Director’s Tips: Top Ten Tips for a Successful Summer Legal Experience

In this economic climate, you should take seriously any legal job you take—whether it is a clinic, temporary research job or a summer clerkship with a firm.  Read on for ten tips will help you do a great job.  This will at least win you great references, and may earn you an offer of more work or permanent employment.


1.  Be friendly and polite to all receptionists, secretaries and paralegals. Why?  They are professionals. They will almost invariably know more than you do about court filings and procedure (and that will be true for awhile). You will also learn from them the inside scoop about the lawyers with whom you are working.  If they don’t like you, or you are demeaning towards them, this will circulate amongst the other attorneys very quickly.

2.  Go to lunch, on coffee runs, and firm social activities when invited. Employers hire and retain the people they know like to hang out with.  For example, many attorneys consider this test when deciding whether to hire a new associate: would I survive and (even enjoy) a four hour plane trip with this person? If the answer is no, or if they don’t have a basis upon which to make this determination, you are in trouble.  Do not be the summer associate who did decent work but no one really knows.  Go to coffee or to social hours (even if you don’t drink, since no one cares if you get a Diet Coke). Plan that you will need to make up your work time later.  

3.  Be a human being. Have confidence in your skills and avoid self-deprecation, but do not be a jerk.

4.  Always be building up your stock. When you start working for a new employer, you will be scrutinized to ensure that you are competent.  This is true even if you have great grades and fabulous clothes.  It may help to think of the employer as a detective who is watching for clues about how you might be as a permanent employee.  At some point, you will screw up an assignment, spill coffee on a shareholder, or forward an internal email to the opposing side (hopefully not all on the same day).  To survive these events, you need to have impressed in other ways.  So, if you get the chance to save an attorney by staying an extra hour to help prepare for oral argument, pulling out some amazing research, or running down to the courthouse in heels to deliver some jury instructions, jump on it!

5.  Don’t be “that guy (or gal)”: the last clerk to arrive in the morning or the first to leave, the one who gets drunk at firm functions, or the one who still thinks that summer clerkships are a nonstop party. These days, summer clerks are working harder than ever to prove that they will be a good investment for the employer. We want you and our school to maintain a great reputation in this regard.  So, even if you have heard that your employer cares about “lifestyle,” do not assume that you have a license during your first summer to arrive regularly at 10:00 am, leave at 4:00 pm, and spend half the day chatting with the file clerk.     

6.  Do good work, the best you can. This seems obvious.  In case it isn’t, take each assignment seriously, and fully complete it by the deadline given you.  One increasingly common complaint senior attorneys have with new clerks is that they produce something by the due date, but it is not often in a polished form—i.e., an interoffice memorandum which has “insert a supporting case for this point” in brackets after an argument.  Set yourself apart by turning in the most complete work product you can.  Carefully manage your incoming assignments—let attorneys know what you are already coping with, and discuss what a reasonable due date might be, given other considerations.  

7.  Learn as much of the nuts and bolts of where you work as you can. Go beyond the projects that are assigned you to learn about the business of the place where you are working (without rifling through confidential files).  What work does the employer do?  How is work disbursed to new attorneys?  How is billing done?  How are secretaries used?   How do they want you to fill out a time sheet?  Employers, especially smaller firms, may neglect comprehensive training on these issues—that is, until you really screw up.  Find someone who can mentor you on some of these issues—and it may be an administrator.  You will end up looking more professional.

8.  Keep in communication when you get an assignment, but be cognizant of the assigning attorney’s time. When you first get an assignment, focus carefully on the information you are given.  Make sure you understand the assignment (does the attorney want a memorandum, a stack of cases, a final motion?), ask questions during the initial meeting, and take detailed notes.  Ask how long the attorney thinks the assignment might take you.  If you need further clarification as the assignment progresses (which is bound to happen), set an appointment with the attorney—try using email.  Avoid wandering by their office for a “quick question” which ends up taking an hour.

9.  It almost never works to simply suck up and do great work for only the folks at the top of the letterhead.  Work for everyone you can, regardless of where they are on the totem pole.  Similarly, produce fantastic work product even if you are working for the people lower on the totem pole.  They will go to bat for you at hiring time, and will be your mentors after you are hired.  

10.  Don’t forget that you are interviewing the employer! Consider as the summer progresses whether this is a place where you can see yourself working.  Do you fit in?  Are attorneys reasonably content? Is the work remotely interesting to you?  Do you have other concerns?  If so, don’t forget that PDO is here to help you.