You are currently viewing Podcast 14: How to Succeed as a Summer Associate –  Advice to Help Turn Your Summer Law Job into a Permanent Position

Podcast 14: How to Succeed as a Summer Associate – Advice to Help Turn Your Summer Law Job into a Permanent Position

Summer Associates, Legal Interns, Law Clerks. During the summer months, law students fan out across the nation to put the academic skills they’ve learned all year to the real test: doing the work of a lawyer. Whether you’re working in a law firm with a summer program, jumping into the trenches with a solo practitioner, joining a corporate counsel team or dedicating your summer to public interest work, you’ll need to make the most of your experience. We tackle topics like how to effectively obtain and complete assignments, how to build relationships with fellow summer associates, staff, and attorneys and how to enjoy firm-sponsored social events while maintaining professionalism. We also get tips on what not to do, to keep you on the best course for landing a job after graduation!

Guests include:

  • Wendy Siegel, Director, Recruitment and Marketing, Office of Career Services, New York University School of Law
  • Kara E. Nelson, National Director of Legal Recruiting, Foley & Lardner, LLP
  • Elie Mystal, an editor of
  • Sabina B. Clorfeine, co-author of The Summer Associate’s Guide to a Permanent Job Offer


Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Althea Legaspi.

Congratulations.You landed a summer associate position.Now what?Each year, as law students finish their Spring Term Exams, 1L and 2L students around the nation head off to start summer clerking jobs with private law firms, government agencies, or not-for-profit organizations.If you’ve been lucky enough to score one of these coveted positions, you want to know what you can do to turn it into a permanent offer of employment after you graduate from law school.

Well, there was a time when being a summer virtually guaranteed a job at a law firm after graduation. But the times, they are a changing. The economy has impacted Big Law’s landscape and it’s had an effect across- the-board in all sectors of the legal employment market.This means all law students with summer jobs will, in some ways, need to approach their internships differently than in the past.But fear not.

We get the inside scoop on Do’s and Don’ts for summer associates and for all those with summer law jobs, and we help you find the best ways to help secure a full-time position in this segment: How to Succeed as a Summer Associate. We’ll hear from Foley & Lardner’s National Director of Legal Recruiting, the Director for Recruiting and Marketing at NYU School of Law, a co-author of The Summer Associate’s Guide to a Permanent Job Offer, and an editor of , who impart sage advice on how to appropriately navigate summer associate internships.

Let’s begin by examining the current climate for summer associates.Gone are the days when a summer associate could just assume that after the bar exam they would start working with the firm or employer they summered with as a 2L. Recently, many summer associates found themselves with offers for permanent employment that were later deferred, withdrawn, or without any offer at all after graduation.

However, many firms have now tweaked their summer associate programs reducing the duration of their programs and/or the headcount of their summer class.This can be good news for current summer associates.Foley and Lardner’s National Director of Legal Recruiting, Kara Nelson, explains.“The economy has definitely impacted summer associate programs. For us, I think, the biggest change has been the size of the summer program.Two years ago, we had 177 summer associates across the entire firm, so all of our offices.This summer, we have 35, so that’s a dramatically smaller number of people who are working here. It also means, I would hope, that there is room for everybody.”

While reduced numbers in the summer associate class may increase your chances for a permanent offer, New York University School of Law’s Director of Recruitment and Marketing, Wendy Siegel, says, summers should concentrate on earning an offer rather than expecting one. “So, we do programs like, how to succeed as a summer associate.We send out memos to students so that we can give them some guidelines and some things to really read through and digest before they head off to their summer experience, and we talk about things like their professionalism and their reputation and how that’s really their most valuable commodity, and we talk to them about the legal industry being really the service industry and that they need to demonstrate responsiveness and reliability by promptly returning phone calls and emails and meeting deadlines and how they really need to inspire confidence in both their supervisors and their clients, not to mention the partners, the associates, and the staff.So, we talk about other things like consistent performance, being a team player, and even things like resisting the tone of entitlement. A lot of these students were recruited, heavily recruited, to come to our law school as well as many others. And they may have gotten a sort of a false sense of entitlement that everyone wants them no matter what, but the reality is, again in this economic climate, you really need to prove yourself and really earn that offer as opposed to just sort of showing up for work and getting it at the end of the summer.”

So then, what are some sound strategies to employ as a summer?Siegel adds being positive can help a summer stand out.“I think first and foremost, it’s all about the attitude and approaching all assignments, every assignment with enthusiasm and, again, that positive attitude. You really should be careful about criticizing or any negative commentary at all about partners or associates or any administrators at the firm or any client. Following that, I think that quality is really job number one in terms of associates. They really need to focus on the quality of their work, checking their work, handing in a perfect work product that has been checked over many times, that is error free and your very, very best work.Students should not leave it up to their supervisor to be proofing their assignments and to having them make any minor corrections. That should all be done when they hand it in. I think students should also feel more free to ask questions because sometimes students don’t know their deadlines and therefore, they really can’t meet them. So if someone is not giving them a deadline, they need to ask.”

Having the right attitude applies to more than just the work itself.Nelson imparts this advice on a must-do list.“Being respectful and professional to everyone with whom they interact within the organization. So that means, the assistant to the person working in the copy center to the corner office partner, treating everyone with respect and being courteous because it takes everybody to operate the law firm successfully and so I think they need to definitely be sure to be respectful and courteous to everyone.”

Nelson also says most of their summer associates can expect between seven to ten projects depending on the project size. However, the work load may vary from firm to firm.Depending on where summer lands and given the economic conditions, there may not be enough work to go around or there may be more than what’s traditionally been expected of summers in the past.Either way, editor, Elie Mystal, says one skill is key.“Yes. Well, I think that communication, communication.And then when in doubt, more communication.I think that a lot of summers in this market need to be very proactive about going out, trying to find work, trying to generate relationships with the associates and partners at the firm even while they’re just there for a few weeks over the summer to try to get some kind of actionable assignments that can show their skills. It might not be client work in this kind of market.It might be, hey Mr. Partner Man, I see that you have an interest in this and you’re writing a book on that or you’re writing a note on this, can I help? Can I research?Can I do something to make myself useful to you? I think that’s a strategy that we know that a lot of summers have been trying to employ.And the whole game is to just make yourself look useful at a time when firms are really critically wondering whether or not they can utilize junior associates at all.”

Whether summers find they may have taken on too much work or don’t have enough or are concerned about making a deadline, the co-author of The Summer Associate’s Guide to a Permanent Job Offer, Sabina Clorfeine, who’s also Sempra Energy’s Senior Counsel, says communicating in person rather than via e-mail is paramount. Why? “Well, I think that you can explain yourself more fully if you’re sitting with that person and they can understand exactly what amount of work that you’ve done.Sometimes on e-mail, I think tone tends to come across a little bit differently and it may not come across that, hey, I’ve been really working on this project for a while and I’m diligently following up on it.So, I think that sometimes calling someone and speaking to them and saying I’ve done – I’ve followed down these avenues of research and I’m stumped or I need to do this much more.I have to look outside the jurisdiction or perhaps I have to look in an area I’m unfamiliar with, that may redirect you in a different direction rather than just receiving an e-mail from someone saying I’m not going to finish this on time.”

That said, Clorfeine also has tips on tackling legal research.“My first tip is, really understand the assignment.Make sure that when you receive the assignment from the person you’re receiving the assignment from that you know what the scope of it is. Is it federal or state? Is there – are there things that you should be looking for?And I would ask that person where to start.That’s usually the best thing that you can do is, hey, do you have any tips for me as to where I can start looking for this information? And if it’s drafting something, if you expect to have some sort of memo produced at the end, I would ask, hey, do you have an example for me of how you like to see something at the end, so you know what you’re working for is right at the very beginning of the assignment. As far as the actual research itself, I think many lawyers, at least litigators, which is my background, realize that once you start researching something, if you start coming up with the same cases over and over again, you’re probably done and you’ve probably hit that area. And I would also – I’m a big fan of using, of not just sitting down and doing case research but spending a lot of time looking at treatises because that can send you off on different tasks for research that you may not have thought of and it’s a good comprehensive general overview of the topic rather than being very focused on a one particular issue.”

Really understanding any assignment is the foundation for its success.Clorfeine also suggests asking a lot of questions from getting a clear definition of the time frame expectations to any specifics.This applies to written and oral reports as well. “Again, I would say it right at the assignment phase, when you’re receiving your assignment, really understand what that person wants from you.They may say, hey, we want quick and dirty research.I just want the cases or I just want this answer to a tax law question or they may say I need a formal memo that I can pass on to the client or they may say give it to me in e-mail.I mean, all those things require different presentation at the very end and putting things together. So, I think it’s really important at the very beginning to understand what form your final product is going to be given to the attorney and what it’s going to be used for. With respect to the actual writing, be concise and try to have a conclusion at the end. I think a lot of time people try not to have a conclusion at the end, but there are many times when we do want to see, yes, you can do this or, no, you can’t do this or the law is unclear or it’s unsettled.And I would also suggest that whatever form that you end up giving that attorney your final product, I would ask them if they want your research because many times, what I would find is I would look at the memo and then I would go and look at the research because I wanted to use it for something either more narrow or more broad than what the memo was that I received.So, it’s really helpful to have the back-up statutes, the back-up cases, the back-up treatises, whatever you’ve looked at to give them an extra copy, I found that to be great.”

While most summers will work independently on assigned projects, making oneself a part of the team will also play a role on how summers are evaluated.Mystal says there are a few things to avoid in this arena. “When you look at being a good part of the team with people that are more senior to you, I think it again goes back to just the availability or ‘eager-beaverness’. You want to be the person that people can count on.You want to be a no-drama summer associate.You don’t want to be a person that’s constantly bringing up drama or issues or whatever when you’re with the senior people.They say jump, you say how high?‘No’ is not a word that should be in the vocabulary of a summer associate. ‘It’s too hard’ should not be in your vocabulary.‘I don’t know the answer to that,’ not really in your vocabulary. What should be in your vocabulary is ‘I don’t know the answer to that yet.I will find out immediately. Yes sir.’ Those are the words that you want to use. As a summer, when you’re talking with the senior people and especially partners, that’s going to make you look like a valuable member of the team.”

There’s also help on hand for most summer associates who will be assigned mentors.Nelson says it’s a good idea to take advantage of that resource. “They have to not be afraid to reach out to their mentors.I think we do a pretty good job of matching people up and drawing people into the summer program from our attorney-base who are genuinely interested in mentoring and wanting to provide assistance.But the summer associate also has to reach out and establish that connection, invite their mentor out to lunch or for coffee if their mentor hasn’t come forward and done that.Ask their mentor to explain how they got or what tricks of the trade they have used. I think those are all good pieces of advice.”

As this may be the first professional-type experience summer associates have, feedback, both positive and negative, is part of the workplace.Siegel says all feedback is educational.“Students really need to embrace any feedback that they get and really take it in, digest it and try to incorporate it.Even if they disagree, really generally getting feedback from a supervisor and you need to really think long and hard about whether you need to sort of moderate your behavior as a result of this feedback.I think that supervisors are hoping to provide feedback to students who are open minded and have that positive attitude, again going back to that, and who are interested in taking affirmative action to improve their skills and who understand that this perhaps first legal job is a learning experience. Students, I think, also need to recognize that feedback can be formal or informal and they can seek it out if they feel like they’re just not getting any, which is very common. Sometimes, it’s really overlooked sometimes by a supervising attorney.They can try and they can ask.”

Nelson says being well prepared on the fly is also important.“I always tell summer associates, this is hopefully a no-brainer, but when they walk into an attorney’s office, they should have a notebook with them because without a doubt, it happens that you start talking about something and then the attorney will say, oh, let’s look at this, this, and that.And if you don’t have a notebook, you’re scrambling or you’re trying to remember everything that was discussed when you go back to your office.”

We’ve gone through some of the ‘Must Dos’. What about things to avoid? Clorfeine includes this in the list of Don’ts:Don’t date anyone in the firm.“So, I would say keep your dating life separate from your firm life.”

And while budgets for social events have been slashed from what they once were, there are still events to attend. It’s a good idea to heed Mystal’s advice lest you end up a subject on their website. “Stay sober.I mean, one of the wonderful things about our site is that if a summer associate is going to get too drunk and do something silly, we’re probably going to hear about it and we’re probably going to have the whole story about it. Summers have been better, I think, through the recession of keeping their alcohol intake at a reasonable level, but you’d be surprised how many people, despite all of the warnings and indications and what have you, will go out to summer associate event and get hammered and then do something crazy.”

Mystal adds that knowing how to navigate these events, as well as spending time getting to know the right people at your respective firm, can help pave the way to a permanent position. “You should go into the firm with a clear idea of how the power structures work at your firm.And if you don’t have it upon showing up, you should endeavor to make sure that’s your job for the first two weeks.Who is important here?Who actually makes the hiring decision?And then you suck up to that guy as much or girl as much as you possibly can over the course of the summer.When I was doing it, if there was a – different partners will host different events, different associate groups and practice groups will host different summer associate events. I didn’t go to all the summer associate events because I didn’t want to look like a drunk but certainly when it was an event hosted by the key hiring partner or a partner that had a really big client in a field that I was interested in, I made sure I went to her event.”

Mystal says smart networking is beneficial even if a permanent position is not offered.“Not only can it help you get an offer, but it can also help you if things go wrong and you don’t get an offer.If you make a real connection with a partner or even a particular senior associate who’s working on clients and matters that you’re interested and they like you, I mean, even if the firm can’t extend you an offer, they might be in the position to say like, hey, I can still give you a reference or I work for one of our big clients, whatever, Google.I know a guy at Google who’s looking for an intern. Maybe you can do that.”

Clorfeine agrees and recommend summers continue to keep contact with whomever they’ve established rapport. “Sending an e-mail every once in a while or giving them a call once every a couple of months, hey, I’m still around I’m still interested.‘It would be great to see you for lunch, to see you for coffee if they’re available.’ But keeping those contacts is huge because even if you don’t end up finding something at that firm, if for whatever reason the firm doesn’t have something for you, those are the people that are going to help you find your next position.”

Given that there’s not a guarantee of a permanent position after serving as a summer associate, Siegel suggests it might be a good idea to also keep your options open if your school provides that opportunity. “We at NYU encourage all of our students to sign up again for on-campus interviews and they can always cancel them at the eleventh hour if they need to, if they get that offer. But at least, they will be signed up and ready to roll and meet with some additional employers if the need arises.”

Following our guests’ advice and tips should help you succeed as a summer associate and may aid you in landing a permanent position.As Mystal says, things have changed at Big Law and summer associates should view this opportunity in the right light.“The opulence of the programs themselves have been kind of in a little recession of its own. There used to be very expensive firm events and firm outings and things for summers to do. There used to be a very generous meal budget. Not so much anymore. Not so much for last year and certainly not so much this year.You have to be – some firms have significantly slashed the meal budget. Some firms have eliminated entirely and that kind of recession mentality tracks through all of the other summer associate events that the firm may or may not be sponsoring. What used to be a fourteen-week vacation has turned into a very intense eight-week job interview.”

Nelson imparts these final words of wisdom. “Staying organized, I think is really important, knowing what’s on your task list when things are due, keeping a to-do list, to be your calendar up to date. And I guess it maybe finally have fun. The summer program is also about learning the firm and getting to know the people who you might be working with as you graduate from law school.”

All sage advice indeed. Landing that summer associate job or any summer law job is an important step in the right direction for your career in law. Summer law jobs provide an opportunity for students to get a feel for what it’s like to work as a lawyer and for your summer employer to see how you perform as a lawyer. Make the most of your opportunity. Remember, you’re being recruited and you are competing for a job.Keep in mind the tips offered by our guest experts and approach your internship with a positive attitude, professionalism, and savvy, and you may be well on your way to securing a permanent position.

For more information, a transcript of this show, or to register to receive more law school podcasts, visit for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school.This is Law School Podcaster. I’m Althea Legaspi. Thanks for listening and stay tuned next time when we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.