When I speak to summer associates, I always tell them they have two jobs:
- do great work and gain as many opportunities as possible within the employer’s organization, should they end up working there; and
- study the employer, lawyers and staff, and the overall culture to discern if it’s a good fit for them.
Listening will help with both of these jobs.
As far as doing great work, summer associates should start using their listening skills before the job starts. Use social media to “listen” (in the sense of monitoring) to what the employer is saying to the public. What topics seem to be interesting? Who’s writing? What tone do the lawyers use in their publications and social-media content? What personality do they project?
Summer associates should also talk to mentors about how to do a good job as a summer associate generally, and (from mentors within the organization) how to do a good job in that particular setting. Ask good questions, listen, and follow up with more good questions. Listen actively and paraphrase the advice back to the mentor sharing it. Take notes later, reflecting on the advice and assimilating it even more thoroughly. Send thoughtful follow-up messages that demonstrate listening skills and reinforce the relationships being built.
Once the job starts, listening skills are crucial during any meeting to take down an assignment. Beyond the basics like expected format and deadline, the assigning meeting offers so much more for the careful listener: the supervisor’s own baseline of knowledge in the area of law, attitude toward the case, expected answer to the assignment, expected difficulty of the assignment, general areas of confidence, and general areas of perceived risk. All of this information can be highly valuable in completing an assignment at a level beyond basic law-student competence.
“Shadowing” work such as observing a deposition or negotiation may not be a true assignment, if there is no deliverable work product. But during a shadowing experience, it seems crucial to display the highest form of attentiveness. Even if an attorney working on the case displays distracted behavior such as checking email on a phone, the summer associate should not feel free to reciprocate that behavior. Buying into the myth of reciprocity—the senior lawyer checked her phone, so it was appropriate and for the summer associate to do so as well—seems like one way to make a bad impression. What’s more important to a summer associate than the valuable opportunity to observe right in front of them? Unless they have a family crisis or already on a deadline for another supervisor within the organization and can explain that to the people around them, it seems likely that nothing is more important. On a more positive note, careful listening and good follow-up questions can actively show a person’s potential as a future lawyer.
Another opportunity to listen happens during a debrief on any assignment. This is the opportunity to accept constructive criticism gracefully, i.e. non-defensively and in a manner that makes the supervisor comfortable working with that summer associate again in the future. Another lesson is that sometimes (oftentimes?) in the legal world, feedback isn’t really helpful or specific. Or it isn’t there at all. Seeking out feedback and asking good questions show a dedication to professional development and professionalism generally.
Strong listening skills during the interview are likely part of the reason a summer associate got the job in the first place. Listening skills on the job are just as crucial, and actually even more so.
Here’s another post hitting some of these same themes and delving into more detail on listening for summer associates: https://listenlikealawyer.com/2016/06/01/listening-for-summer-associates/