So, you have landed a 1L summer position at a law firm. Congratulations!
While not impossible, this is an impressive feat. You’ve likely updated your résumé, spent hours agonizing over every word in your cover letters, sent out application after application, and interviewed at more places than you can count. Now you’re finally here; you’ve received an offer and signed the employment contract. Someone is actually going to pay you to work in the legal field, probably for the very first time. You are now officially a 1L Summer Student at a law firm. What next?
1. Get down and dirty with the so-called ‘grunt work.’ You are not technically qualified to do much of anything according to the Law Society, so until you learn the basics, even if they want to, the lawyers at your firm cannot give you anything particularly complex to work on.
Hence, it is my recommendation to embrace the ‘menial’. Do not underestimate the educational value of the administrative work you will be tasked with as a summer student. You can and will learn a lot from this type of work – but only if you are paying attention! As you are learning the systems that your firm employs to do its work, you will uncover a whole new world of legal terminology and procedure. The filing, editing, and shredding that you are tasked with will expose you to a wide range of areas within the legal sphere. So, lean in.
Read a little bit of everything that comes through your hands. Make a list of legal terms and their definitions. Figure out how to use the firm’s elaborate fax machine/printer. You will not have learned these things in law school, and while this experience might make you question whether the producer of Suits ever even spoke to someone in law prior to creating the show, this time in your career is critical.
The more you learn now, while your colleagues are more forgiving, the fewer seemingly obvious questions you will have to ask later. A summer student asking, what a service letter is, is much more palatable than an articling student doing the same. Instead of letting your mind wander to planning what is for dinner, look at everything as a learning opportunity; I assure you that if you are paying attention, it will inevitably become one.
2. It is likely that with time, your colleagues and primary will become more comfortable with assigning you to do actual legal tasks. This can look like being taught how to research, how to draft a demand or service letter, how to prepare a List of Documents, being taught how to file a document with the court, etc.
This is your time to let your perfectionist tendencies shine. When receiving instructions, take them down in excruciating detail and always reference precedents if they are available. If you do not understand a part of your instructions – ASK! Your colleagues know that you are learning, and should be amenable to helping you, within reason.
Realistically, this is the meat of your experience as a 1L summer student. If you can get these tasks nailed down, not only will you have an easier time as a future lawyer, but you will also get more access to this type of work if you can demonstrate your capacity to complete it effectively. While the administrative work is educational, you want to be taking on actual legal tasks where possible, as these will be the most relevant to your future career.
3. While you’re doing the above, endeavor to refer back to your own career goals and plans for the future. If you got a job in a specific area of law in which you later intend to build your career – check in with yourself. Were you correct in your understanding of what practicing in this area of law looks like in the real world? Is your summer experience in line with the kind of work you want to do as a practicing lawyer? If yes, congratulations. Proceed to Go. Collect $200. If not, this is the moment to do some reflection. Thankfully, this is the easiest time in your career to pivot. Therefore, adjusting your career goals in the present will likely save you at least one existential crisis in the future.
If you do not have a clearly defined area of the law in which you intend to practice, try to get your fingers into every metaphorical pie at your firm. Indicate to your employer at the interview stage that you are eager to learn about every area of the law. Then, proceed to act like it.
Finding that you are being pigeonholed into a particular field of practice? Make a concerted effort to highlight your desire to broaden the scope of your knowledge in all areas of the law to your colleagues and principal. Whenever the opportunity comes to work on a task in a different area of the law – jump to it. Be proactive and ask those working in your areas of interest to please keep you in mind for anything and everything you might be able to assist with. When you show a demonstrated interest in the work that people are doing, the likelihood of your contribution to their practice being welcomed is heightened.
4. While you endeavor to do your best in your summer position, please remember that you are a student and still very much new to this field. Consequently, no matter how hard you try, you will inevitably make mistakes.
Now, please do not take this to mean that your mistakes are inconsequential! That is certainly not the case. However, if there is anything that I know about law students, is that many of us are perfectionists. And perhaps, because we have spent so much time and energy on pursuing an academic career, that criticism of our work product can sometimes feel like an attack on the essence of who we are. My point being: cut yourself some slack.
When getting instructions, be sure to take detailed notes before starting new tasks. Ask questions when you are confused, first of legal assistants and paralegals, and then to your primary or another lawyer if necessary. Make sure to be present and attentive when doing your work.
However, when you do make a mistake – take a breath and remember that to a certain extent this is to be expected. Hyperventilating in a bathroom stall is not (strictly) necessary. You are at the very beginning of your career, and a part of learning is the making of mistakes. Your employer understands this.
Nevertheless, when a mistake is made, if it is possible for you to fix the error with no one other than yourself being impacted, go ahead and do so. Reporting every little misstep to your primary is not a productive use of anyone’s time. However, if you cannot fix the mistake yourself, or with the help of legal assistants or paralegals, only then should you consult your primary. Prior to doing so, make sure to have at least one tentative plan for how to fix the issue. Even if your proposed solution is not used, your advanced preparation demonstrates respect for your colleagues and a sense of responsibility for your own work. Making mistakes is natural; making others responsible for fixing your mistakes – is not.
5. Making good use of your time as a 1L summer student is not only about learning how to practice law, but also about making connections in the field. If you are not already coming from a legal background, it is unlikely that you will have had the opportunity to be surrounded by legal professionals on the daily. Now that you have this opportunity, it is time to learn not only by doing the work, but by getting advice from people who have been doing the work for longer than you have been alive.
How does one do this? Demonstrate a positive attitude and a consistent drive to excel in your work. Be methodical and detail oriented. Pick up on your primary’s preferences and conform to them when working on tasks under the purview of their team. If you have a gap in your schedule, offer to lighten their load by taking any work off their hands that they are comfortable with giving you. 3 boxes full of documents to be shredded? Fantastic. 500 pages worth of documents to be named and uploaded? Even better. Your commitment to supporting their team heightens your value within it.
Near the end of your tenure at the firm at which you are summering, consider asking the lawyers with whom you have established a relationship if they would be willing to have a quick coffee chat with you. At these meetings you can ask for feedback and career advice. If you have been following the guidance above, it is likely that some will accept.
Come into these meetings open to hear anything they have to say, but also make sure to have specific questions on hand in case the conversation requires direction. These conversations can be incredibly valuable, as oftentimes you will receive golden nuggets of advice which may change your perspective and alter the course of certain decisions you will be making in your career. If oriented well, the worst-case scenario is that you leave the chat feeling closer to your colleague than you did before. The best-case result of such a meeting can change the course of your career, and open doors to places you would never have been admitted to otherwise.
Remember: the time that they spend with you is precious. In fact, quantifiably so (divide their hourly rate by increments of 6 minutes to see what the conversation could be costing you. Try not to lose your lunch when you see the number that comes up.) Be sure to thank anyone who does this for you profusely.
Embarking on your 1L summer at a law firm signifies the start of an invaluable experience that holds the potential to profoundly shape your legal career. The rigorous journey that led you here serves as a testament to your unwavering dedication and evident potential, setting the stage for growth. This is a golden opportunity to broaden your horizons, absorbing knowledge that will undoubtedly contribute to your professional development. As time advances, you'll gradually transition to more substantial legal responsibilities, and so I encourage you to embrace this juncture for all it is worth. It's imperative to harmonize your summer aspirations with your long-term career goals, consistently recalibrating as the need arises. Equally important is recognizing that mistakes, while inevitable, are integral to the learning curve and contribute to your overall growth. Equipped with this understanding, approach your tasks with a sense of resilience and a readiness to adapt. Forge connections with seasoned legal professionals, consistently demonstrating a genuine eagerness to learn from their wealth of experience. Don't hesitate to seek guidance and advice from established colleagues; their insights have the potential to be transformative in shaping your trajectory. Treasure these interactions as they embody a generous investment of their time and expertise in your growth. Your 1L summer is not just about surviving, but about flourishing as you shape the foundations of your legal journey.
In case you haven’t heard it before, I am proud of you. There is space in the industry for everyone to succeed.
You’re doing great.
Now, go kill it!