Making the Most of Your Summer
By Dennis P. Rawlinson
Miller Nash Graham & Dunn LLP
Summer is a time for sunglasses, convertible automobiles, beaches, sunscreen, picnics, fireworks, baseball, family reunions, golf, and air conditioning. For second-year law students entering their third and final year, it is also a time for career planning, extracurricular legal reading and experiences, and narrowing one's selection of practice areas within the arena of trial practice.
he summer after our second year of law school for many of us is an opportunity to clerk for at least one and sometimes two law firms in an effort to obtain an employment offer before beginning or early in the third year of our law school education. Many law firms that hire second-year law students as summer associates do so with the intention of making offers to many of them at the end of the summer or in the early fall. For many of us, this is our best opportunity to select a city and a law firm and work hard for a summer at gaining our first legal employment.
Obtaining a sought-after employment offer as a result of such a summer clerkship is often more a matter of good communications with decision-makers at the law firm offering the summer clerkship than it is of skill and intelligence. Good communications, in turn, arise from:
- a positive attitude; and
- creating relationships.
Responsiveness. In a world of emails, texts, and instantaneous communications, clients expect and demand responsiveness. Knowing the importance of responsiveness, the partners and lawyers at your law firm will notice whether or not you are responsive to their needs and therefore have the potential to be responsive to the firm's clients' needs.
Make it a point to respond to emails from partners and lawyers in your host law firm if possible within 15 minutes or at least within three hours. If it is going to be longer than 15 minutes, leave some sort of electronic or voicemail notice that you will be unavailable on particular days at particular times but will otherwise respond promptly.
When you do get back to someone, if possible, go to the person's office and talk with him or her directly to begin forming a relationship. If that is not possible, call the person on the telephone and ask for an opportunity to meet directly, unless he or she would prefer the communications by telephone, email, or text.
Demonstrate an interest in potential matters assigned to you by being responsive. On all assignments, find out how quickly a task needs to be accomplished. If an extension is needed, make sure to request the extension promptly, preferably in person.
When a task is completed, find out what potential future tasks there may be and volunteer to handle them. Some of these tasks may not be apparent when you finish your first task. As a result, it is always a good idea to check back with the assigning lawyer at a later time to see whether there have been any further developments or whether you can do something to support the assigning lawyer or the client. This type of responsiveness demonstrates the kind of commitment to clients and client work that will identify you as a worthy prospect for future employment.
A Positive Attitude. People like to work with and around colleagues who are positive and upbeat. Begin and end communications with a smile. Psychological testing has proved that even a forced smile for 10 seconds lifts the spirits and creates the appearance of a positive attitude. Be grateful and think about the blessings you have. Maintain a selection of music that you can listen to privately that will inspire you, elevate your spirits, and lift up your mood.
Creating Relationships. It goes without saying that employment offers are made to summer law clerks who demonstrate that they have the legal skill to conduct effective legal research and thoughtfully communicate the results of their research accompanied by helpful recommendations. More important than these legal skills, however, is the ability to create strong relationships. Those who are most successful in their legal careers either have or develop the habits of creating strong relationships with clients, potential clients, partners, coworkers, adversaries, and judges.
During your time as a summer associate, recognize that relationships are not created by spending time in your office with the door closed or researching the law. Relationships are formed by communicating with and spending time with those for whom you perform work and those with whom you work. Get out of your office and ask for opportunities to do more work; attend a deposition, hearing, or trial. Demonstrate a real interest to get to know and form a strong relationship with the partners and lawyers in the law firm in which you serve as a summer associate. Attend law firm social events, arriving early, staying late, and taking the time to get to know as many as you can at your host law firm. Don't be shy about asking about the community and how to become involved in it, and inquire as to which legal community and social organizations are worthy of time and energy. Demonstrate a sincere long-term interest in the community, including to the extent possible joining partners and other lawyers at the host law firm for community and legal events, board meetings, tasks, and undertakings.
Extracurricular Legal Reading and Experiences
Use the free time you have during a summer clerkship to undertake legal reading and legal experiences that will inspire you for the career that lies ahead of you. Begin reading the volumes of Herbert Stern's Trying Cases to Win so that you start understanding the human and persuasion aspects of trial practice. If Herbert Stern's encyclopedic volumes are too challenging or not to your liking, select something lighter, such as Terrance F. McCarthy's McCarthy on Cross-Examination; John Walsh's The Art of Storytelling; or the ABA's The Litigation Manual: Jury Trials. All will provide the foundation for inspiration and the appetite for additional reading over the course of your career as a trial lawyer.
Narrowing Your Selection of Practice Areas Within a Career-Long (Trial) Practice
In prior generations, many trial lawyers were "generalists." Some tried not only criminal lawsuits but also civil lawsuits. Others limited themselves to civil practice but did a full array of civil practice from employment law to more technical areas, such as patent law, securities law, and even bankruptcy law. Many of us, however, will tend to focus our career path within litigation (trial) civil practice to a more narrow field. The question becomes, "How does one identify the more narrow field?"
Summer clerkships in the summer after your second year of law school are an excellent opportunity to begin narrowing practice areas for your future litigation (trial) career. Often, the period you serve as a summer associate is an excellent opportunity to try different practices within a civil litigation practice. Try some employment litigation work. Try some patent litigation work. Do some securities and environmental or even bankruptcy work. Practicing in these different areas at a preliminary or introductory level will give you an opportunity to determine which of those areas may be more interesting or which of them are more likely to sustain a career-long interest.
Many who may have a more technical or engineering background will find the rigors in patent law's mathematical preciseness attractive. Others will find the human drama of employment law to be inspiring. Still others will find, perhaps based on their curiosity about how things work or how things are built or how the body works, that construction law, personal injury work, or medical device and medical malpractice may be more interesting.
"Making the most of your summer before your third year of law school" should mean more than enjoying summer activities. It should be a unique opportunity for career planning, including attracting an offer to serve as a lawyer in the law firm of your choice. It should also be an opportunity to begin establishing habits to ensure that you sustain a career-long appetite for improving your practice and becoming the best lawyer you can be. Finally, this special summer is an excellent opportunity to begin narrowing the focus of your trial practice career to those areas of trial practice that interest you most.