How to Succeed as a Legal Intern or Summer Associate

How to Succeed as a Legal Intern or Summer Associate

I recently interviewed Natasha Zech (Williams & Connolly), Rachel Gurvich (UNC Law), and Jean Yin (Venable LLP) about how to succeed as a legal intern or summer associate (especially in a remote or hybrid environment) for the How I Lawyer Podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

Here are ten key takeaways from the conversation.

Treat your summer experience as an exploratory mission 

Summer internships and summer associate positions are excellent opportunities to be open minded, try out a wide variety of work, and meet as many people as possible. Even if you think you know what type of law you want to practice, take advantage of the ability to try new things in a relatively low-risk environment. Prioritize delving into the firm or organization’s culture and make sure you can envision yourself there full-time. Determine what kind of lawyering appeals to you and work on developing skills related to that type of work. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for more or different work

It is important to showcase your abilities, but it is equally important to do enough and a variety of work to figure out what type(s) of work you are interested in. To that end, try to work on a mix of projects and be sure to communicate your potential interest areas to those in charge of handing out assignments. Reach out and connect with attorneys who do the work you’re interested in trying, and ask them to keep you in mind if they have any assignments come up throughout the summer. Be gracious, accept “no” if and when you’re told it, and focus on being a helpful team member. 

Consider the big picture

Planning out your full week, in addition to just each day, is a helpful habit that enables you to optimize your time and energy throughout the week. Taking a wider view of your schedule allows you to prioritize the projects, events, and other activities and commitments that you’ll have to complete or attend, and can help you stay motivated and balanced. Relatedly, taking the time to understand the role your assignments will play within larger projects (by asking thoughtful questions or for additional context as needed) will help set you apart and enable you to make more valuable and strategic contributions. 

Find a balance between work and social events that works for you and your well-being

Complete the work (well!) that you are assigned, but remember that the summer is also an opportunity to get a sense of the firm’s culture. Social events allow you a more organic opportunity to do this, as well as to meet new and more people. However, social events do sometimes take you out of your comfort zone, so it is worth remembering that quality is more important than quantity: people will likely not miss you at one or a few events, so find the best balance for you among socializing, focusing on work assignments, and taking time to recharge when needed. 

Proactivity is important, especially in a virtual or hybrid environment 

Being proactive and taking initiative is one of the best ways to distinguish yourself from other junior team members and stand out to the assigning attorneys or program coordinators. Take ownership of projects and your work, and take advantage of any opportunities you find to make your assigning attorney’s life easier – this is especially important in a virtual or hybrid environment, where many or most of your interactions will be online or over the phone.

Meet as many people as possible 

Take initiative (especially in a virtual or hybrid environment) and reach out to as many people as possible. Most people like to talk about themselves and their work! Remember that the worst someone can say is “no” (or, more likely, that they don’t have time), but if you feel nervous or intimidated, try reaching out with another summer associate or with a junior associate with whom you’ve connected. Everyone wants you to succeed, so don’t be afraid of making connections with whomever you’re interested in getting to know. 

Take advantage of the resources available to you

Firms and organizations have many resources available to you, so utilize staff attorneys, paralegals, the library and research teams, etc. when the opportunities arise. The staff and support teams are all there to help and, even when they can’t, will often be able to point you in the right direction or offer advice. More senior associates and any mentors with whom you’ve connected will be able to help you identify resources and how best to strategically use them. 

Good judgement is probably the most valuable skill a lawyer can have

You want to be someone with whom others want to or could spend a lot of time, and you need to show good judgement and general capability – use your summer to showcase these qualities to the people around you. Avoid not communicating well, missing deadlines, and behaving like you don’t care about the work or the firm. Don’t overcommit – people will remember poorly done work more than they will remember if you had to say no to an assignment one time. Own your mistakes when you make them – mistakes are often fixable, but are often not fixable alone. Finally, be nice! Remember that these will be your future colleagues, and that it is very hard to rebuild your reputation once it has been tarnished.

Be open and ask for help when you need it 

Your mental health is the most important thing, so reach out to people if you need assistance! The people around you will be there to help, and any willingness to be open with those around you will help your working relationships (especially during the virtual or hybrid environment). Keep in mind that organizations aren’t necessarily set up to proactively look out for you, so it will often be on you to ask for what you need; however, if you can take that step, many organizations will be incredibly responsive and supportive – and, if they aren’t, consider whether that might indicate that the place is not a great fit. 

Most important:everyone wants you to succeed!

The work you’ll be doing is a trial run in many ways, but one of the most arduous tasks is securing a summer position in the first place – once you’ve done so, it is in both your and the firm’s best interest to make sure your time is successful! Nearly everyone you’ll be working with was once in your shoes, so lean on them for advice and support. Build connections and enjoy your time!