What Makes For a Good Summer Associate Program?

Ah, the life of a summer associate: the happy hours, the two-hour lunches, the lack of any significant responsibility.  It’s not hard to like being a summer associate, and many big law firms do a very good job running successful summer associate programs.  Most are so successful in fact that very few summer associates turn down their offers to return, even though they know that returning means signing up for an experience mostly lacking in free lunches in which they’ll be expected to perform actual work while billing as many hours in a week as they did in a month as a summer.  Given the well-documented drudgery (and at times misery) that being a junior associate involves, firms go to great lengths to entice their chosen few to return.

So what should a firm do to ensure that their summer program lures its hires back?  Is a summer program made great by lunches at three Michelin star restaurants, parties at MOMA, or hiking trips through the Canadian Rockies?  Well, yes.  But these experiences aren’t only valuable because they are enjoyable (though they are), but rather because having them sends the message that summer associates are valued as future members of the firm.  Whether a firm convincingly conveys the sense that the firm respects the summers and hopes that they will begin their career at the firm is one hugely important aspect of a truly successful summer program.

While extravagant events help, those that I found most valuable during my summer weren’t necessarily the fanciest but rather those that offered the opportunity for genuine conversations with attorneys, and in particular the partners.  Gestures on the part of partners that made it clear they were interested in ensuring that I had a positive experience at the firm were always well received, whether these were lunch invitations or offers to chat about a case or deal and answer any questions I had.  I know that as a junior associate my experience working directly with partners will likely be limited and I may not feel comfortable strolling into a senior partner’s office to discuss a few aspects of a deal I found confusing, and so I appreciated having the chance to develop relationship with partners during the summer program when this sort of interaction is encouraged.  One of the great things about being a summer associate is knowing that the partners are attempting to sell you on the firm, just as you are trying to sell yourself.  Their desire to have you return creates a unique opportunity to ask questions and have candid discussions that will likely be more difficult when you become a first-year and the partners once again take their place firmly in the driver’s seat.

Although social events are a large part of a summer program, the importance of the work can also not be overlooked.  When assigning attorneys took the time to provide the context involved in an assignment and made an effort to involve me in more than just the memo or agreement I was asked to work on, the experience ended up being much more interesting and more educational.  I ended working quite a bit over the summer, including a few late nights and a weekend, and though there were evenings when I wished I could escape the office a little earlier, it was nice to be able to get more involved in the projects in a way that’s difficult if you’re not asked to put in significant time.  I felt as though the firm did not attempt to hide the fact that attorneys there work long hours and are asked to live up to high expectations, and I was grateful because this allowed me to make an informed decision whether to return.  While the fancy lunches and social events are a great, and important, part of the summer experience, what is more important is developing a sense of whether you will be happy beginning your career at the firm, and both the social environment as well as the work are both crucial to figuring this out.

The author is an anonymous Harvard Law student.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record.