Three Questions Every Summer Associate Should Ask

Published: May 22, 2023

 Education       Grad School       Law       Workplace Issues       
Article image

Congratulations! You survived the interview process and landed a great summer associate job. I’m sure you spent a lot of time and effort drafting your application materials, researching employers, and preparing for interviews. Now that your summer program is about to begin, you may be wondering how best to prepare for the summer experience itself. Beyond being responsive to your firm’s communications about logistics and onboarding, there isn’t much you can do to prepare before the program begins. You’ve already worked hard in your classes all year, learning different areas of law, how to spot issues, and how to research and write like a lawyer. But you may be wondering if there are any other areas that deserve your attention to help set yourself up for success as a summer associate.

My advice is to get comfortable asking questions. Now, be a bit judicious and thoughtful about your questions because, to be honest, every time I hear someone use the phrase “there are no dumb questions,” I subtly roll my eyes because we all know that there are, in fact, dumb questions. But don’t let insecurities or imposter syndrome prevent you from asking helpful, important questions throughout your summer associate experience. You are there to learn, and your employer is there not only to evaluate you but also to teach and train you.

In my experience, most summer associates walk through the summer program door with excellent knowledge, curiosity, and enthusiasm. The areas where summer associates typically tend to stumble relate to a disconnect in expectations regarding work habits and communication. To help you avoid those missteps and ensure you are armed with a full understanding of your employer’s expectations, I encourage you to ask and explore the three questions posed below. These questions are all fair game, and you should feel comfortable and confident asking them if they are not already addressed in your summer program. You won’t embarrass yourself by asking and may even be a hero to the rest of your summer class by speaking up and getting an answer that everyone deserves to know!

The following are three “not dumb” questions that you’d be smart to ask:

Question #1: SCOPE. One piece of feedback I’ve heard over the years is that a summer associate misjudged the scope of an assignment. Whenever you receive an assignment, you should drill down into the appropriate scope. What are the relevant jurisdictions? What is the expectation for the work product’s format (a long formal memo or a quick bulleted email)? How much time does the assigning lawyer expect it should take you to complete the assignment? You don’t want to spend three weeks drafting a 25-page memo incorporating all the relevant facts and caselaw from across the country if the assigning lawyer actually wanted a list and stack of highlighted cases where a certain judge ruled on a similar question.

Question #2: DEADLINES. Assigning lawyers will often try to be extra nice to summer associates by saying the assignment “isn’t urgent” or that the summer associate should just “get to it whenever they can.” Don’t be fooled. It’s a trick! The naïve summer associate then makes the mistake of believing the literal words they were told and waits until the last day of the summer program to turn in the assignment. But then, inevitably, the work product needs edits or follow-up, and the assigning lawyer is no longer feeling extra nice about the situation, given that the summer associate has now departed and left them high and dry. I think you should always confirm at least a general deadline (e.g., “next week” vs. “next month”) and try to inquire about the broader matter timeline that your work may affect. “Not urgent” may mean “not until the end of the day today,” or it may mean “any time this summer.” Similarly, “Friday” may mean 8:00 a.m. Friday morning or 11:59 p.m. Friday night Hawaiian Standard Time, and you should confirm the expectation in advance. Of course, you should meet deadlines whenever possible, communicate early if you need to deviate from the original deadline, and always build in time for follow-up and edits after turning in your original draft.

Question #3. PACE/QUANTITY OF WORK PRODUCT. If your employer doesn’t provide a specific expectation surrounding your body of work for the summer, I encourage you to ask. If they are uncomfortable providing a specific number requirement, you can ask how many assignments previous successful summer associates have typically completed to give yourself a general benchmark. Sure, there will always be exceptions and nuance involved, but a general idea will be incredibly beneficial in helping you to calibrate. Associates are often provided billing hours expectations for the year. Therefore, it’s completely reasonable to ask for some kind of target for your summer in order to position yourself for success.

There are plenty of other great questions you will undoubtedly ask as a summer associate, but these are just three to get you started. I hope you have a rewarding and successful summer associate experience!