VOL. 118 | NO. 102 | Thursday, June 10, 2004
Class in Session at Memphis Law Firms
The Daily News
School is important. If it wasnt, a college degree would be
But knowing how to apply the knowledge gained in school might
be more important, as any attorney who has spent a couple of months in a summer
associate program can attest.
For many students, the summer associate program is the
first chance theyve had to get their feet wet, said Gwyn
Fisher, marketing/communications coordinator with Baker, Donelson, Bearman,
Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, who spent a couple of summers during law school
clerking with two law firms. It may be the first time they ever see the inside
of a courtroom. A big part going in is to learn the stuff they dont teach you
in the classroom.
Learning on the job. Law
firms of all sizes, whether four-person boutiques or 100-member firms, work
with summer associates. The programs serve as an opportunity for law students
to spend summer break learning the inner workings of a law firm.
Time spent at a firm can be the most important learning
experience a law student gets.
There is no question that they learn more during summer
programs about how to be a lawyer than theyll learn in the three years they
spend in law school, said Kevin Cox, partner with Glankler Brown PLLC. The
real experience teaches them a lot more and allows them to apply some of the
theories they learn or hear about in class.
Sue Hunter, who coordinates the summer programs at all Baker
Donelson offices, said similar programs in other professions cant compare to those
in the legal field.
It really is the best try-before-you-hire program in the
world, she said. You get access to them for six weeks and sometimes even
longer. Anybody can show their good side in an interview.
Busy work. One
complaint heard by some summer associates is that firms dont give them enough
Fisher is familiar with that complaint. She voiced it not
too long ago.
In all of my summer associate work, they would come to me
with a question that I would answer, Fisher said. I did all of the WestLaw legal research and prepared a memo with the answer.
That was all I did.
She would have preferred some client interaction, and maybe to
see the inside of a courtroom.
As a recent participant in summer associate programs, I
would encourage firms to offer a more well-rounded experience, she said.
Obviously, a lot of what a young lawyer does is research and writing, and I
know thats important. But take the law students to court. Take them to depositions, let them work with different attorneys all over
I got stuck with a mentor who was a transactional attorney
and I never saw the inside of a courtroom.
Cox said its important to give summer associates work they
can expect to see when working at the firm, even if it
seems like tedious work. Its a way to gauge how they handle situations.
We try to make the program as real-life as possible, he
said. Their duties and roles here during the summer are very similar to that
of a first- and second-year lawyer.
Real-life experience. Keeping
summer associate programs meaningful is a challenge for most firms. The most
important goal, said Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC partner Susan Clark, who heads
up the firms summer program, is to make it a realistic experience.
Law school, like many professional schools, does not
prepare one to walk in the door and be a lawyer, she said. So much of what
the students tell me they get out of clerking is they see the practical
application of what theyre learning in school.
Summer programs also offer an opportunity to explore other
avenues previously not thought of as a career option.
Many, many people think they want to do litigation, but
theyll come in and do a business project for the first time ever and say,
Well that was kind of interesting. I like that, Clark said. Or theyll take
an employment law issue and theyve never thought about employment law before
and they find it really interesting. So they go back the next year and take an
employment law class.
Its the most valuable experience that the student can have
in the summer.
Helpful in hiring. Summer
associate programs are similar to internship programs in other fields that give
students practical experience.
But beyond the living classroom concept, summer associate
programs serve as a vital hiring tool.
We have generally tried to hire from our summer associate
pool, Cox said. Historically, we would make offers to typically 50 to 75
percent of our employment pool.
Since firms tend to look to summer associates first, its
important to make sure the right people are brought in.
We think (the summer program) is important because we get
to spend time with the clerks, we get to see their work product, we get to know
them and get to know their work ethic, Clark said. And its difficult to
judge if you havent worked with someone.
Getting the right fit. Part
of that job interview for both the student and the firm involves the social
aspect. Firms often schedule after-hours events, such as golf outings and baseball
games, to get to know the people they could eventually hire.
We have almost 60 lawyers here, and the chance of one
person getting to work with everybody obviously is not a possibility, Cox
said. Its not so much like fraternity or sorority rush
as much as it is just trying to get the opportunity to mingle a little bit.
That summertime mingling can be more useful than even
several short interviews.
Its an opportunity for them to come in and look at us and
us to look at them, Cox said. Having the opportunity for both of us to spend
half a summer together goes a lot further than a few two-hour interviews.