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5 Pitfalls Summer Students Should Avoid

Click here for an audio recording of Kristy Foreman reading this blog post:

This week, many firms are welcoming their 2021 summer student class. Those responsible for the student programs have been preparing for the summer students’ arrival since they hired them in March. This orientation phase of the summer program can be intense for students, as they realize just how much they don’t know when the steep learning curve comes into view.

And then it begins. An email goes out to the firm announcing that the summer students are open for business and the requests for assistance start flooding in. This is when having an understanding of the lawyers’ expectations and the mistakes to avoid can have a significant impact on your success as a summer student.

Being a “successful” summer student is subject to interpretation. In some cases, securing an articling position is an indication that a student has had a successful summer. In other cases, the employer already committed to articles when the student was offered a 2L summer position. In those cases, the running joke is that a summer student “would have to burn the place to the ground” before the commitment would be revoked.

In the past, I managed summer students for different employers who have taken both of these approaches. Regardless of which approach an employer takes, the same conversations around student performance happen part way through the summer and again at the end of the summer. Even in the case of a “guaranteed” hire-back, there is still a difference between the student who is reluctantly being hired back as part of an employer’s overall recruitment strategy (“it’s only for a year”) and the student who all of the partners are already trying to persuade to join their practice group after their bar call.

From my experience, the students who were not hired back for articles (or who were hired back out of obligation) consistently made the same mistakes. Knowing how these mistakes are made can help students to avoid them. Here are 5 pitfalls that summer students should try to avoid:

1) Not treating the lawyers like clients

Students don’t need to have their own book of business before they start developing their client service skills. The lawyers they work for should be viewed like clients with respect to the following:

  • obtaining a clear mandate

  • responsiveness

  • staying on budget

  • meeting deadlines

  • delivering excellent work product

  • securing repeat business

  • developing referrals

Students who view the lawyers only as their supervisors are missing an opportunity to develop their client service skills and build strong client relationships. Like external clients, lawyers want to work with a person whom they trust.

Students should build this trust by asking the lawyers good questions and obtaining clear instructions. Ask for their preferences with respect to the format and length of the assignment, the timeline and the estimated number of billable hours that should be spent on the project. Don’t make assumptions because you are hesitant to ask the lawyer questions for clarification i.e. don’t spend a week on a 30-page memo when the lawyer would actually prefer a brief summary in an email. Use an assignment checklist to make sure that you have all of the information you need to deliver a client-ready work product on time.

2) Under-communicating

Students often err on the side of under-communicating with assigning lawyers for fear that they will be perceived as annoying. I have rarely heard a lawyer complain about a student over-communicating. In reality, lack of communication is the most significant complaint I have heard from lawyers about students they work with. Students should remember that many lawyers are not as comfortable with delegation and like to maintain control over their files. When there is radio silence from a student, lawyers tend to get anxious and worry that the assignment won’t be completed on time, or it won’t provide them with what they need and they’ll have to scramble at the last minute. Students can give the lawyers comfort by providing them with regular status updates and asking questions along the way. Excellent students make the lives of the lawyers they work with easier, not more stressful.

3) Taking on too much

Of course most summer students want to say yes to every assignment that comes their way. They are eager for the learning experience and they understand that saying “no” can be a career-limiting move in some cases. However, being overloaded, consistently not meeting deadlines and failing to deliver high quality work product can be even more damaging to a student’s reputation. Effectively managing their workload is the most common pitfall and source of stress for summer students. Students often struggle with:

  • knowing which assignments to prioritize

  • knowing how long it will take them to complete a task they’ve never done before

  • knowing when they are “at capacity”

  • knowing how to effectively decline an assignment

  • recognizing the reality that they’re not going to be able to meet a deadline

  • giving the assigning lawyer sufficient notice before asking for an extension

These are skills learned through experience that are not taught in law school. Excellent students understand that they need to learn these practice management skills and leverage their resources to develop them, including reaching out to assigning lawyers, mentors, principals, student committee members, junior associates and articling students.

4) Poor written communication

Legal writing is one of the strongest indicators of a law student’s potential for success as a lawyer, and yet employers don’t ask for evidence of this when they make hiring decisions. Adding a writing sample as an application requirement has been discussed among some employers over the years, but due to most markets’ recruitment conventions and timelines it is viewed as too logistically complicated. As a result, many students go into the summer program lacking sufficiently strong written communication skills. In 1L, students learn how to write a law school exam through trial and error and ultimately figure out that the more content they put in, the more likely they are to hit the points the professor is looking for and get a high mark. In a law firm context, the goal is the opposite. Lawyers are busy and don’t have time to read through pages and pages of information. They want the short answer and they want it to be clear, concise and correct.

Since most employers make hiring decisions on the assumption that strong law students have strong writing skills, they are often ill-equipped to support students whose skills they discover are lacking. Just like in law school, there is a learning curve on how to write effectively in a professional legal context and some students pick it up more quickly than others. The students who are deemed to be “bad writers” usually demonstrate some or all of the following mistakes:

· not writing point-first (including a short answer summary)

· typos/spelling mistakes

· editing/copy & pasting errors

· overly long sentences, paragraphs, emails and memoranda

· lack of analysis after case summaries

· failing to proofread sufficiently (including emails and messages before hitting “send”)

Students can learn to be better writers, but it takes practice and, ideally, a patient lawyer to spend time going through revisions with them and allowing them to submit a second draft. Expressing your intention to improve and asking for feedback on your writing is the first step to avoiding this pitfall.

5) Being invisible

When it comes to students, it’s very much out of sight, out of mind for the lawyers. I have often heard lawyers complain that a student “never reached out”. Now that most lawyers are working from home, students need to make even more of an effort to be visible. This means that it’s not enough to speak only with the lawyers who have assigned you work. The summer is not only about developing your legal skills; it’s about building relationships with current and (hopefully) future colleagues.

Most lawyers assume that students are aware that they have an open door policy. When a student doesn’t reach out, the lawyers assume that they’re not interested in working with them or getting to know them. While some lawyers are more proactive, most wait for the students to approach them. If a student doesn’t take the uncomfortable first step of reaching out to a lawyer they don’t know, they may be missing the opportunity to build a relationship with someone who can provide them with work, mentorship, emotional support and a voice at the partners’ table.

Although it requires effort, any summer student can avoid stepping on these 5 precarious practice landmines. Being consciously aware of their existence and being intentional about navigating around them are the keys to having a successful summer experience.

To learn more employer tips on "How to be an Excellent Remote Summer Student" register here for a live 1-hour webinar event taking place on Wednesday, May 26, 2021 at 9:30 am PST/12:30 pm EST (student rate $75.00 CDN):

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