Making the Most of a Shortened Summer Program

From Mary Crane (www.marycrane.com), who conducts our 1L Etiquette Dinners.

With only four or five weeks to make positive impressions, this year’s summer associates and interns must come across as professionals in everything that they say and do. I’ve outlined below best practices for managing assignments.

When you receive an assignment:

Take notes. To ensure that you are always prepared to record the details of an assignment, keep a pad of paper and pen near your computer and phone. As an assignment is explained, if you are unclear about any details, ask. Assigning lawyers recognize that you may not understand the nuances of a particular project. However, they have a right to expect that you will accurately record their requests and instructions.

Clarify and confirm the exact issue that you have been asked to address. Restate the question that you have been asked to research. Do this even when you feel that you have fully comprehended a request. After assigning lawyers hear your understanding, they may recognize that they have not been clear and clarify or revise their instructions.

Ask specific questions. Most assigning lawyers will provide explicit instructions. However, be prepared to ask questions that you will need to proceed. At a minimum, you will need to know the following:

  • Who is the client?
  • What are the relevant facts?
  • What is the relevant area of law?
  • When is the assignment due?
  • If relevant, what is the billing number reference number?

Understand the scope of the assignment. Some additional questions will help ensure that you understand a project’s scope:

  • Does the assigning lawyer want a detailed memo to the file, a short paragraph to be inserted into an email, or both?
  • Should you research the law in one state or in multiple jurisdictions?
  • Is there a specific form or template that the assigning lawyer would prefer you to use?
  • How much time should the assignment require?

Confirm deadlines. Do not leave the conversation until you possess a clear understanding of all relevant deadlines. If the partner or senior associate doesn’t provide one immediately, ask. If the assigning lawyer states “sometime next week,” clarify whether this means by Monday, Wednesday or Friday. If he or she replies, “by the end of the day,” confirm whether this means by 5:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m. or midnight.

While working on an assignment:

Take ownership. You will likely work on smaller pieces of bigger projects (reviewing a contract, summarizing deposition transcripts, writing a small section of a larger brief). While you complete your specific assignment, demonstrate an interest in the larger project. Ask how your piece fits into the bigger picture. Ask about next steps. Show initiative by reviewing other parts of the file to get a sense of the client’s history with the firm.

Provide updates. Keep assigning lawyers updated on the status of assignments. No news is not good news. Long stretches without communication may lead an assigning lawyer to assume that you have not made progress. At the same time, respect others’ time and update them appropriately—some may prefer daily updates, while others will find these annoying. If you’re not certain as to how frequently an assigning lawyer wishes to be updated, ask.

Be proactive. If an assignment is not going as planned, inform the assigning lawyer right away. For example, if a project requires more time than you had anticipated, or if you’ve reached a fork in the road in your research, or if you simply feel stuck and don’t know what to do, seek guidance. Do so well before the deadline so that others won’t need to scramble at the last minute.

Prepare for conversations with assigning lawyers. If you need to reconnect with an assigning lawyer during the course of a project, prepare for the conversation no matter how informal it may seem. Demonstrate your respect for the assigning lawyer’s time. Write down your questions in advance. Be prepared to explain the actions that you have taken. If you plan to reference cases or statutes, be prepared to email relevant materials during the conversation or immediately afterward. When you’ve encountered a problem, explain the nature of the impediment and offer a proposed solution.

When turning in an assignment:

What should your “draft” look like? You may be told to “prepare a draft” or an assigning lawyer may say that “a draft is fine.” This means that the content you prepare will be edited. It does not mean anyone’s expectations are lower. Every assignment you turn in should be well organized, accurate, properly formatted, typo-free, and should include correct citations. Take pride in your work product and act as if it will go out as is.

When you email a completed assignment, don’t hesitate to ask the assigning lawyer if he or she would like to discuss your conclusions. Any follow-up conversation will allow you to demonstrate maturity and confidence, and it will give you one more opportunity to make a positive impression.

Ask, “What’s next?” When you turn in an assignment, always ask, “Is there anything else that I can help you with right now?” Even if you don’t want to touch the assignment again, ask this question. Doing so reflects that you view yourself as part of the team. A day or two afterward, send a succinct email to the assigning lawyer confirming whether anything has come up with regards to the assignment that he or she would like you to tackle.

Learn from constructive feedback. Welcome any constructive feedback that you may receive. No lawyer takes the time to provide constructive feedback unless he or she feels that a summer associate or intern has a future. Ask questions that confirm and clarify your understanding of the feedback. Respond to feedback appropriately, which may require changes to specific behaviors.

Three additional things to keep in mind this summer:

  1. Because of covid-19 and social distancing requirements, many organizations are reconsidering the investments that they’ve made in commercial real estate. (Read: “Manhattan Faces a Reckoning if Working from Home Becomes the Norm.”) This may well mean that you’ll be expected to work from home when you graduate. Use your summer work experience to identify your future home office needs. (Read: “10 Quick Tips To Create A Home Office You’ll Actually Want to Work In.”) In addition to Fast Company’s recommendations, make a note that you’ll require a good shredder.
  2. Learn the work schedules of your assigning lawyers and be available to them via phone, Zoom and email during their normal operating hours … whatever those hours may be. So that you build critically important relationships, attend employer-sponsored online social events whenever possible. (Read “The Six Do’s and Don’ts for Zoom Happy Hours.”)

3. Expect to feel some anxiety this summer. It’s well known that isolation impacts both mental and physical health. Couple isolation with some scary economic reports and you’re bound to feel stressed. Whenever your world feels like it may spin out of control, focus on what you can control: you can choose to exercise daily; you can choose to eat and drink in a manner that enhances your performance; and you can choose to reach out to friends or colleagues for quick, supportive conversations.