What I wish I knew before starting my summer associate gig

This story below is based on the experience of a 3L at Georgetown Law who spent this past summer at a big law firm in Washington, DC.  

Law school doesn’t train you on how to work in a law firm.  And as of this writing, I’m still not sure whether I did enough of the “right” things to secure a full-time offer after graduation.  I had no idea what I was doing as I went straight to law school without ever having held a professional position. So, I was forced to learn on the job.

I thought that as long as I produced high quality work everything else would take care of itself.  That was before I saw what my competition, Ann, was capable of.  Merely producing excellent work was not good enough.  Ann taught me that the secret to doing well was tuning in to what the partners expected from us.  Ann made a point to learn partner preferences and then she performed her work consistent with those preferences.  

Here’s what happened during one of my summer projects.  A partner, Jane, asked the summers who had availability to assist with putting together deposition outlines and binders over the next few weeks. Three of us were assigned to give some percentage of time to the project – my law school classmate Ann, Drew, and me. We met with Jane for some direction and then began our tasks.  

Ann expressed lots of enthusiasm for the project and seemed to give whatever time she could while juggling work for a different partner on another ongoing matter. I noticed that she never mentioned her other project or provided excuses for why she “would be” further along if it weren’t for everything else on her plate. Ann was clearly the model.  

When we were given the assignment, Ann asked several questions, some of which I did not even consider.  She asked when the outline needed to be completed; what format (verbal, memo, and e-mail) it should be in; how long it should take; and whether the time should be billed to a particular client.  Wow, good questions Ann!

Ann told me later that she asked an associate that worked a lot with Jane how often, when, and the manner in which Jane prefers to be contacted.  She also learned that, like most partners, Jane preferred to receive conclusions up front in a short summary format followed by more analysis in a memo or other form. 

So, as expected and consistent with Jane’s preferences, Ann turned in her outline on time and she confided in me that Jane praised her for thinking through some thorny issues, taking the time to annotate her outline with potential exhibits for the witnesses (which she highlighted in a cover e-mail), and for proofreading her work thoroughly so it was free of errors.  Ann told me that when she was finished she let Jane know what else was on her plate and offered additional assistance with the deposition project as time allows.  And Ann told Jane she welcomed any feedback on the project, including whether there was something Jane expected that Ann didn’t deliver.  Ann was basically told she hit it out of the park.  However, Jane did tell Ann that next time she should have asked Jane before roping in a paralegal (and her higher billable rate) to assist her in making the binders.  Jane had expected us summers to handle that task.  Jane’s explanation made sense to me (and I put together my own binder) but I wouldn’t have known to ask first either.

Drew, on the other hand, asked no questions in the group meeting and I suspect he did not ask any follow-up questions.  I was copied on several emails to Jane that referenced his other work and suggested his outline might be delayed.  Drew did not ask whether that would pose a problem, and did not suggest a solution. I was told that when he turned in his outline, he included a few documents, but only the obvious ones that Jane pointed out during the group meeting. I also heard that he did not proofread his final product, so his outline contained errors in formatting, spelling and grammar.  He even misspelled a witness’s name!  In his email (which we were all copied on) sending his outline to Jane, his message read: “Jane – the Stevens outline is attached. As you know, I’ve had to work on this project while still managing the TechCo project for Greg, so my time has been limited.  This outline should get you where you need to be, though.”  I recognized Drew’s poor form but what I didn’t realize until after the fact was that I was not Ann.  I was somewhere in between.  

I maintained a pleasant attitude throughout the project.  But, I did not ask Jane or anyone who worked with Jane about her preferences.  I asked one or two follow-up questions on the substance, and annotated my outline with exhibits.  I didn’t think hard about nuance and strategy like Ann, but I thought I produced a decent outline, which I proofread.  Jane told me that I gave her generally what she was expecting.  I was tempted to follow up with Jane and ask what she meant and whether there was something she was expecting that I didn’t deliver. However, I didn’t want to be criticized or call attention to any limitations of my work.  And overall, I felt that I did a pretty good job.  Of course I realize now that this was shortsighted because Jane had already formed her opinions and it was probably in my best interest to find out how I could better meet her expectations in the future. Instead, I still don’t really know what Jane thinks.

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