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VOL. 118 | NO. 102 | Thursday, June 10, 2004

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Summer associates

Class in Session at Memphis Law Firms

LANCE ALLAN

The Daily News

School is important. If it wasnt, a college degree would be worthless.

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 meaningful work.

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 the firm.

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.

 

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