Summer 2021 presents new challenges for law firms with summer associate programs.
This summer — maybe for the first time ever — many firms are welcoming summer associates who interviewed remotely and have never been in the firm's physical space or met any firm lawyers in person. The summer program itself may also be a remote or hybrid program.
Even in an ordinary year, law firms have to navigate special circumstances with summer associates since many law students will be working in a professional environment for the first time. Students also have to figure out how to adapt what they have learned in law school to new types of legal work and professional interactions.
Despite 2021's new challenges, firms can help summer associates learn to manage their writing assignments and communicate professionally.
Here are five tips for lawyers seeking to effectively train and mentor summer associates — without investing more time than they ordinarily would.
These tips are based on (1) my experience as a legal writing coach working with summer associates on their writing for the last 13 years and (2) my years of teaching 1L legal writing and understanding the difference between what law students learn in law school and what they must know to be successful in a summer legal job.
1. Help your summer associates understand what they need to do.
There is a lot of hand-holding in most legal writing classes, which makes sense because law students are being introduced to a brand-new way of reading, thinking and writing.
Law school assignments come prepackaged and tied with a bow. That makes summer writing assignments — which can be messy and frequently do not have easy answers — a rude shock.
And there can be a communication breakdown between the lawyer handing out the assignment and the summer associate receiving it.
For this reason, every year there is a summer associate who writes a thorough, well-researched, technically correct memo that does not answer the question that the partner asked. But this disconnect can be avoided.
When handing out an assignment, make sure that you are on the same page with the summer associate before the meeting is done. Take your time explaining the assignment and providing background about the case or matter, the context in which the assignment fits and all additional information that you think the summer associate might need.
Also try to share details like the client's name and billing number, your preferred format, the due date and any other resources, such as people and files.
While many of us prefer phone calls after more than a year on Zoom, in this situation a video call may help you actually see whether you and the summer associate are communicating effectively.
Before the Zoom meeting ends, you may ask the summer associate to restate your assignment. Then, you can suggest that she review any notes, fill in the blanks and follow up with you later that day with any specific questions about your expectations.
2. Teach summer associates to manage their communications effectively.
After handing out an assignment, there is more you can do to ensure that the project is not derailed. You have an important role in creating a safe space for summer associates to admit what they do not understand and helping them get to a place where they do understand — thereby building their professional confidence.
Encourage them to think before communicating. Suggest that they keep an ongoing list of questions and then send one email asking if you have 10 minutes to speak with them about those questions.
Likewise, articulate your expectation that if you send an email asking a question, you prefer an answer that same day.
If summer associates are working on a complex assignment, encourage them to check in with you one or two weeks later to share an outline or report on the research and writing progress.
Clarify how you prefer to be communicated with, whether by email or phone, or in another manner.
Finally, connect the summer associate with other people at the firm (including more junior lawyers with whom you work) so that they can get questions answered by the people best suited to do so.
When you teach summer associates how to communicate professionally, they'll take these skills with them and become people you want to work with when they join the firm full time.
3. Explain to summer associates that their readers need a confident and well-supported conclusion.
Legal writing professors design law school assignments to be evenly balanced, with law and facts supporting both sides' positions. That typically means that there isn't a right or wrong answer to the question.
Law practice, of course, is different. There are right and wrong answers, and often a research question may not have a clear answer. To answer a question, summer associates must search for relevant and analogous cases and make sense of a large body of law (or no law) and facts.
Help your summer associates understand that there is no substitute for doing this hard work and that their task is to do it so that you do not need to. Clarify that you are relying on their research and ultimately their judgment.
Summer associates must understand that, to add value, they must read and think hard about the answer to the question and avoid answering the question with a nonanswer like, "It depends on the facts."
Remind them too that they are never completely objective when writing in a professional environment because — unlike in the fictional law school world — they have a client who has a stake in the answer.
4. Share your best practices for writing clearly, precisely, correctly and concisely.
Law students are, of course, new to legal writing, and many of them never received significant feedback on their writing during their pre-law school education. That means they still have a lot to learn about writing, and particularly about the principles that lawyers value (including spelling "principles" correctly).
First, explain what makes your writing clear. Do you focus on using active voice or on writing short sentences? I often suggest that people use short, concrete subjects for their sentences. Typically, active voice will follow.
Next, explain how you write precisely. Distinguish between legal terms of art (like "negligence" or "consideration"), which make writing precise, and legalese (like the terms "as such" or "herein"), which makes writing inaccessible.
Third, let the summer associate know where you go with your own grammar or punctuation questions and what resources have historically helped you write correctly.
Finally, share how you write concisely (or how you try but are a work in progress). My favorite trick is to copy your document into a new one, set your phone timer for 10 minutes, and see if you can cut 10% of your words. The exercise feels like a game, and when you're time-limited, you cannot get attached to your precious words.
5. Offer feedback and encourage summer associates to seek it out.
Many aspects of our jobs have become more challenging in the last year; providing feedback is one of them. And feedback has always been difficult for lawyers to give and for summer associates to receive because of a complicated constellation of discomfort, avoidance, insecurity and time constraints.
Now this summer, add to the mix the fact that you can probably avoid the summer associate who messed up an assignment because you may not be in the office together.
But feedback is critical to learning. At law firms, most successful associates work regularly with the same people and learn and develop from those experiences.
Encourage summer associates to seek out feedback even when they know that a specific assignment went off the rails. In a professional environment, summer associates must prove that they are mature enough to face, understand and admit mistakes. They grow professionally as they confront and work through them.
How can you help summer associates learn and develop from feedback? Provide feedback on assignments you hand out, even if you feel uncomfortable.
One way to reduce your discomfort is to try to quantify what you are saying. For example, share three things that the summer associate could have done better. Then, follow up by recounting three things that the summer associate did well on the assignment.
If a summer associate is your formal mentee, encourage the summer associate to seek out feedback about an assignment handed out by another lawyer a week or so after the summer associate turns it in. That will give the assigning lawyer time to read the assignment and to formulate helpful thoughts for the summer associate.
Consider this summer an opportunity for your lawyers to help your summer associates learn strategies for success for this summer and beyond.
While this summer may look different from past ones, lawyers can connect with and teach their summer associates to be effective future attorneys, even when they are not interacting in person.
This article is reprinted with permission from Law360, May 28, 2021, www.Law360.com.