Regardless of where you will be working this summer, whether it is in an unpaid internship or externship with a government or non-profit employer, or in a paid position with a small, medium, or large firm, or perhaps in a corporate counsel office, or other legal department, there are a few cardinal rules of how to behave on the job that will help you to make the most of your summer opportunity and leave as many possible avenues open for future contacts and job openings as possible.
Countless times we have seen several students work for the same employer, and their experiences vary widely, with some students emerging from the summer experience with glowing recommendations from supervisors, a bunch of new and solid networking contacts, and a great new addition to their resume with impressive job duties and demonstrable practical skills, while other students seem to have gotten very little from the experience. How do you make sure you are in the former category and not the latter?
Part One: Handling Work Assignments
Understand what your employer wants and figure out how to deliver it. Misunderstandings regarding assignments are the main source of employer complaints regarding student workers, but employers aren’t always clear about what they want. When you receive a new assignment, make sure to discuss the assignment with the attorney who will be supervising your work. Get a clear sense of what type of response the attorney wants (a short meeting, written memo, or something more extensive). Ask for a deadline, and if it’s more than two weeks away, ask whether the attorney would like a preliminary answer sooner, with a more detailed final draft on the deadline. See if there are any existing forms or samples you should review, any secondary sources to use, and what jurisdiction you should focus on. Find out if it is okay to use Lexis or Westlaw. Ask whether there are any associates or newer attorneys you can reach out to if questions arise. Asking all of these questions at the outset can prevent problems later. Once you get into the assignment, questions will inevitably arise. Do as much as you can to progress on the assignment without assistance and collect your questions as you go. Ask to schedule a brief follow up meeting to discuss a few questions rather than popping by the partner’s office every half hour to ask another question. The saying “there are no stupid questions” is not true for summer law clerks. If you can google the answer or find it within a few minutes of flipping through the MO Bar CLE books, you should not be asking another attorney for the answer.
The deadline is final. Whether the attorney is a big firm partner billing at $680 an hour or an assistant attorney general making $45,000 year, attorneys are very busy, and scheduling is critical to their ability to stay on top of their workloads. You may see the attorney coming and going and think that he or she will not notice if you turn in a project the following day or after the weekend, but don’t count on it. Successful attorneys keep a running timeline of each matter they are working on, and are constantly juggling several matters all moving forward at different speeds. If you don’t have something ready for them at the time when they are expecting it, they may not have an available time slot the next day or even the next week to review your work. To be useful to them, the work must meet their timeline, not yours. Do everything possible to meet your deadlines during the summer. If you miss a deadline, your supervising attorney may or may not complain, but they will have the perception that you are unreliable and may stop giving you work, or make sure not to give you anything important.
Do excellent work and lots of it. Don’t passively wait for your next assignment if you have time on your hands; seek out additional assignments. You will make a much better impression if you are quite busy throughout the summer rather than just sufficiently completing assigned tasks on time – that’s considered the floor, not the ceiling. Just be sure not to take on so much that you are missing deadlines or turning in poorly done work. A common complaint we receive from students is that they felt like the work they were given was boring, too basic, or busywork rather than real attorney work. From the employer’s standpoint, most subscribe to the belief that how you do one thing is how you do everything. If you turn in shoddy or incomplete work or take a long time to complete a seemingly simple task, you can hardly expect the employer to give you something more complicated. Treat each assignment like a qualifying round. Do it well, and you may advance to the next level. We know that some summer jobs are more interesting than others, and some employers give their student workers more responsibility than others, but what you put into your summer experience will shape what you get out of it.