How to Succeed as a Summer Associate in a Big Law firm

By Andy A. Edited by Lemon Law School

Most of the time, your return offer is yours to lose. Here are 12 things you can do to succeed as a summer associate to increase your chances of receiving a return offer at a Big Law firm. This advice includes knowing how to ask for a deadline extension on an assignment and how to tactfully say no to an assigning attorney. I’ll include my personal experiences as a 1L summer associate and a 2L summer associate at separate BigLaw firms. 

Remember: this advice is for summer associates. Firms will expect much more from you when you return as an actual associate. 

1. When you are receiving an assignment from your assigning attorney, ask targeted questions.

After your assigning attorney discusses your assignment with you, they will check to see if you have any questions. It is your responsibility as the junior to ask clarifying questions so the project can get done. Your supervising attorney will not know what you know or do not know, so you should do your best to get the information you need. Questions are always preferred over uselessly spinning your wheels in your office. Here are some questions you should be asking:

  • When do you want this assignment completed? 
  • How do you want this assignment submitted? 
    • Do you want me to print the final work product out and bring you a physical copy or is email sufficient? 
    • Every attorney has different work styles. Some prefer to discuss your final work product as you are submitting it. 
  • If I have any questions about this assignment, what are some resources I can turn to? Are there any associates that I could ask? Is there something on the firm’s document manager that I can refer to? 
    • Sometimes, your assigning attorney will be too busy to answer your questions during your assignment. Find out what resources you can leverage if you need them.

2. Manage expectations. Don’t over-promise anything. Ask for more time upfront if you need it.

The relevance of firm culture

Attorneys in every firm have different work styles based on practice group partners. Some firms are very structured where attorneys will be funneling work to you and others are more “free market” (e.g., Gibson Dunn) where you have to put yourself out there and ask for work. 

I spent my 1L summer in a very structured firm where attorneys would seek me out to assign work. My 2L summer was a happy medium between structured and a free market system where attorneys would stop by my office to assign work sometimes, and I would stop by their offices to see if they had any work available for me at other times. 

You need to feel out your firm’s culture to decide how to handle difficult situations. I was fortunate enough to work under partners and associates who were invested in my progress. They treated me with nothing but kindness and respect, and the practice group was very non-hierarchical. I had a partner sit down with me to help me with an assignment from a senior associate in another office location! 

Unfortunately, not all firms have this kind of mutual respect in their culture. I’ve definitely heard of other firms where partners have yelled at their associates (and even summer associates) or where the atmosphere was overly competitive (i.e., firms where you “eat what you kill”). This is something to consider as you are doing your summer internship. Carefully assess the firm’s culture to see if you are a good fit for the firm. In the case where you don’t see yourself fitting into the firm, think about re-recruiting in the next year.

How to ask for a deadline extension upfront

When you get an assignment from an associate or a partner, make sure to ask that set of questions about the assignment, including what the deadline is. If the deadline puts too much pressure on your work load, ask if their deadline is flexible.

If their deadline is flexible, explain your situation and ask them if it would be possible to extend the deadline. In my experience, the assigning attorney always understands, and I usually get the extension when I have a lot on my plate. Again, you need to assess your firm’s culture to see whether doing this would be acceptable. Some attorneys may see summer associates as actual associates and expect more from you (e.g., they may expect you to stay late to finish the work or come in on the weekends). Talk to your associate mentor about this.

How to say no (tacfully)

If their deadline is not flexible and they urgently need the assignment completed, explain your situation and apologize for being unable to take their assignment. You can suggest other summer associates who you know are less busy and promise to take on their next assignment. I’ve dealt with this situation before, and the assigning attorney has always understood my predicament. Again, know your firm’s culture before acting.

The last thing you should do is say yes to every assignment without assessing your current workload. It is always better to under-promise than to over-promise. But don’t under-promise too extremely or you will look unreliable.

3. Make sure your final work product is spotless. 

Your work product is how firm partners will assess your potential contribution to the firm. Consistency is key. It is far better to have a few consistently spotless work products than to have many completed assignments that alternate between spotless and full of errors. However, a few minor errors won’t kill you – just make sure you learn from them and you don’t make them again.

Before you turn in your first assignment, have someone you trust look over it, if possible. This person could be an associate mentor or another summer associate. However, after your first assignment, don’t expect to have people look over your assignments every time.

When I was a 1L summer associate at a large firm, I asked a 2L summer associate (who summered in the same firm as a 1L the summer before) to look over my first memo (after I personally proofread it, of course). She provided fantastic feedback and gave me a checklist of potential errors to scan for future assignments. 

When I was a 2L summer associate at a different firm, my associate mentor was an invaluable resource. I went to him with some questions about an assignment, and learned much as a result. I want to note that whether you are able to get someone to look over your first assignment will really depend on how busy the practice group is and what the firm culture is. 

You should really be proofreading your work product yourself, but if you are short on time, BigLaw firms usually have a proofreading service provider that you can use. All you need to do is submit your document to them and tell them when you need it back by. A proofreader will return a marked up copy of your work product to you. 

Your workload will really depend on your firm and practice group. During my 1L summer associate program, I was working mostly with associates in the general litigation practice group. We had a ton of assignments (mostly legal research and writing memos), so it was hard to step back and proofread as thoroughly as I’d liked. Use proofreading services and leverage the resources around you (e.g., refer to your mentor or fellow summer associates) to keep you on track. 

During my 2L summer associate program at a different firm in a transactional practice group, I experienced periods of downtime. This is perfectly normal. Use that extra time to make sure your other work product is spotless. An associate told me about her workload during her summer program: she had a total of 4 assignments over a 10-week period. So, she made sure every one of those four assignments was as polished as they could be. She essentially only had four chances to make a good impression on the partners. Again, consistency is key. 

4. Ask for help when you are stuck on an assignment.

Your firm is not going to expect you to magically know how to complete every assignment they give you. Again, everyone recognizes that you are a junior and lack experience. However, your supervising attorney will expect that you explore every option before asking for help. If you are still legitimately stuck on an assignment, ask for help rather than stressing out pointlessly. If your assigning attorney is too busy, ask your mentor or other more junior associates in your practice group. Don’t wait until the deadline to tell your assigning attorney that you can’t figure out how to do the assignment. 

5. Contribute when associates ask – even if it means coming in on the weekend. 

If you are a summer associate in a specific practice group or there is a practice group you want to join, you need to be a team player and contribute when they ask for help. Doing so will only boost your image as an ideal candidate for a return offer. 

As a summer associate, everyone will tell you that you’re not expected to come in on the weekends or to stay late to finish work. That may be true in some firms, but not every firm works that way. Don’t take the risk, unless you have some sort of personal emergency. Your primary job is to make the lives of associates and partners easier. 

There was one weekend during my 2L summer program where an associate called me on my firm-issued phone asking if I was available to help out with an urgent due diligence project. She had basically asked the whole practice group to come in to help. I went in that day and saw my summer classmates there helping out as well. The partners definitely took note of our extra contributions and the associates on the team really appreciated the help. 

As a summer associate, firms are paying you gross amounts of money to come in with almost no experience to learn and have fun. The last thing you want to do is to give partners the impression that you’re a wasted investment.

6. Make an effort to ask associates and partners in your practice group (or in the practice group you want to join) to grab lunch.

Grabbing lunches with associates and partners provides several benefits. First, they are always willing to divulge great advice and point you to great resources in the firm. Second, you need to get along with the people you will be working with after you graduate. Third, you want to be memorable in a good way. And last but not least, the firm will cover your lunch expense if at least one associate or partner is there. 

7. Stay on your recruiter’s good side.

Firm recruiters are wonderful people. They are usually great personalities and can help you in numerous ways as you progress through the summer program. They’re there for you when you need advice, and you can always suggest summer events to them (if they ask). 

Firm recruiters are also very powerful individuals in the summer program. Surprisingly, many summer associates don’t realize this. They are the firm’s primary ears for assessing the character of their summer associates.

Regardless, they are genuinely great individuals that deserve your respect. I’ve seen summer associates complain about certain summer events that recruiters have worked so hard to set up. If you have an issue with a summer event, just keep it to yourself. You can give constructive feedback when prompted. Otherwise, you may come off as unappreciative of their efforts to organize the summer program.

8. Attend every summer program event that you can. 

Aside from work, summer events are the only other ways where the recruiters, partners, and associates can assess you as a person. These events are meant for everyone to have fun, so you shouldn’t feel like Big Brother is always watching over your shoulder. I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier: don’t be a dick. That’s the minimum standard for being a good person at a summer event.

Whether to Prioritize Social Events or Impending Assignment Deadlines

What if there’s a social event you want to attend, but you have an assignment with an impending due date? Sometimes you may receive an assignment on the day of a particular social event. Should you forego the social event and stay late in the office to complete the assignment? 

Most associates and partners understand that you have social events to attend and will in fact encourage you to attend all of them. Regardless, whether you should prioritize attending a social event or staying in the office to work will depend on a few things. 

First, how mandatory is the social event? Some events are more important than others, and your recruiters will tell you which events are mandatory. Second, how urgent or how important is your assignment? If the assignment is urgent or very important, you should skip the social event and let your recruiter know. If you’re unclear about the urgency or importance of the assignment, let your assigning attorney know about the social event, and try to see if it’s possible to get a deadline extension. In the end, an assignment deadline usually carries more weight than your required attendance at a social event.

What if the social event is mandatory AND the assignment is urgent? Let your assigning attorney know that you have a mandatory social event but still offer to stay and complete the assignment. Usually, the assigning attorney will understand and let you off the hook. Otherwise, let your recruiter know that you can’t attend the social event due to the urgent assignment.

What you should do at social events

Make an effort to introduce yourself to new people at these social events. Oftentimes, the summers tend to cluster and stay within their little circles, which is fine. But the main purpose of these summer events is for you to get to know more people at the firm, so take advantage of the opportunity to do so. 

9. Don’t goof off when you’re supposed to be working. 

Surfing the web

If you’re supposed to be working on an assignment, work on the assignment. Don’t pull out your phone and check social media. And don’t pull out your personal laptop and surf the web. 

Listening to music

As for listening to music, here’s the general rule: Obviously, don’t play music out loud on your laptop or phone. If you must listen to music, don’t use noise-cancelling headphones. Use earbuds and keep only one earbud in at a time, so if someone knocks on your office door or pops their head in, they can easily get your attention. Unfortunately, millennials are sometimes seen as children who need to be constantly entertained. Don’t enforce this stereotype.

Firm offices also usually have glass walls, so it’s easy for an attorney to walk by and see what you’re up to in your office. For firms that don’t have glass walls, firm leadership will require summer associates to keep their office doors open.

10. Be polite to everyone. (You’d think this is common sense, but I’ve seen otherwise.)

I didn’t think I’d need to have this tip on here, but I’ve seen and heard of some egregious behavior at firms during summer programs. When I started my summer program at my 2L firm, an associate jokingly (while half-seriously) explained how to get a return offer: “do good work and don’t be a dick. It’s very difficult to get no-offered.” 

It’s common for summer associates who are completely new to the law to require extra guidance and time to complete assignments. Hundreds of summers submit work with errors every summer and receive full-time offers in August, but there will be little tolerance for someone who acts like a jerk to anyone, including support staff and admins. 

This also remains true in social events and firm dinners – don’t ever assume that the presence of food and alcohol is an excuse to behave like you’re back at the frat house. Not behaving in a kind and professional manner at all times is probably the easiest way to lose your offer.

Use your common sense. Be polite to everyone, including the staff. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, then you don’t deserve to be at a BigLaw firm. Firms have ears everywhere. Hiring partners will ask everyone to assess you as a person. 

And last but not least, be polite to your fellow summer associates. I’ve heard of instances where certain summer associates were no-offered because they said something offensive to another summer associate during a social event. This isn’t a high standard to meet. Just be polite. 

11. Attitude is key.

This might seem trivial, but don’t take it lightly. Remember to display professionalism but also friendliness and an openness to constructive feedback. Law firm partners will give you slack for being a student, but a supervising attorney won’t work with you if you lack soft skills. As long as you are inquisitive and show a willingness to learn, partners will invest in your career. 

12. Have fun, but don’t lose control. 

As a summer associate, you’ll have the opportunity to attend some really fun summer events. My firm took us to see a broadway show one time. We also went to a barcade, many fancy restaurants and bars, and a cooking class. I have classmates at my law school who got box seats at an Ariana Grande concert. 

Have fun, but here’s an absolute rule you must follow: don’t consume too much alcohol. The last thing you want to do is make a fool out of yourself. I generally avoid alcohol when I’m at a summer event. Your return offer is on the line. People will notice. Just don’t risk it.