As we roll into June and turn our focus to helping law students apply leadership skills in their summer internships and other opportunities, we reached out to Dean Martin Brinkley at UNC Law School requesting that he share some words of wisdom with all of our law students. We love what he wrote! Please share this letter with your students!
Dear Summer Law Clerk,
Before becoming dean of the University of North Carolina School of Law in 2015, I spent 22 years in private law practice at two large law firms. I met, hired, and evaluated many, many summer law clerks.
You might well think that law students, by virtue of their temporary status in the firm, are about as low on the totem pole of “power” in a law firm as it can get. That line of thinking misses the point. Seeing whether you have the capacity to be someone powerful in the future is what the firm is doing with you in the summer.
I remember from my practice days how some summer clerks seemed to grasp the dynamics and culture of the law firm naturally, while others – highly competent at law work, but emotionally clueless – blundered over the most obvious landmines. For some of you, the analytical skills your professors have helped you develop have come easily. But sensitivity to other human beings in an organization like a law firm, corporate legal department, or government agency is a different, equally important skill. Years of experience have taught me that the ability to forge ties of sympathy and shared awareness can be learned and cultivated. And even those of us who think we are “good with people” can improve at it.
Take my word for it:
- The ability to work with other people through stressful, challenging situations over the long haul is a core leadership skill in the profession of law.
- This skill has nothing in common with the analytical muscles you’ve been building up in law school.
- The ability to work with others is a leadership trait your employer is looking for, at least as much as any traditional “lawyering” skill.
Here are a couple of simple observations that apply to every workplace.
First: Work hard. Do great work. Come early and stay late – if that is what the lawyers you’re working with on a given project are doing. But otherwise, spend your time forming relationships. Be enthusiastic about the firm and its clients, but avoid looking like a gunner.
You have been offered a summer job so that your employer can assess two things about you. First, can you do the work that clients need done, at a level that will impress the clients and bind them closer to the firm over the long haul? Second, are you a good long-term “fit” for the employer’s culture, not just now but for many years to come? In short, will you wear well?
Trying too hard to impress those you are working with can signal, unintentionally, that you are needy of approval and lack confidence. Take the compliments you receive graciously, but have the humility to ask the assigning lawyer what you could have done better. Inviting criticism assures your employer that you are focused less on yourself than on doing a good job. It suggests that if hired, you will take criticism well and, thus, wear well.
Law firms, corporate legal departments, and other employers, no matter how prestigious, are not law schools. Competition for grades and short-term prizes like law review slots are not what they are there to foster. Legal employers are there to help clients to meet their goals and to offer rewarding careers to lawyers and staff. That’s it. Nothing more. Their question about you is: Can we see you as a person whom we enjoy working with? Will you contribute to our organization over time?
Second: Respect, support, and befriend non-lawyer staff members. A sure-fire way to exhibit quiet leadership in any work setting is to forge strong relationships with support staff.
Administrative assistants, IT professionals, and paralegals are the backbone of law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies. Without their skills, clients cannot be served effectively.
Partners and experienced associates in law firms, and senior lawyers in other work settings, know this intimately. Unless they are dysfunctional narcissists, they approach these vital co-workers with the greatest respect and affection. Any hiring committee worth its salt will spot the summer clerk who courts only the powerful and ignores the rest. For their part, support personnel can smell arrogance and self-regard a mile away – and will not hesitate to make their views known to the lawyers they work with. When I was in practice, I would actively seek out the views of my longtime administrative assistant on our summer clerks. She knew she had the power to blackball any clerk whose interpersonal skills did not impress her. She was never wrong.
My advice on this score:
- Make the copies yourself, after asking an administrative assistant (“AA”) how to work the machine. Put in a new ream of paper when the supply is low.
- Print your own research and work products, or at least offer to, unless the AA tells you otherwise.
- Enter your own time unless you are instructed otherwise. If you are told to give your timesheets to an AA, turn them in on a daily basis. There is nothing a good AA hates more than a lawyer who leaves all of his or her timesheets til the end of the week, much less the end of the month.
- If you have a day when you aren’t being taken to lunch by a lawyer, bring your sandwich into the staff breakroom. Show an interest in the families and lives of staff members.
- Call administrative staff by the titles preferred in the workplace you’re in (i.e., don’t call someone a “secretary” if the firm calls him or her an “administrative assistant”).
If you want to be viewed as a long-term asset to your summer employer, these suggestions should serve you well. Best of luck to you.
Martin H. Brinkley is Dean and William Rand Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law, Chapel Hill.