The Cream of the Crop, The Top of the Heap: What Are Law Firms Really Looking for in Summer Associates?

In the last of our three-part series on how law students can best position themselves for summer internships, we go straight to the lawyers and firms that interview candidates vying for those coveted positions.

If you’ve missed our first two posts—on how to make the most of your summer associate program and land a job offer, plus what to do if you didn’t get the internship you wanted—it’s never too late to check them out.

Working the late shift at a pizza parlor doesn’t tell Patrick Gill a thing about your legal skills, but it does suggest that you have the disposition to handle a mix of personalities in a variety of situations. Gill, a lawyer at a the Staver Law Group, a boutique personal-injury practice in Chicago, prefers to hire summer associates who have not just book smarts but street smarts, too.

“Our firm is very aggressive and efficient, and there an extreme amount of client-facing [work] that the clerks perform,” he said. “Extracurriculars that show an ability to talk to people, and especially to deal with frustrating people, can be beneficial.”

Real World Experience

Law firms that hire summer associates have their pick of students eager to get hands-on experience to supplement their law-school education. To make yourself a top candidate, you’ll need to present yourself as someone who can apply classroom knowledge to the sometimes-messy business of practicing law in the “real world.”

Criminal defense and divorce lawyer Todd Spodek offers what he calls a “traditional street-fighter experience” to two summer associates—selected from nearly 100 applicants—at his boutique Manhattan firm.

A typical week at the Spodek Law Group can include fielding panicked calls from clients fearing arrest, tension-filled settlement hearings, jail visits and strong emotions, so Spodek selects only those law students who display polished interpersonal skills. “For my purposes, someone who’s just book-smart or can write a comprehensive memo doesn’t do much for me,” said Spodek, who was once a summer associate himself. He conducts interviews for summer associates in a restaurant or café so he can gauge whether candidates are courteous to the wait staff and adept at social interactions.

Importance of the Interview

Lawyers who hire summer associates glean all they can during interviews. Steven Atlee, a partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in Los Angeles, expects law students to have perused the firm’s website before the interview and reviewed the profiles of its practice-group leaders. The ones who make the strongest impression show that they’ve researched key cases the firm has litigated and are familiar with major deals its attorneys have brokered.

Hungry for Knowledge

If they can articulate what they want to learn during the summer and how they can bring value to the firm, they’re one step closer to landing one of 15 summer associate spots at the 300-lawyer firm, which has offices around the country. “The numbers are pretty daunting,” said Atlee, who litigates class-action cases and was a summer associate.

Red Flags

For Gill, of the Staver Law Group, red flags in an interview include inflexibility and an unwillingness to start immediately. “We want someone who’s ready to hit the ground running and is willing to do what it takes to grow themselves and the firm,” he said.

Spodek favors candidates who craft a tailored cover letter explaining why they are interested in his law firm. He said he can spot cookie-cutter applications immediately—“I studied criminal law, I got an A and I’m on moot court”—because they’re impersonal and focus on the student’s achievements, not on why she’d be an asset to the firm.

“Street Smarts” over “Book Smarts”

Lawyers who select summer associates say they’re never looking solely for the brightest academic stars. “There’s a lot of smart people in law school,” Spodek said, but he wants only those who also have common sense, can get along with colleagues, handle anything a client throws at them and manage a blistering workload with grace and confidence.

Ready for more?

No matter where your summer takes you, we can help you with both temporary and permanent opportunities in the legal field after you graduate. Contact us today to learn more about positions at law firms, corporate legal departments or contingent work.

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