26 May 2005

Advice for your summer working at a law job

Just sent the following to a 1L who is a summer clerk right now and was seeking advice, and I thought it was worth sharing with anyone out there who happens to be spending the summer in a law-related job:

 

I spent my first summer being a teaching/research assistant and taking classes, so I can�t say that I�ve had the same experience you�re having. But after getting some insight into how judges think, and how professors think, and spending a lot of time talking with my friends who have been summer clerks and summer associates, I can definitely think of a few things that might help you maximize your summer experience. A lot of the time, you will feel off balance, but maybe keeping the five things below in mind as sort of general goals will help you get your footing. It�s the approach I�ve taken to anything career-related, and those among my friends who have read it�and who have been through the summer clerk experience�give it a thumbs-up. Here goes:

 

(1) Hone your writing skills. Sure, it sounds redundant at this point, but you�ll be doing a ton of memos, court documents, and, maybe, drafts of briefs over the next several weeks. Summers are probably the one time during law school that you churn out a lot of work product consistently, so take advantage of it. Your writing ability basically decides what kind of doors open up for you during and after law school. Honestly, the one complaint I�ve heard from Judges and professors and some of the better lawyers is that most lawyers are too verbose. They think in terms of quantity�probably part of the �more is better� mentality from doing billable hours�and forget how to use plain language because they�re surrounded by other lawyers. As a result, some judges are known to actually rip off the last 20 pages of briefs from lawyers who they know are wordy (seriously). My first year legal writing professor gave me some great advice that actually works (how often does that happen?): every time you write something, reduce it by about ten percent, while keeping the same quality of content. If it�s long, take off at least a page. If it�s short, reduce it by a half page. You get the idea. After just a couple months of doing this, you�ll be surprised by the results.

 

(2) Learn to live without Lexis and Westlaw. Yes, it is possible, and the withdrawal symptoms are minimal. Maybe you�re at one of the bigger firms that pay tens of thousands of dollars for a use-it-all-you-want plan. And maybe you�ll get to work at one of these in the future, too. But, honestly, relying on the electronic databases can render even the most skillful of researchers surprisingly inefficient. Learn to use them only when absolutely necessary. Libraries�the real kind, with neat things like books�are really useful, and even the smallest firms have the necessities (state statutes and case reporters, civil procedure guides, etc.). The free internet�Google, Findlaw, a lot of government sites, and law journal websites, for example�is also really useful. Most importantly, people are perhaps the best research tool around, and you get the added benefit of building connections, which leads to the next tip�.

 

(3) Make connections, but let it be natural. Some people I know would balk at this advice. They seem to think that getting (or giving) the most business cards is a sport, and a very competitive one. I think this is a really bad tactic. Firms have their own social structure and hierarchy that you will learn to navigate, but at the same time they�re basically comprised of lots of different types of people. Lawyers come in all shapes and sizes, and you simply can�t click with all of them. Trying to be friends with someone with whom you obviously will never have a great relationship is pointless, and it�s more beneficial (and more fun) to focus your energy on building something really solid with a handful of people. These are the connections that yield letters of recommendation that are actually sincere and useful. These are also the connections that help you figure out what kind of lawyer you want to be, both in terms of practice area and in terms of your quality of life. As for everyone else, just be nice and polite and make a good impression. Lawyers are in the business of reading people, and they can smell it from a mile away when a law student is trying too hard.

 

(4) Don�t be afraid to ask. Of course, I could talk for several sentences about the importance of asking questions and how to properly go about it (because while there are few dumb questions, there are a lot of dumb ways to ask questions�like catching an associate after he�s come out of a bad meeting with the partner from hell). But, I think that discerning who, when and how to ask questions is just something learned from work experience, and it gets built into your on-the-job instincts. What I mean, instead, is not being afraid to ask for what you want. Remember that this is your summer, too, and that you are supposed to be enjoying it. If you would really like to do more X and Y, and you�ve been stuck with A, B, and C for weeks, then ask if that�s possible. Of course, be very tactful about it. Don�t complain about what you�ve been doing, don�t try to get out of something you�ve been assigned already, and don�t wait until the busiest day of the week to mention it. Basically, approach it like a lesser version of asking for a raise. Lawyers are sometimes so busy that they simply forget about the summer workers, and you can get stuck in a routine of basically clerical tasks very quickly.

 

(5) Do not, under any circumstances, let yourself become a grunt. No one wants to be a grunt, but it�s very easy for this to happen. Your supervising associate wants an order drafted in two days, the head secretary wants you to work on filing, and another associate runs into you and drops a memo in your lap due by Friday. And then there�s that meeting you need to sit in on this afternoon. And that trial you get to attend tomorrow morning. And that client interview the next day that you haven�t prepared for. These are all great experiences, and if you can handle a really full plate and still produce quality work, then more power to you. The funny thing is that when you�re being given stuff to do, it seems like the different people in the office don�t know what anyone else has already given you. As a clerk, you feel obliged to jump at every opportunity and agree to do whatever is asked of you, regardless of how much you already have on your schedule. But as soon as you drop the ball on one task (the memo with �no conclusion, and no real analysis,� the botched interview where you called the client the wrong name, the missed deadline), instantly the whole office knows about it, and you have to now work to rebuild your reputation. Obviously, don�t simply say �no� to a partner or your supervisor, but don�t let yourself be bootstrapped to unrealistic deadlines. Sometimes, it�s as simple as saying �could that deadline be moved two days? I�m working on something for random attorney down the hall�� It shows you�re on top of things, that you know how to prioritize. And it�s a lot better than coming in the day before something is due and asking for an extension.

 




 

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