Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Tips for Summer Associates

Someone e-mailed me asking for advice about being a summer associate. I've been thinking about it, and honestly I'm not sure there's all that much legitimate advice I can give. Being a summer associate is like being anything else. If you want to make a good impression on the firm, be nice to people, do the work you're given, and don't give anyone any reason not to want you to come back after graduation. But see -- I'm not actually sure that simple advice is even right. It seems like, from my experience and from talking to friends about it, there are, roughly, two broad categories of summer associates. There are the normal people -- people who for the most part do absolutely want to make a good impression, want to get an offer, want to try out different kinds of work, want to enjoy the summer, want to meet new people, and are totally fine and normal. And then there are the crazy people, who have somehow ratcheted up the stakes in their minds and who are approaching the summer as if this is an athletic competition with one winner at the end, and they're going to do whatever it takes to be that one. I'm exaggerating a bit, but bear with me. So they'll go maniacally out of their way to introduce themselves to partners, to volunteer for work, to make the other summer associates look bad, to demonstrate that they "want it more," whatever "it" might be, to somehow stand out, to be the superstar, to refuse to acknowledge that any aspect of the summer experience isn't fantastic and unbelievable. It's a little bizarre to leave a 2-hour presentation on the compliance department's new initiatives, that by any objective measure was not the most fascinating presentation in the universe, and find that there are people who will still insist that it was more fun than Disneyland and they're so glad they got to sit through it. So here's why I'm not sure my advice is right. I would think, I would hope, I would expect that the law firms wouldn't like the crazy people any more than the rest of the summer associates like the crazy people. Surely the partners and associates are smart enough to recognize who's normal and who's insane, and surely they realize that it's a lot more pleasant to work with normal people... but... but maybe I'm wrong. Because the crazy people are probably doing more work. Because they've put so much more pressure on it, and the stakes seem so much higher. And probably their work might be better -- more tolerance for the mindless parts of the tasks, more patience for the tedious work, since in their heads everything matters so much. Less likely to flake on an assignment, to be unreliable, more likely to do whatever the partner wants without complaint, even if the meeting conflicts with the fun summer associate event, even if it's the wekeend, even if it doesn't matter. So maybe they do like the crazy ones. And maybe if you really want to make a good impression, you should be one of the crazy people, and act like it's a zero-sum game and try to knock everyone else out. Convince yourself document review is a blast. Make yourself believe that if fourteen partners don't know your name by the end of the first day, the summer will be a disaster. Don't try and make friends. You're not there to make friends. You're there to win.

Yikes. Could this actually be the right advice? Part of me fears maybe it is, but most of me still can't imagine it's really possible. What I think it's very easy to forget is that a law firm as an institution is still made up of individual people. So even if it's in the best interests of "the firm" to want crazy people, the firm is made up of actual people, and actual people recognize crazy people as crazy, and surely they must prefer normal people to crazy people, no? Unless all the people at the firm are themselves crazy, which may be a possibility. But it can't be. I mean, not everyone can be crazy, and surely in a just world the normal people would win out? Certainly I met some normal partners and associates at the firm I was at. I also met some crazy ones. But then sometimes you meet people who seem crazy, but you get to know them, and they let down their guard, and you realize that inside they're normal, but just seem crazy because that's the way you have to be at a big corporate law firm. But why? Is it all just this can't-escape-it pattern where everyone's caught in the trap of really, deep down, being normal, but feeling like in order to succeed they have to be crazy, like everyone else, but really everyone's feeling the same way and so everyone's crazy, even though the payoffs would be better if everyone could just be normal, like they all want. Hey -- it's a prisoner's dilemma!

If everyone at the firm is normal, payoff for you is, say, 10 points.
If you're normal, but everyone else is crazy, that's not good for you. 1 point.
If you're crazy but everyone else is normal, you get to stand out and become the superstar. 20 points.
But if everyone is crazy, it's miserable for everyone. 2 points.

Thus, in a 2x2 matrix, you'll be crazy, but so will everyone. So you all lose. Prisoner's dilemma. Yay!

Okay, I've gotten distracted from the task at hand and instead artificially forced the situation I was describing into a prisoner's dilemma framework. That's sad. I'm sorry about that. Gotta love game theory.

So... the original question was about advice for summer associates. Clearly from this whole discussion so far, I don't really know what the law firms want. Whether they want normal, or they want crazy. So that much, I'm not that useful. I will pass along any replies I get from people at firms who want to e-mail me their thoughts though. But what I can offer are some tips for enjoying the summer.

1. Make some friends. Part of this is outside your control. Maybe your firm sucks, and all of the other summer associates will suck besides you. But I hope not, for your sake. Hopefully not everyone at your firm will be crazy. Because if they are, I would imagine the whole summer could be really frustrating. You leave a six-hour conference call and there's no one willing to acknowledge that was boring. You find yourself in a conversation with a partner about how life is really hard when you only have three houses, and you've got no one with whom to appreciate the absurdity of that. It would suck to feel like there's no one you can ask about how to fill out the form right who you don't think is going to hold it against you and turn you in. So make some friends. Or e-mail me and I'll create a find-a-summer-associate-buddy system that can pair up normal people who aren't crazy, but who haven't found each other yet. I'm sort of kidding, but actually that would be kind of a neat service, for people stuck pretending they're crazy because they think everyone else is, but looking for someone else normal at their firm, to have a "normal registry" where the other normal people have identified themselves and people can be matched up. Nevermind. I'm taking this normal vs. crazy thing way further than it actually deserves to go.

2. Enjoy the summer events. Most firms will plan fun stuff to do. Some stuff that is fun, but a lot of stuff that should be fun, but because you have to do it with lawyers, is less fun. It's all still good for stories. One of my professors, before I started my summer job, told me to treat it like an anthropology expedition. It's a land where you may or may not want to live, but it could be cool to visit, and see how life works there. So even when events aren't fun, they can be interesting and enlightening as a people-study. Or something like that.

3. Eat. Those $60 (or $40 or $80 or whatever it is where you are) lunches at nice restaurants, admittedly, are often very good. Again, made slightly less fun since you have to eat with lawyers, but still, sometimes worth it. Take advantage. Order the appetizer. Order dessert. Order two desserts. No one will think less of you. No one cares. Eat. That's the one regret I have about not taking my law firm offer. No nice restaurants three times a week summer, paid for by someone else. It almost makes the whole thing worth it.

4. Remember they're all just people. Oh, wait, this is the advice I don't know if it's good or bad. Maybe they're not just people. Maybe they're crazy. Ignore this one.

5. The work is all do-able. Don't stress over it. I get the feeling they take care to give summer associates projects they think they'll be able to do. Relax, it'll be fine.

6. You're probably getting an offer no matter what you do, so don't worry about it.

7. Don't be crazy. For the last time, yeah, maybe this is bad advice. Maybe you'll go farther if you're crazy. Maybe they'll like you more. But if you're not going to change the industry, who is? Wouldn't you rather work with normal people than crazy people? Wouldn't it be more rewarding to be able to be normal and not have to pretend you're crazy in order to fit in? Don't let it make you crazy. It doesn't have to. I hope. For your sake.