Summer Associate Cautionary Tales

Vol. 39 No. 9

By

Arin Greenwood is a writer in the Washington, D.C., area, and edits Out Of The Storm News for the Heartland Institute’s Center on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate.

Behold Aquagirl. She’s not a superhero, exactly—more of a cautionary tale for summer associates. One of many, many cautionary tales for summer associates.

One night at a firm-sponsored charity event at the Chelsea Piers, on a deck overlooking the Hudson River, a summer associate—not named Aquagirl quite yet—took advantage of the flowing free alcohol and came up with the idea of going swimming. Then she took off her clothes, jumped in the river, and swam—until she was fished out by a rescue boat.

Legal blog Above the Law, which gave Aquagirl her moniker after being tipped off to her wet antics about a year after they happened (the Internet moved so slowly in those days), has been chronicling the misdeeds of summer associates since 2006. Early on there was the story of the summer associate who got drunk and allegedly hit on a permanent associate’s wife. There’s also the associate who—without authorization—expensed a very spendy night out at a nightclub.

In this tighter economy—when firms have cut back the social aspects of their summer associate programs, and summer associates aren’t guaranteed a job offer at the end of the summer—soused-up summer associate stories have become a lot more rare.

“We’ve covered summer associate stories for the past four years. I can definitely say that the number and quality have decreased,” says David Lat, founder and managing editor of Above the Law. “It’s a lot harder to get these positions, and the people who do get them tend to be on their best behavior when they show up. I had one partner complain to me that the summer associates were just too boring, that nobody was drinking anymore, and everybody left the events by 10 p.m.”

Still, even in this world of boring, sober summer associates, beware: There are still plenty of ways to wind up with a kicky Above the Law nickname (which we are presuming you don’t want). Here’s how to avoid that fate.

 

Don’t Be rude to Paralegals, Or Anyone Else

It’s not that hard to imagine how a person becomes Aquagirl. You’ve had a few drinks, it’s a hot night, the river is right there.

It is very hard to imagine how someone becomes a summer associate nightmare by being rude to the law firm’s support staff. And yet it happens.

“One summer we had a 2L who was flat out rude to staff on a number of occasions,” says John Gamble, a real estate partner at Allen Matkins. “That was a no-no. That did not sit well with us. We have a culture that is very respectful of everyone around us.”

Firms want you to be polite—charming, even—with support staff and everyone else for several reasons. One, because it’s just nicer to work with polite people. But also because they need to see that you are capable of professional interactions with lots of different people.

“You have to respect staff members, and you have to respect your peers, and you have to be able to interact on a conversational level with clients,” says Aretha Blake, director of the Center for Professional Development at Charlotte School of Law. “Those are things that firms just look for. That’s just the minimum.”

 

Be aware of time

The large firm associate with his profligate unauthorized spending is just one example of how a summer associate can go wrong by not asking questions about the content and boundaries of their tenure at the firm. You can also go wrong not finding out exactly what is expected from you in the context of an assignment.

“When you’re a summer associate and, ultimately, a lawyer, every minute you spend, you’re spending someone else’s money,” says Jeremy Paul, dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law. “So you go and you spin wheels for a long time, sometimes producing inadequate product. You need to be confident enough about your ability to take instruction that if the instruction seems to you unclear, it’s probably not you.”

In other words, if you don’t know what exactly you’re being asked to do, find out. You gain nothing by wasting your time—which amounts to firm time; client time—by not asking for more guidance about the parameters of your assignment.

Sometimes you’ll get an assignment that will seem a wee bit open-ended. You’ve asked all the requisite questions about what information, or analysis, or documents, or so on, the assigning lawyer wants from you. But you haven’t gotten a sense of how long the lawyer expects you to spend on the assignment.

This can lead to trouble, which, as you recall, you are trying to avoid.

“What’s bad is that someone gets a project for 8 hours, and they come back after 35 hours and say, ‘This is taking me a little longer than I thought,’” says Gamble. “That’s not a result that you want.”

Also leading to trouble, says Gamble: missing your deadlines. “We give people real deadlines. They’re doing real work, and so we want people to adhere to the deadline. And if there’s a problem with the deadline, to communicate with the supervising attorney on that, just the same way we want any associate to be working with those guidelines.”

 

Be careful with the  e-mail (and regular Mail)

There was a summer associate who inadvertently sent an e-mail intended for a friend to his firm’s entire underwriting group. It was a bad e-mail to send to the entire underwriting group—so bad that The New Yorker had a “Talk of the Town” about it (of course The New Yorker called the associate handsome in the piece, so it wasn’t a completely terrible bit of attention):

“I’m busy doing jack s**t,” read the email. “Went to a nice 2hr sushi lunch today at Sushi Zen. Nice place. Spent the rest of the day typing emails and bullsh***ing with people. Unfortunately, I actually have work to do—I’m on some corp finance deal, under the global head of corp finance, which means I should really peruse these materials and not be a f***up…”

You’re probably thinking: Well, OK, 2003. People weren’t so sophisticated about e-mail in 2003. These days no one would accidentally send an e-mail to the entire underwriting group, saying that they were doing “jack s**t.” (Plus, who goes on long lunches anymore?)

E-mails-gone-awry still make up the bulk of summer associate nightmare stories that Benjamin B. Klubes, co-managing partner at BuckleySandler, hears about.

“You know, where people send an e-mail they expect to send to their friend describing how they only work three hours a day, they had a three-hour lunch. They inadvertently copied the whole firm on that,” he says. “And it is amusing in a sense. I guess it’s educational to the extent that e-mail and saying things or sending things to people on e-mail that you didn’t intend to is a significant issue, and frankly it’s one we see with clients—people writing things in e-mail that you can’t imagine when you’re doing discovery on people’s e-mails.”

Don’t mess up regular mail, either. Redact clients’ names and other identifying information out of documents you plan to use as writing samples; put sensitive documents in envelopes before dropping them off with a partner’s doorman.

“You’d be amazed how people don’t think of that,” says Paul. “You can’t do that.”

 

Finally, sometimes it’s better to forgo a clever pun

Summer associate programs may not now be the legendary debauched juggernauts of yore, but booze will be around—and when it is, make sure your better inhibitions don’t clock out.

Firms bring summers to events partly to woo them—but partly to make sure they have the good sense not to make fools of themselves when they have access to alcohol. The firms want to bring in lawyers who have good judgment.

Not like this summer associate.

“We had one associate who happened to be at the top of his class, on law review, and just generally great on paper,” says Lori Riviere, general counsel for a major insurance company. “He was an absolute disaster.”

“Our office is in a major high rise near the courthouse. A mere week after the summer associates started, the building management had a luau ice cream social in the lobby one day and they had a calypso band, ice cream sundae station, and Hawaiian-themed decorations. The managing attorney of our office was stuck in a teleconference and could not attend, so I along with another attorney in the office made him a sundae and brought him back a plastic lei. Later, this summer associate walked by my boss’s and in his best Beavis and Butthead voice said ‘huh huh . . . you got laid . . . hahaha.’”

As a future lawyer, you are no doubt verbally clever. Keep some of the cleverness to yourself. Your firms wants to make sure you are competent as a lawyer—or could become competent. But, says Blake, the firm is also looking to see “that this is a summer associate that potentially—maybe not immediately, but down the road—I will feel comfortable putting in front of my client.”

 

In Short, Let Loose a Little Bit (A Very, Very Little Bit)

You’ve been so chastened in advance by the tales of Aquagirl and her ilk that you are determined to do everything right. All the time. Never to utter an untoward word; never to put forth work product with even a single stray comma.

“Horror stories now probably come from students that are so afraid and so timid and so uptight that we don’t really get to see who they are,” says Bob Kramer, Hiring Committee chair for Fennemore Craig. “Or their work. They’re afraid to submit them because they may not be perfect enough.”

Yes, it’s important to be careful. It’s important to proofread, to make sure your analysis is correct, your case law is current, your memos are properly formatted, and you haven’t made a drunken spectacle of yourself. But also remember that law can be a forgiving profession.

“Don’t be afraid to make a mistake,” says Gamble. “I think that could paralyze you. Whether you’re a 1L or a 2L or a 10-year lawyer, we don’t get it perfectly every single time. Do the best you can.”

 

Wild Summer Associates: Mostly Extinct

You are probably already aware of how summer associate programs have changed since the boom days. It’s anxiety-making stuff. The summer classes are smaller, the summer programs are shorter, the positions are harder to get, and students who get them are on their best behavior. So much so, Above the Law can’t find many scandalous associates to blog about.

But there’s a little silver lining to the changes in summer associate programs. It’s that the programs are less about things like “fun” and “parties”—less about wooing the associates, in other words—and are more about the work, which means that you’ll have a good idea of what life at your law firm will actually be like, should you come back as an associate. So should you get a full-time offer, and you decide to take it, you won’t have to worry that the rose-colored glasses you put on as a summer associate will be yanked off your face, because they won’t ever have been on in the first place.

 

Tips for Summer Success

Be yourself

Have a positive attitude

Be punctual

Engage with firm staff

Find a mentor

Understand your assignments fully

Be confident in your abilities

Always keep your deadlines

Submit error-free work

Be a team player

Seek feedback and make improvements

 

What will get you fired. While most firms will overlook some misbehavior by summer associates, racism or sexual harassment are not tolerated.

 

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