Join Now

Eight simple rules for winning the summer clerkship game


It was 4:30 p.m., and I was a summer law clerk at a midsize firm that did not have strict, set hours for associates. There was no guidance as to when, exactly, associates needed to arrive and leave.

My rival—I mean, fellow summer associate—poked his head over my cubicle wall. “Do you have any idea when we’re supposed to leave? “ Quite honestly, I responded: “I’m not sure, nobody really said anything…”

“I suppose I’ll head out around 5 PM.”

“Sounds good,” I replied.

At 4:45 p.m., I stepped out of my cubicle and went to the restroom. When I came back, my colleague was gone. I sat back down and proceeded to work until 7 p.m. Guess which associate got the job?

I treated my clerkship like a strategic game, constantly applying a set of rules that my best friend concocted after her first-year summer employment experiences in big law. I’m sharing them with you. Why? I believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Rule 1: Be the first to arrive and the last to leave.

Every. Single. Time. If an emergency comes up (i.e., your grandmother dies), make sure that you let a few people know so they can mention the crisis if someone asks where you are. I recommend telling whoever sits beside you, as well as the paralegals of the attorneys you frequently assist.

You can be sure that a jilted paralegal will do everything in his or her power to prevent you from coming back to the firm.

Otherwise, there’s no reason for you not to be there early and late. You will have the opportunity to leave early for special occasions, after you get the job. Every minute counts during the clerkship.

Rule 2: Be humble and appreciative of every benefit you receive, but seem accustomed to the lifestyle.

No one wants to hire someone who seems out of place or awkward in the upscale trappings that accompany most networking events.

By the same token, partners are not idiots. They know you have two dollars in your bank account. If you have more than two dollars in your bank account, that’s no reason for you to act like a jerk that lives a higher lifestyle than the partners themselves. Be at home, but not arrogant. Appreciate and voice gratitude for every drink, meal, or event you get the opportunity to enjoy, but don’t make tacky comments about how you never ate this well in law school.

Rule 3: Find a common weakness that you can discuss with partners and associates.

Not a real weakness, obviously. A fake weakness. Something like, “yes, I know it’s horrible; I’ve had 9 cups of coffee today.” Or, “I stayed up till 1 a.m. playing fantasy football.” But, in reality, because you’re smart, you went to bed at 8:30 p.m. and only had 2 cups of coffee.

Rule 4: Don’t underestimate the power of non-legal research tools.

Yes, we know you are dying to use those Westlaw/Lexis skills that you picked up 1L year. But guess what? Some of your best information may not be there.

A partner once asked me to synthesize an entire body of law that recently changed in our jurisdiction. Panicked, I went to Westlaw and started reading historic and current versions of the law. I called my friend in angst after a full day of working on this project. She ran a quick Google search and found a complete summary, drafted by the legislators who wrote the new law. All of my work had been done for me, by the people who wrote the law and understood it, and it was all on Google.

Similarly, if you are working on a case in which someone’s personal activities are called into question, it would be associate malpractice not to search every major social media outlet for that person’s name and any derivative thereof.

Likewise, Wikipedia can be a great place to start. Although you cannot cite to it, it can give you a bird’s eye survey of topics to which you may have not been exposed in law school.

Rule 5: Know the decision-making process.

I learned that the partners at my firm utilized a “one partner, one vote” process for deciding which associates would stay with the firm. This meant that once I had established a strong working relationship with one partner, I needed to move on and learn to work with others.

Making sure that each and every partner sees the quality of your work can be difficult. It’s nigh impossible when you’re assigned to one specific practice group. Additionally, there may be partners who don’t assign work. Near the end of my clerkship, I brought homemade baked goods to work. For every partner that I didn’t work with, I made sure to visit each of their offices and told them where they could find the brownies. Although I didn’t do any work for them, we were able to forge camaraderie.

Don’t underestimate the value of paralegals. A few words from a paralegal to a partner can go a long way, especially when that partner isn’t intimately acquainted with you or your work ethic. Likewise, ticking off a paralegal can be dangerous. You can be sure that a jilted paralegal will do everything in his or her power to prevent you from coming back to the firm.

Rule 6: Don’t drink.

Seriously, don’t. Or just have one. Partners will respect you for it, and you won’t raise your voice or say something you’ll regret saying later. Actually, the worst part about drinking is that you may say something and not even realize after the fact that you were making a complete fool out of yourself.

Rule 7: Don’t presume.

One of the worst mistakes an associate can make is to stereotype the people that he or she works with. Just because your managing partner is gay doesn’t mean that he is liberal. Just because your favorite partner is religious doesn’t mean that she is conservative. Politics is one of many, many areas where associates think that they have “figured out” partners and other associates—only to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Rule 8: Know what you did on the weekend.

Every single Monday morning, and some Tuesday mornings, you will be asked what you did on the weekend. This is a prime opportunity for you to show off the best parts of your personality.  Always have a good story from the weekend so you seem interesting. “Netflix and chill” is not a hobby. The story doesn’t have to be over-the-top, but you need it on the tip of your tongue. “Not much,” or “slept in” makes you seem dull, and nobody likes a dull associate.

Obviously, these rules are just icing on the cake. It goes without saying that your research should leave no stone unturned, your manners should be impeccable, you should look your best every day, and you should always show up to work caffeinated, well-rested, and energetic.

Keep in mind that these rules, disingenuous though they may seem, are nothing more than a fast track to friendship. If you like where you’re working, you’re going to end up staying there for a while. The partners and associates and paralegals that you are trying to impress may one day become your best friends. I’m not suggesting that you should be inauthentic. These are just speed-dating tools for those precious, fleeting weeks you will spend with them over the summer.

M. Joy Baxter M. Joy Baxter is an associate at Ortale Kelley in Nashville and a graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law. Her undergraduate degree is in music, and she holds several international certificates in music performance and theory.