Acing Your Law Firm Summer: Handling Work Assignments

Published: May 30, 2012

 Law       Workplace Issues       

By now, many of you have started as summer associates at law firms. You’ve met your fellow summers and some of the associates and partners, lunched at a couple of fancy restaurants and, hopefully, started on your first assignment.

That first assignment can be incredibly intimidating. After all, for most of us, it’s the first time we’ve ever produced work product that a real, live lawyer will be evaluating. Even more frightening is the possibility that the memo, email or document we create might be used in an actual deal or transaction worth millions of dollars to the firm’s client.

So, to preserve your sanity—and make sure you get to attend tonight’s cooking class or Broadway show—let’s review the steps to successfully completing your first law firm assignment.

Let’s start with a look at the usual process for receiving an assignment as a summer associate. First, an associate or partner will request summer associate staffing on his or her matter. Then, if the summer associate coordinator decides you’re right for the job (based on your availability and/or work preferences), he or she will call or email to give you a basic description of the matter and tell you which attorney you should contact for more information. You should follow up as soon as possible with the assigning attorney, who will either describe the project for you over the phone or ask you to come to his or her office for more information.

Bring a pad and pen to this meeting. Bring a pad and pen to this meeting. Bring a pad and pen to this meeting.

During your initial meeting with the assigning attorney, listen carefully to the background of the case and take notes. Especially important information to write down includes the names of the parties, the jurisdiction, applicable precedents for the assignment and the billing code or client number. If you are being asked to conduct legal research, make sure to find out whether Lexis or Westlaw is preferred by your firm and how much time you can spend using them (unless, of course, you’ve been able to hold on to your free student ID number for the summer—in which case, get ready for lots of research requests!). You should also ask when the deadline for the project is and whether there are any special billing considerations.

Once you’re back in your office, go over your notes from the meeting and start by looking up any relevant precedents. This is especially important for corporate assignments, but litigators can also benefit from seeing past research memos that were sent to the same client or partner.

You will undoubtedly come across lots of questions while completing your first assignment. Try not to contact the assigning attorney with all of these questions as they occur to you. Instead, utilize the many resources that the firm offers, including the library, in-house Westlaw/Lexis representatives, other associates and paralegals on the case or deal, your officemate, your mentor and your assistant. Of course, which resource to turn to will depend on what your question involves.

You should use the firm’s resources again when you’ve completed the assignment. For example, if the firm has a proofreading or cite-checking service (and you’ve cleared that summer associates are permitted to use it), send your finished draft to them before you turn it in. Also, remember that in law firm lingo, a “draft” is not a “draft” at all—in fact, it’s a finished work product (the only exception being when you are explicitly instructed to provide something in rough format because of an urgent deadline).

Finally, once you’ve handed in your assignment, follow up for feedback. Associates and partners are busy people, and while they will usually be happy to provide you with feedback, they may forget to do so if not reminded. So if you haven’t heard anything about your work, send an email stating how much you enjoyed working with the attorney and asking if they’d have a moment for you to stop by and get some feedback on how you did.

For more tips on summer associate success, check out our webinar with Charlotte Wager (Chief Talent Officer of Jenner & Block), Wendy Siegel (Director of Recruitment and Marketing at NYU School of Law) and Donna Gerson (lawyer, author and corporate etiquette expert) here: https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/892414424.

--Rachel Marx, Law Editor