The only way to learn anything is to do it. This certainly applies to the law, but law school isn’t exactly known for giving students an abundance of real-world experience. For law students, summers are an opportunity to build practical skills, knowledge and a professional network. For employers, summers are an opportunity to mentor, recruit new talent, and of course, to get fresh eyes and hands on our endless to-do lists.
We work at a non-profit that provides legal services to indigent and vulnerable New Yorkers. Each year we host 20-30 interns and volunteers, many of whom are law students. We’ve watched many great students come and go (and sometimes stay) and we’ve learned a few things. Here’s what you need to know:
Your law school summer is more than a job
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can treat your summer like the jobs you had in college. Your law school summers are the very first steps in your career. Regardless of where you plan to work after school, take your summers seriously. Work hard, be professional, and pay attention to relationships. Lauren – Relationships in the law are crucial and they begin early. If you can, take the time to talk to your supervisor, partner or senior associate about their career journey. Some of the most important things to learn about are networks, innovations and what’s on the horizon for a practice area. That horizon may already be present when you graduate.
When we think about what we want from our summer interns, “perfection” doesn’t even make the list.
Get ready to roll up your sleeves
(Not literally, unless your office dress code is cool with that.) Take on all the work you can, regardless of whether or not you thought it was going to be a part of your summer. Help with document review, packing and re-stacking boxes, filing papers in court and whatever else needs to get done. In some ways, you can learn more from writing bluebacks and filing papers than you ever could from drafting a memo. Adam – When I run into her, I still get thanks from a supervisor for helping to pack her office in the days before an agency had to move a few blocks. At The Family Center, I notice that the students who volunteer for less glamorous projects are the people we think of first when we have more substantive opportunities to offer. They also seem to learn the most.
Wherever you summer, you’re going to have a tremendous amount of new information to absorb. Treat learning as your most important summer assignment. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. If your supervisor or senior associate has a conference call, client meeting, or court appearance that interests you, ask if you can listen in. If you do this right, you’ll learn a lot and make a great impression on your colleagues and employer. Lauren – Listening is crucial, but so is speaking up when you need to. If you don’t understand something about an assignment, an area of law, or a procedure, chances are good that an attorney within earshot can give you the answer in less than 30 seconds. In my first internship, I wasted plenty of time trying to reinvent the wheel, searching for solutions to problems my supervising attorney could have talked me through in her sleep. Trust me, lawyers would rather spend ten minutes each day answering twenty of your questions than have you waste hours in the weeds because you were too embarrassed to ask.
Go the extra mile
Yes, your supervising attorney is in charge of giving you assignments, but don’t forget to use your brain; try asking yourself, “How can I be even more useful?” It’s likely that your extra efforts will be met with gratitude, and you might find they open the door to more substantial (and resume-building) experiences. Adam – During my second summer, a supervisor gave me a research assignment having to do with sentencing guidelines. He wanted the research for a memo that was to be sent to a judge. In addition to doing the research, I went ahead and wrote the memo. After I left it on his desk (in the days before email), he stormed into where the interns sat and asked, “Did you write this?” I thought he was furious. It turns out he was overjoyed. He loved the writing and he put my name under his on the court submission. Later, he mentioned this at a department meeting. The next day, three other attorneys wanted to speak with me about writing projects.
Don’t be a miserable jerk
The law is a challenging profession. Lawyers, if you haven’t noticed, tend to work hard and be stressed out. Seeing the law through the eyes of someone new to the profession who is genuinely excited about their summer position can be inspiring. Take some advice from those NYC subway posters and “be someone who makes it a better ride for everyone.” Lauren – Depending on the work environment where you summer, you may notice some of your colleagues have unpleasant things to say about each other, their clients, or their adversaries. It might be tempting, but don’t join in. Remember, this is the start of your career, and others are paying attention to what you say. Nobody wants to hire the next office gossip.
You’re going to make mistakes
At some point this summer, you will f*ck up. It’s inevitable, and it’s really not as disastrous as it feels. When you make a mistake, apologize and move on. If there is anything to be learned from the error, tell yourself that you’ll do it differently next time. If you get scolded by a clerk or a judge, we welcome you to the club. If you disappoint a client, you are guaranteed to learn a great deal. When we think about what we want from our summer interns, “perfection” doesn’t even make the list. Adam – I am betting that our summer interns will make a mistake or two. In fact, I’m counting on it, as a learning experience for me and, more importantly, as one for them.
You don’t have to fall in love
Your summer is a great way to try out a career path before you commit to it (and before those loan payments kick in); you don’t have to get it right on your first try. Sometimes, summers are as valuable for what they teach us about what we don’t want in a job (whether that’s the office culture or a substantive area of law) as for what we do want. But please, see above about not being a miserable jerk. Lauren– I enjoyed wonderful summers at two fantastic organizations, but I didn’t know that either place was the perfect fit for me. Each time, I immersed myself fully while noting what I liked best, and least, about each experience. Discussing all of this with my law school adviser helped her lead me to The Family Center, where I immediately knew I had found the right job and the right next step in my career.