Working in Big Law: A Summer Associate Reflection

Makenzie Way, 3L at the University of Pennsylvania Law School

Big Law

Having spent my 1L summer working for a small public interest legal aid, I was curious and excited to see how working in a big law firm would differ from my prior experience. I knew the budget would be bigger, meaning we would be “wined and dined” more often, but outside of the social aspects of the summer associate program I really wasn’t sure what to expect. After ten thrilling weeks, here’s my takeaways!

Acing the Dress Code

Many big law firms have adopted a business casual dress code alongside casual Fridays.  Regardless of the overall firm dress code, you should dress business formal for your first day on the job and for any important events (i.e. meeting the head of the firm).

As the first week comes to a close you’ll notice your fellow summer associates slowly progressing from business formal to more business casual attire. What does that look like you ask? Well, for me it was as simple as dress pants and a long sleeve dress shirt. Pro tip: keep a suit or blazer in your office as you never know when the opportunity to shadow a court session or deposition will arise; nor do you know when you’ll accidentally spill a coffee on your lap. Likewise, it’s smart to keep a professional sweater or blazer in your office for when the AC goes into overdrive – layers are a smart choice in an office!

When Friday finally rolls around don’t think casual jeans Friday means you can roll into the office in your favorite distressed jeans and comfy sweater. Casual really means business casual sans the dress pants. Pair your favorite dark wash, non-ripped jeans with a tucked in dress shirt and a casual blazer or cardigan, top the look off with dress shoes, loafers, or heels.

Interactions with Partners and Attorneys

At my firm, summer associates were paired with one partner mentor and one mid-level associate mentor. At the beginning of the work term, the bulk of my work came from those two individuals. Though technically assignments are distributed by the head of the summer program, networking is an important step in ensuring you get a wide variety of work and shadowing opportunities.

Arranging lunches or inquiring about work opportunities from junior to mid-level associates is less daunting than reaching out to a partner, but I quickly learned that partners are incredibly welcoming to summer associates! Once you reach out to one partner it’s less intimidating to connect with others.

After you’ve made a connection, don’t be afraid to ask if they have any work available or upcoming, or any shadowing opportunities. Many partners and associates, even if they have no substantive work to assign to you, will be happy to give you a mock assignment, let you sit in on a client meeting or call, or simply take you to coffee or lunch so you can get to know more about them, their practice group, and the firm.

Maneuvering the Practice Areas

Some summers, like myself, are hired into a specific practice group and spend their entire summer working within that practice group. Others choose to be general, and spend their summer ranking the available practice groups to receive work in areas that interest them most. Note, if you can’t get substantive work in a specific practice group reach out to an attorney to set up a shadowing opportunity, or mock assignment.

If you’re general, networking once again becomes an important tool for learning what practice group is right for you. Most mid-level associates that I spoke with said they chose their practice group because (1) the work was interesting to them, and (2) they enjoyed the people they met who worked in that practice group.

Regardless of whether you’re general or practice group-specific, take advantage of any interactive practice group workshops hosted during the summer. As a general summer, these interactive workshops will give you insight into what your life would be like if you chose that group. As a practice group-specific summer, the interactive workshops are a great opportunity for you to learn what the other practice groups in the firm do so you can easily refer clients down the road.

The Work and Workload

As previously mentioned, the summer is comprised of workshops, training events, substantive assignments, and shadowing opportunities. The work itself will vary according to your practice group interests.

Generally speaking, you can expect to do a few research project, so brush up on your West Law knowledge and memorize the research librarian and support numbers within your firm – they’re there for you to use. If you’re focusing on litigation there’s a chance you’ll help with e-discovery, shadowing depositions or some portion of a courtroom proceeding, and litigation prep research. Corporate folks can likewise expect to shadow a number of client calls and assist in drafting term sheets alongside general research.
Over the course of the summer, you’ll find your workload ebbs and flows. At certain times, like for instance when I was working on a collective bargaining, you might feel overwhelmed and out of necessity, put in extra hours. Two weeks later when you’ve finally submitted all your assignments you may hit a slow point where you have no work for a few days. During the slow times try to arrange networking opportunities, independently seek work and shadowing opportunities, and/or use the time to organize your files and meet with your mentors.

Overall, the summer experience was fantastic! There was a good balance between training opportunities, general firm overview events, substantive work, and socialization. Plus, I was never asked to fetch coffee for anyone – phew!