assignments with senior lawyers who don’t know them and, really, don’t care to get to know them.  (Fortunately, it isn’t quite like that.)

On the flip side, many firms are getting serious about summer associate training programs. Some firms offer a shortened, but otherwise almost identical (i.e., “Oh no, not this same case study… not the same questions… not the same presentation!”) training program to summer associates and first years.  That suggests, probably correctly, that firms believe that substantive summer training is unlikely to be useful when summer associates return for full-time employment more than a year later.  So, what training can a law firm provide that will benefit students and, in the long run, the firm itself?

  • Soft skills training, especially communications skills.  Students will use writing skills and oral communications skills between the summer associate and the full-time associate period.  They’ll be able to incoprorate and build on the training they receive in this area.
  • Networking skills.  Students will meet a lot of people during the summer associate period.  If law firms teach them how to approach and follow up with these people, they’ll help students develop the beginnings of a professional network.  Again, student will be able to incorporate and build on these skills during their third year of law school and while in bar review classes.  By developing these skills, the student will enrich his or her network, and that will sow the seeds for client development in future years.  That’s money well spent.
  • Staff relations skills.  This is something often overlooked in training.  Many law students have never worked with a secretary before.  Almost none have worked with paralegals.  And this is an area that’s often challenging for young associates.  Presenting a program on the boundaries of delegable work (i.e. what’s using a paralegal’s skills and what’s facilitating the unauthorized practice of law?), on how to partner well with a secretary (including issues like how a 25-year old associate can “supervise” and learn from a 55-year old secretary), and on how the firm’s support and administrative staff works will pay huge dividends.
  • Legal research skills.  Although students may use these skills less during their final year of school than some of the previously-discussed skills (except, perhaps, in moot court and practical litigation classes), these skills will pay off immediately in helping the summer associate deliver higher quality work.
  • Professionalism.  It’s much discussed, but professionalism is a fuzzy topic to a lot of law students.  It shouldn’t be, and it’s a great topic for a lunch-and-learn.

And what if you’re a summer associate and your firm isn’t providing this kind of training?  Ask for it.  It doesn’t have to be formal for you to benefit.  Find a senior associate or a partner and ask what she wishes she’d known when she was a summer associate, then ask how she could have learned it.  This is a small but important step toward being the CEO of your career.

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