If you are reading this blog post, chances are that you are probably a law student considering applying to be a summer associate. Before starting at WilmerHale this summer, one of the biggest questions on my mind was: What knowledge and/or skills do they expect me to possess coming into this job? So, I thought it might be helpful to write a post about the three skillsets I have relied upon the most heavily this summer, as well as what you could do during the school year to work on those areas.
As you may have heard, substantive legal knowledge of a particular area is generally less important than your ability to analyze a problem and communicate it to others. Sure, the environmental law survey class that I took 2L year has been helpful to my work on environmental matters. But while general background is beneficial, every one of my assignments has required that I tackle an issue, statute or set of facts that was novel to me.
The skills I have found the most essential this summer have been:
Legal Research and Writing
What your professors told you is true: legal research and writing are the most important skills for an aspiring lawyer to possess. Most of my days this summer have been spent researching on Westlaw and turning that research into some sort of written work product for a supervising attorney. I consider myself to be a pretty capable legal researcher, but I worried at the beginning of the summer when some research tasks took me longer than the assigning attorney thought they would. I eventually took comfort in repeated assurances that I was doing fine and the fact that I was consistently meeting deadlines. Even so, when I return to school for my 3L year, I plan to take advantage of any opportunity I can find to improve my research skills. Such opportunities will probably include the free training sessions that Westlaw and Lexis offer on campus along with programming offered by the law school's research librarians.
The thing I have found most challenging about legal writing in a law firm is the need for brevity. When writing for busy people, it's important to concisely state your conclusions. This is a skill I plan to keep practicing. And that's all I'm going to say about that (see, brevity).
Unsurprisingly, work as a summer associate involves a significant amount of talking about the law. You will need to verbally update your supervisors and case teams on your research. You might get put on the spot to speak during a conference call or (in a much less likely event) in a meeting with a client. For many of us who are new to the language of the law, it takes practice to speak intelligently in these kinds of situations. And if you're anything like me, you have spent more of your law school career getting comfortable writing about the law than talking about it. So embrace any opportunity you get to practice. This could include speaking up in class, group study sessions or work in journals or student organizations.
You will almost certainly be doing most of your work in a law firm as a member of a team. As a summer associate, I've enjoyed working on teams with experienced lawyers. It's a great way to learn, sharpen your skills and get to know people in the office. But teamwork also requires communication and cooperation. If you are planning to work for a law firm and are also the kind of person who generally prefers to work alone, you may need to make some adjustments. Student organizations and classes with group work are a couple of ways to work on these skills during the school year.