Archive for June 8th, 2010

I summered at Shearman & Sterling way back in 1996. Judging from my clients’ feedback, the summer associate “experience” at big law firms hasn’t changed much over the years. With the recession, it’s harder to get a summer associate position – but once you’re in, it’s pretty much the same old thing – or maybe the same old thing on lysergic acid diethylamide. It was a pretty weird experience to begin with.

As a summer associate, you’re entering Bizarro World, and nothing makes sense in Bizarro World. Nothing ever has, and nothing ever will.

Here’s how it works:

You show up, dressed in the new suit you probably bought with your mom. You’re a little nervous and eager to impress. The first day starts out pretty much as you’d expect, with human resources spiels – “trainings” – on stuff like how to use the library, how to turn on your computer, how to find the word-processing department, whatever.

You are presented with your desk – your own desk in a law firm! You chat excitedly with the other summers, sizing one another up, seeking allies – someone you can trust, who seems to be thinking the same things you are. There are no obvious candidates.

What now?

Eventually you are introduced to a senior associate and given your first assignment. You rush off to finish it and promise yourself it will be the best summer associate assignment in the history of the firm. As you get down to work, it turns out to be some confusing research question that either has an obvious answer that you find in about twenty minutes, or it’s not really a question at all, it’s just a broad open-ended request to poke around for cases, so you’re not sure what they want. Or it’s an inquiry regarding the income taxation of irrevocable charitable annuity trust stand-by provisions in the State of Florida under provision b(7), and you’re feeling a little out of your depth.


You finish it in twenty minutes, with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that maybe you did something wrong. So you wait an hour or two, re-checking everything, then poke around the library trying to look serious and busy before you hand it in.

Or you struggle through dozens of cases, trying to find something relevant, with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that maybe you’re doing something wrong, but determined to produce a good heap of print-outs and some sort of summary even if you suspect you might be totally off-point.

Or you try to figure out what a charitable annuity trust is and stand gaping like an idiot while the punctilious and efficient law librarian produces state law documents that appear to be written in Klingon. A cold wave of panic rolls up your spine. You wonder if it’s worth the risk to ask the senior associate for more guidance.

Let’s say you actually go back to the senior associate. You brace yourself to look like an idiot. You knock on his office door, and he’s surprisingly friendly.

“Ummmm…I’m not sure I understood the parameters of the question. Do you think I could walk through it with you for a minute?”

He smiles, and too-quickly agrees that the question was a little unclear, but says it looks like you did a great job of “taking a stab at it.” He admits he’s busy at the moment, and suggests you put it down for now, but adds that you’ve “done a great job” and he’ll have another assignment for you soon.

That was your first assignment and you’re sure all you’ve accomplished is to make the one guy you needed to impress think you’re an idiot.



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