Do You Have, or Want, a Summer Associate Position? Some Tips for Success

Andrew JamesToday’s interview is with Andrew James, creator of the Summer Success Crash Course.

He’s here to talk about how to get a summer associate position, and what to do to ensure you succeed over the summer. If you’re going to be a summer associate, you owe it to yourself to check out his course, because it’s pretty great. The first two lessons are free, so what do you have to lose?

I’m a 1L and I’m starting to think about on-campus interviews for summer associate positions. What can I do now to make sure I’m prepared when interviews start in a few months? What should I focus on in the interview process?

Many people are fatalistic about interviewing and don’t think there’s much they can do to prepare — I completely disagree. Just like anything else, you can prepare to succeed in on-campus interviews.

  • First, get comfortable with interviewing in general. Some people are blessed with great natural interviewing skills, but others just need some practice to get comfortable. If you’re not that comfortable in an interview setting look for opportunities this summer to be interviewed whether for real positions or in mock interview sessions. Mock interviews are great because you get specific feedback about your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Second, spend some time reflecting on yourself and your background. Everyone has unique skills and experiences — make sure yours come through. Reflect on what law firms are looking for and identify stories and examples from your life and background that exemplify those traits. An interview is really just a conversation and your job is to tell good (true!) stories about yourself. The interviewer already knows most of the objective facts about you from your resume. Now they want to hear about who you really are — are you a likeable person, how do you deal with adversity, what do you really care about, can they relate to you, how will you handle tough questions, what mettle have you shown in real life when you’ve faced obstacles? Prepare your answers for common questions. Be humble and real, but never be apologetic. You’re a smart, talented person — don’t forget it.
  • Third, do you research on the firms you’ll interview with. This is critical to your success. When I have interviewed candidates for job positions it was very clear who wanted to work with my organization and who just wanted “a job.” It really makes a tremendous difference as an interviewer when you sense that the person you’re interviewing really cares about the organization and took time to research and consider why they were really interested in the position. There’s a big difference between sending the message “I’d love to work with you and your firm” versus “I really just need a job.” Ask intelligent questions about the firm — it shows that you did your homework. Whether or not it’s true, firms pride themselves on their unique, differentiating characteristics. Ultimately your interview “story” is not only about who you are, but also about why the firm you’re interviewing with is a fit for you and you for them.
  • Finally, when you actually get to interview time, don’t get too stressed out. Remember, the interviewers want you to succeed! Every time the door opens and a candidate walks in, they are hoping to connect and enjoy the interview. They are not trying to grill you — they are actually hoping to have a pleasant interaction. Even when they ask you a tough question (which is their job) they are secretly hoping that you nail it with a great answer.

One final note — while it might feel like it, your interview is not the end (or the beginning) of the world.

Everyone knows — though it bears repeating — that careers change so frequently, that the job you do right out of law school will probably not be the job you are doing 5 or 10 years later.

Interviews are important and it’s better to succeed than to fail at them, but when you look back, your career success, and more importantly your life happiness, will not be defined by your on-campus interviews.

I’m a 2L who’s got a BigLaw summer associate job this summer. I’m afraid I’ll be totally out of my element, because I’ve never had a fancy job like this before. What are the three most important things I should think about, or do, to ensure I’m successful and get an offer?

First, have confidence in yourself and your work. Whether by training or disposition, most of us in the law profession are extremely analytical and sometimes that analytical streak can manifest as self-criticism. If the law firm hired you, it’s because you have the skills necessary to succeed.

Second, never underestimate the importance of “soft skills.” The firm already knows a lot about you from a hard-skills perspective. You’ve already proven you can write and analyze. But they know very little about soft skills like professionalism, ability to get along with others, or grace under pressure. One of the first things I teach in my Summer Success Crash Course is that the real differentiating factor between successful and unsuccessful summer associates is the ability to display good soft skills like dependability and teamwork.

Third — believe it or not — be yourself.

I always compare being a summer associate to being on a first date. You want to be the best version of yourself — on time, looking good, displaying your best skills. But you should also be true to yourself and who you are.

For instance, many people will tell you to work insane hours to prove that you’re willing to run through a brick wall for the firm. If you are in fact willing to run through a brick wall for the firm, then by all means display that during your summer. But if that is not the life you want to lead and you’re not willing to do that as an associate, don’t do it now as a summer associate. You’ll just be sending the wrong message about who and what you are.

If I could give one single piece of advice, it would be to remember that this is a two-way process. It’s not just about whether the firm likes you, but also about whether you like the firm.

Given that the legal job market is so weak, I know the balance of power favors firms, but never forget that a job is not a gift from the firm to you.

You have amazing talents, skills, and abilities. You have a limited amount of time in your life to use them. The firm is making a very simple offer — your time and talents for their money. That’s a two-way trade, not a gift. Make sure you learn everything you can about the firm, life at the firm, satisfaction among associates, and how you’ll work at the firm. Make sure you’re taking them on a date too. And don’t be afraid to take a pass — life does not begin nor end with your summer associate position.

If you keep that in mind, you’ll have a healthier perspective about the process, and as a result are more likely to produce better work. And again, like dating, desperation is a bad vibe.

Could you talk a bit about what you do in the average day at work, and how it’s similar to (or different from) what you thought you’d be doing when you started law school?

When I started law school, I had no idea what I really wanted to do. Terrible planning on my part, but that’s the truth. I did know that I wasn’t going to work in a large law firm or do something like corporate or business law.

My first job out of law school was as a corporate lawyer at a large law firm! As a 1L I had the opportunity to be a summer associate at a national law firm. Given the great pay and difficulty of finding that type of job, I figured I’d be foolish not to give it a try. I actually had a pretty good experience and that eventually lead to my job as a corporate attorney (though at a different large firm).

The work was very different from what I expected when I started law school.

Like many people (and even most law students) I had no appreciation for the breadth of the legal field. When I started law school I barely had a notion of the difference between litigation and transactional practice, let alone things like administrative law, tax law, regulatory law, and a million other variations. Then, as a first year associate, I was assigned healthcare regulatory work in addition to corporate law.

Most of my work consisted of pretty typical biglaw tasks — researching legal questions and producing legal memoranda.

Most people envision lawyers as highly active and creative thinkers. That may be the case in some areas of the law, but I think law — particularly as an associate in a large firm — is a lot more about cold, quiet competence and perfectionism.

In my opinion, there is very little creativity involved for most associates.

My favorite part of being a lawyer is more on the human interaction side — being a trusted adviser, the person who brings knowledge and judgment to help people make decisions. Unfortunately in a larger firm, the associate is rarely that adviser — you’re generally producing the grunt work for the partner who plays that role.

I don’t mean to sound too negative — there were many things I loved about “BigLaw” (in addition to the paycheck.)

I was surrounded by universally smart (and often very funny) people. I’m not the most detail oriented person naturally, and I learned a lot by being pushed to be excellent all the time. I also absolutely loved the freedom. No one really cared when I came or went, so within reason I set my own schedule. Though I had many people that I had to produce work for and please, I never really had “a boss” in a traditional sense.

Today my average work day is very different! After three years in BigLaw I’m now an attorney and financial specialist at a small non-profit. I spend 90% of my time on non-legal projects. It’s a very different experience. I enjoy it more. I have more direct interaction with people on a day-to-day basis, and as the only attorney on staff, my opinions are given much more weight and importance.

— – —
Thanks, Andrew! If you’re going to be a summer associate this summer, I highly suggest you check out his course. I listened to some of it, and it’s incredibly helpful. The first two lessons are free — what a deal!

Andrew James is creator of the Summer Success Crash Course — a downloadable audio and text course that gives law students insider tips, hints, and behind-the-curtain insights on how to succeed and prosper as a summer associate. Before practicing law in corporate transactions and international trade, Andrew was a successful summer associate in both a top 25 national firm and a major regional firm. Though he enjoyed his experience in “BigLaw” Andrew recently returned to his roots in the nonprofit sector. He currently works as inside counsel and vice president of financial services for a community development financial institution.

Want More?
If you’re planning to interview for summer associate positions, be sure to check out Summer Jobs 101, pretty much everything I know about the topic.

For more on how to succeed as a summer associate, here’s another great interview with Desiree Moore of Greenhorn Legal.

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