As the school year ends, many of you are probably gearing up for your first summer clerkship, which might also be your first experience working in a professional work environment. For many, it is an exciting, though slightly intimidating, endeavor. Below are some tips to help ensure that you start off and continue on the right foot.
1. Treat Everyone With Respect
It’s important that you are polite and kind to everyone in the office, including the support staff. Experienced legal assistants and paralegals probably know more about the practice of law than you do at this stage and can be a valuable resource. You should also be mindful of the fact that they may share their opinion of you – good or bad – with the attorneys in the office.
You’re going to be exposed to a lot of different personalities, and while you don’t have to be BFFs with everyone, you should at least be cordial and respectful. If you are the target of any inappropriate behavior or harassment and aren’t sure who you can talk to at work about it, consider reaching out to a law school administrator for guidance.
2. Act and Dress Appropriately
This can be a source of stress for students. You may have some sense of your employer’s dress code from the interview process, but, if not, err on the side of formality. No one will fault you for being overdressed, and you can always adjust after you have a better sense of what’s appropriate. You’ll probably find that some attorneys always wear a full suit, while many others only do so if they’re going to court or a deposition. Of course, there are also some attorneys who wear jeans every day. Keep in mind that you can always just ask your employer or reach out to another student who has clerked there if you’re nervous about getting it right.
Don’t engage in any behavior that might negatively impact your reputation. I think it’s important to engage in social activities outside of work (if they’re offered) in order to get to know folks better and build stronger relationships, but don’t forget that it’s still a work function. Also, although this may seem trite, a positive attitude can go a long way. Law clerks often provide valuable, practical assistance, but the energy and enthusiasm you bring to the environment is important, too, and might be the thing that sets you apart.
3. Communication is Key
Keep your supervisor informed of your status and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Make sure you know what the deadline is for a project, and if for some reason you can’t meet it, let the attorney know as soon as possible.
- If you’re unclear about what someone is asking you to do, don’t guess! No one wants you spending hours of valuable time researching the wrong issue.
- If you make a mistake, own up to it. At this stage in your legal career, chances are pretty good that whatever it is can be fixed, but it’s important to alert your supervisor asap.
Be mindful of the fact that not everyone likes to communicate in the same way.
- Some attorneys like email (and maybe even texting), while others will prefer phone calls or in-person conversations.
- It’s best to err on the side of more formal communication methods or ask the attorney (or their assistant) what their preference is.
- Even if the mode of communication is informal (e.g. texting), remember to keep things professional.
Consider whether email is the best way to convey your message.
- Is there any chance your tone or message might be misinterpreted? If the answer is yes, don’t use email.
- Remember that it’s important to get out from behind your computer and interact with people in order to build relationships.
4. Generate Excellent Work Product
As a law student, and perhaps even for the early years of your career as an attorney, your supervisor is your “client,” so that’s how you should approach any work you are providing to them. Carefully edit and proofread. Your supervisor might ask for a “draft” and expect that they’ll need to edit it, but it should still be your best work. Assume that you are handing in a final product that will be passed on to a client or incorporated into a brief. It very well may be.
Bonus points if you develop a skill that others don’t have or earn a reputation as the “go-to” clerk in your office for a particular type of work or legal issue. Sometimes this happens naturally just by generating strong deliverables, but it can also result from being proactive and seeking out opportunities in an area that interests you.
5. Ask for Feedback (If Necessary) and Accept it Graciously
Some of you will work in an environment where the process of providing feedback is very structured, and it is given on a regular basis. Sometimes the process is less structured, but the feedback is still abundant. Unfortunately, for some of you, feedback will be nonexistent. Those in this last group will need to find a way they’re comfortable with to politely request feedback. Asking simply, “Is there anything I could have done better?” or “Do you have any suggestions for me for future reference?” is a good place to start.
For more advice on making the most of your summer clerkship, check out these great resources:
- Want to Make a Good Impression at Your Law Firm Job?
- Four Tips for Summer Law Job Success
- Are You Emotionally Intelligent? Five Skills to Show Off in Your Summer Law Job
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.