Making the summer associate experience a win-win

Stephen D. Feldman is a partner at Ellis & Winters LLP, a litigation boutique in North Carolina. He concentrates his practice in complex business disputes, antitrust, and appeals. Stephen chaired the ABA's Appellate Practice Committee and regularly speaks and writes on effective legal writing. He also served as his firm's recruiting partner, creating their summer associate program during his tenure. Thank you Stephen for contributing to the Apochromatik blog.

—Stephen D. Feldman

The summer experience has big stakes for both the law firm and the summer associate.

Most firms hire summer associates as a talent pipeline for their full-time associate ranks. The summer is an important evaluation period and recruiting period. The firm wants summers to be excited about full-time employment. This process, done annually, fosters a firm’s growth and evolution.

The summer program is equally important to the summer associate. The summer wants a full-time job; it’s harder to find a permanent spot as a rising 3L without an offer in hand. The summer also wants to create a positive reputation at the firm, because that reputation lays the foundation for long-term success at the firm.

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These incentives serve as the backdrop for a summer program. And—despite the socializing that traditionally plays a big role in a summer program—a program’s centerpiece is the actual legal work that the summer associate does. The actual legal work helps the associate gauge whether he or she is excited to do the firm’s work, and it helps the firm gauge whether the associate is good at the work. It also provides insight for both the summer associate and the firm about the summer associate’s aptitude for providing exceptional client service.

What follows are principles that, based on my experience and observation, make for good work assignments for both for summer associates and assigning attorneys:

  1. The assignment should be real and meaningful. If you’re the assigning attorney, be sure that the question you’re asking the summer to answer is a question that actually needs to be answered to achieve the client’s objective in the matter. If you that, you’ll be motivated to explain the question clearly. You’ll be able to tell the summer associate, credibly, that the answer is important. And you can explain to the summer associate how the answer fits into the matter’s big picture. The summer, in turn, will feel valued. Feeling valued satisfies the soul.

  2. Set clear expectations—both on substance and format. If you’re asking a summer associate to answer a question, explain how you want the answer to look. A memo? A short email? Full citations? No citations? On format, go into the length, headings, margins, fonts, or any details to the extent they matter to you. The summer will have no idea what you prefer. 

  3. Set high expectations. This goes for both the assigning attorney and the summer associate. Given the incentives, the assigning attorney should expect to be wowed, and the summer associate should provide “Wow”-level work. It’s more fun—and better for delivering client value—when everyone is playing at a major-league level. The summer experience is the time to set that culture.

  4. Put it in writing. This might sound impersonal, but I usually get clearest when I put the assignment in an email. Typing it out gets me thinking more deeply and critically. I can revise and refine the assignment before I send it. The summer associate can return to the email to make sure he or she needs to remember the objectives or other details. And the email can be a springboard for an email colloquy as the summer raises good questions about the assignment.

  5. Express gratitude. This goes for more than the summer experience, but I really believe that gratitude is the launching point for great things. If you’re the assigning attorney, thank the summer for his or her willingness to take on a real, challenging assignment and to complete the assignment at a high level. If you’re the summer associate, thank the assigning attorney for the opportunity. And the gratitude has to be genuine. If you’re not really grateful, then I wouldn’t dispense any words of thanks, because the recipient can tell you’re faking it, and that’s the worst result of all. Also, if you’re truly not grateful, then it’s time to figure out why you’re not grateful and to make changes that will bring you to gratitude.

  6. Get to know each other. When someone takes the time to get to know you, you feel acknowledged and important. That’s a great feeling. In this context, it gives everyone a greater connection to the matter and the work. And the more that an assigning attorney knows about the summer associate, the more likely that the assigning attorney can steer the summer toward work that the summer is likely to enjoy and can introduce the summer to others at the firm with whom the summer will likely have a strong connection.

  7. Spend time reviewing the work. Taking even five minutes to give specific feedback to the summer associate will make the summer feel valued. And it will give everyone a lot of insight into whether the firm and the summer associate are good long-term fits. If the summer associate doesn’t seem open to or interested in feedback, that’s a red flag. If the assigning attorney doesn’t like giving feedback, or isn’t good at giving it, that’s a sign that the assigning attorney probably isn’t a good manager, which the summer associate will notice.

I should add at least three disclaimers to these points.

First, to the extent it’s not evident, these views are entirely my own.

Second, I’m a hypocrite. I’ve violated every one of these principles when I’ve assigned work to summer associates. But perfect is the enemy of the good, and if following even one or two of these principles is likely to enhance the summer experience significantly.

Third, most of these points apply equally to assignments for associates. Full-time associates are usually fully integrated team members for a matter, but, even then, the execution of a winning strategy requires discrete assignments in a project-management orientation.

Let me end by emphasizing what a great time the summer should be for everyone involved, and what an enormous impact the summer experience can have on everyone’s lives. To this day, I remain close friends with my fellow summer associates at Bryan Cave in St. Louis. As I wrote this blog post, I was exchanging emails with those fine folks—all still at Bryan Cave—about Cardinals baseball. I maintain close relationships with attorneys both at Bryan Cave and the Maslon firm in Minneapolis, where I spent my 2L summer, simply because they were really good at assigning me meaningful work, giving me feedback on that work, and genuinely caring about me.

This summer, and every summer, is the chance for each of us to find and build a new relationship and to make a lasting positive impact in others’ lives—and in our own. A mild amount of intentionality can make an outsized difference.