For some students, a summer job can provide much-needed validation that they can, indeed, do the work of an attorney, and that actually practicing law is much more enjoyable than studying it. For others, they feel frustrated that they were given dull or non-legal work assignments, uncertain that they have learned much, or that the only take-away from the summer experience is that they can now rule out that job or that practice area as a future career option.
Regardless of whether your summer job is a “dream job” or simply the only available option, you can emerge from your summer experience with valuable skills, useful feedback, and helpful contacts, if you go into it with the right mindset and attitude. Focusing on the skills you are developing and on the contacts you are making can make any job valuable to your future in ways you may not fully realize until later.
Step #1: Act like no job is too small or too big for you. Whether it is an accurate depiction of history or not, almost every attorney with whom you work will remember themselves as diligent and hard-working young rookies who gratefully worked their way up to their current position by tirelessly and meticulously toiling on terrible assignments that no one else wanted. Letting your lack of enthusiasm show when you’ve been tasked with creating a chart that compares the standard of review for JNOV in all 50 states will not impress employers or win you the “reward” of more responsibility and a more interesting next project. Yes, as a summer intern, you may get some of the grunt work that no one else wants to do, but acting like you don’t want to do it says more about your professionalism than your ability. Don’t agonize over every detail or procrastinate, just get it done as quickly and effectively as you can so that you can move on to the next thing. On the flip side, you may be given an assignment that seems to be out of your league. Don’t give up too easily or get defensive. Go as far as you can through your own research to at least identify the key issues and understand them, and then follow up with a few good questions that can help guide you to completion. Look for less-senior attorneys who might give you some pointers, or ask the assigning attorney for a model or recent example of something similar that you could use as a guide. It may be an unfamiliar area of law, but learning the ins-and-outs of a new area of law is exactly what law school is training you to do. Appearing confident in your abilities and willing to work on anything can greatly improve the types of projects you receive.
Step #2: Relentlessly seek feedback, and then use it. Attorney supervisors can be surprisingly reticent (or just too busy) to provide summer interns with feedback regarding the work product they turn in. Students often prefer to wonder in silence about how they are doing rather than risk asking for feedback, in case it’s not good. If possible, meet with attorneys directly to go over the research you have done with them. If you turn in a memo or brief to an attorney and never hear back, stop by their office when the door is open or send an email simply asking “Were you able to understand and use the information I found regarding such-and-such case? Please let me know if you have any questions. Also, I would welcome any feedback you may have that could help me improve my legal skills.” When an attorney gives you some feedback, handle it graciously, and thank profusely. Then actually put it into practice! For example, if your supervising attorney tells you to state your conclusions more clearly at the outset of each argument, ask if you may redo the assignment. Be sure to do so in all future assignments as well. Strive to do so artfully rather than just symbolically – taking your conclusion sentence from the end of the paragraph and moving it up to be the first sentence is probably not what the attorney meant. Attorneys will expect that a student intern does not know everything, but if they give you a chance to learn something and you don’t seize it, they will likely just choose not to work with you again, or to give you an assignment that is not very important. You may also be surprised to receive feedback that is better than you expected.
Step #3: Make an effort to connect with as many people as you can. Notice that it says “people” and not “attorneys” and “connect” rather than “network.” Take advantage of your work schedule and geographic location to meet people in the legal industry wherever you are this summer. Use your lunch breaks to schedule brief informational interviews with attorneys in some of the other divisions or practice areas of your office. The Career Development Office can give you the names and contact information of some Mizzou Law alums who work in your city, and you could reach out to them to meet for a quick coffee break or lunch meeting. Filing something with the court may not require a JD, but it is a perfect opportunity to get to know the Clerk of Court and other staff in that office. Don’t save your brightest smiles and collegiality for attorneys that you think have hiring power, be kind and courteous to everyone. Make small talk while you are waiting for the elevator rather than rolling your eyes and texting a friend. If you have time off or a flexible schedule, go to the local courthouse and observe a day in court. If an attorney stands out to you, follow up with him or her afterward. Mention that you saw them present in court and what was notable, and ask if you could schedule a brief meeting to discuss their practice and any tips they might have for you in your job search. Prepare your “elevator pitch” in advance, so that you have a concise way to describe your interests that is memorable, and always follow up with a thank you note, thank you email, or LinkedIn invite, depending on what’s appropriate.