Checklist for a Successful Summer Work Experience

Edited from Mary Crane (, who conducts our 1L Etiquette Dinners.

If you are about to start your first job in the legal profession, your performance during the next ten weeks may be absolutely critical to your success. Your summer employment experience will help demonstrate that you also possess a variety of non-technical skills—from developing business-social relationships that leave others feeling “this is someone with whom I’d like to work” to managing the psychological pressures associated with working in an intense environment in which priorities shift on an hour-by-hour basis. While most of these tips are for summer associates at law firms, many apply to those working in the corporate or public service sector.

The following checklist will help you successfully navigate the Summer of 2018.

Prior to Day One

  • Establish professional goals for the summer. Do you wish to work with a particular practice group or work division? Are there specific projects that you would like to tackle because they would showcase your talents and capabilities? Are there specific people within the firm or organization with whom you would like to meet? Identify your summer goals and share them with someone in recruiting.
  • Do a commute test run.  It’s absolutely critical that you arrive on time throughout the summer, and especially on your first day of work. Remember, you have one opportunity to create a first impression. It’s better to arrive 30 minutes early than five minutes late.
  • Check your Day One outfit.  Ensure that it is clean, pressed, and does not require mending. If you’ve purchased a new jacket or blazer, clip any threads that have tacked the rear vents closed. Check your shoes. They should be polished and the heels should not be worn down.
  • Pack a work kit that contains everything you may need during your first day of work. This kit should contain:  comb and/or brush; breath mints; pad of paper and pen; picture ID; Social Security number; contact information (in case of emergency, who should your employer contact), an energy bar to help you survive a morning slump; and any medications that your normally take.

On Day One

  • Focus on creating an impression that you are confident and professional. Avoid creating an impression that communicates: I am entitled; I am better than anyone else; I am not a team player; or I deserve praise and recognition for completing assignments on time.
  • Be prepared to introduce yourself professionally by stating your name clearly, extending your right hand for a firm handshake, and making relaxed eye contact.
  • If you are scheduled to attend an orientation program throughout Day One, use that time to start building relationships with your fellow summer hires. Many summer associates naturally gravitate to fellow hires from the same school. Start expending your network of contacts to include summer hires from other schools as quickly as you possibly can.
  • Be prepared to start work immediately. If you are immediately assigned to a work team, pull out your pad of paper and pen and start recording assignments as they are delivered. If anything is unclear about your assignment, ask clarifying questions immediately. (Do you need a draft or a final work product?)
  • Show interest and enthusiasm in all that you do and in everyone with whom you meet. Remember, on Day One the odds are good that the receptionist knows more about the practice of law and your particular employer than you do. Seek to build allies and relationships throughout the organization.

Manage Time & Projects

  • Set aside a chunk of time every Sunday to preview the week ahead. Review the status of ongoing assignments and key deadlines, and anticipate opportunities or challenges that could arise. Do not arrive in your office on Monday without a game plan for the week.
  • Be prepared to constantly revise your game plan.  On an hour-by-hour basis, you may need to reprioritize specific tasks and larger assignments. Be prepared to constantly ask yourself, “What’s the most important thing that I need to accomplish during the next 20 minutes?”
  • Forget multi-tasking. Multiple studies have confirmed that the human brain is not structured to multi-task. Try performing two tasks at the same time, and you will only succeed in doing both tasks about 50 percent well. Instead of multi-taking, focus on mono-tasking. Give a short period (aim for 15 minutes) of undivided attention to your most important task. At the end of each 15-minute period, address emails and voicemails. Then repeat.
  • Ask for feedback, and demonstrate that you hear and will respond to any constructive feedback that you receive. When a senior lawyer indicates that you need to improve a particular skill set, immediately visit your favorite recruiter. Ask for his/her assistance in addressing this issue.  (Could you please point me to an online tutorial or a personal coach?)

Social Events

  • R.S.V.P. as soon as you are invited to a business-social event (welcoming reception, business lunch or dinner, baseball game, etc.), and indicate that you either will or will not attend. Once you have indicated that you will attend, only an absolute emergency excuses your absence.
  • If you happen to be an introvert, remember, it’s absolutely critical that you attend some of these events. Law firms are in the business of building relationships. Demonstrate that you have the ability to walk into a room filled with people you don’t know and initiate conversations.
  • Billable work takes precedence. Yes, you must attend social events. However, when faced with an assignment that needs to be revised and a firm reception, billable work comes first.
  • Before you attend a reception, prepare a handful of questions that you can ask anyone. These will encourage others to speak and thereby take some pressure off you.  Questions might include:  What projects are you focused on this summer? Where were you employed as a Summer Associate, and what’s your best memory of that summer? Do you have summer vacation plans? 
  • At a reception, grab something to eat or a beverage, but never both. Keep one of your hands always available to meet and greet others.
  • With regards to alcohol, don’t make an unforced error. Feel free to enjoy a glass of wine or a beer at any employer-sponsored event. However, know your limits and adhere to them. (By the way, if you abstain from alcohol for any reason, do not feel pressured to consume alcohol this summer.)

Manage Business Meals 

  • When ordering, follow the lead of your host/hostess. If he/she orders an appetizer and an entrée, you should do the same … even when you aren’t particularly hungry. The reverse also holds true. If your host/hostess orders an entrée only, you should do the same.
  • At business meals, order thoughtfully.  Avoid any item that you don’t know how to eat or that tends to be messy … from a juicy burger, which may make it impossible for you to shake hands at the end of the meal, to pasta with red sauce, which can leave splatters on any white blouse or shirt.
  • Avoid creating the appearance of being a person with lots of special needs. If you wish and/or need to adhere to specific dietary restrictions, quietly and quickly address these with the recruiting staff in your office and wait staff at any restaurant. If you order some item at lunch or dinner, and the meal that’s delivered doesn’t quite meet your expectations, please don’t make a fuss and send in back to the kitchen. Eat and enjoy whatever you can without complaint.
  • In almost all cases, you can assume that others will pay for your meals this summer.  However, keep in mind that whoever extends an invitation to a meal is responsible for picking up the tab. So, if you ask a senior associate or partner to lunch, because you would like to request some career advice, you’re responsible for the cost of both meals. When wait staff brings the check to the table, you should immediately reach for it. Should the senior associate or partner insist that you give him/her the check (Let me cover this. I remember what it’s like to be a summer associate.), you may acquiesce. However, make sure that to follow-up with a thank-you note or email expressing your extra appreciation.

Manage Stress

  • Keep stress in perspective. Yes, the legal profession is stress-filled. And yes, you will be asked to work long, hard hours. But it is unlikely that you will need to make the life-and-death decisions that military personnel, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and even airline pilots make on a regular basis.
  • Recognize that some stress can be positive. In fact, a little stress can improve and enhance performance. Well known stage actors often say that the day they don’t feel butterflies in their stomach before the curtain rises is the day they know that they should walk away from performing. Use any anxiety that you feel about work as a confirmation that your performance matters to you, your employer, and some end-user client. Use this as an impetus to seek continuous improvement.
  • One of the easiest and most effective means of managing stress involves adopting an exercise regimen that you adhere to. While you may not feel “in control” of many of your workdays, you can take control of 30 minutes of aerobic activity. To the extent you do so, your body will release all sorts of endorphins that will trigger positive feelings and reduce stress.
  • Be conscious when you find yourself resorting to less than healthful stress-reducing activities (drinking too much, eating too much, turning to various drugs, binge-watching Netflix, etc.). Thus far, you’ve sprinted through life. You’ve sprinted from high school, to college, and onto law school. From here on out, it’s a marathon. Think carefully about how you will sustain your body and your brain through a very long race. If you do so, then you’ll be able to reap all the rewards that the legal profession offers.