Becoming a BIG LAW Summer Associate: Preparing to Apply as a Law Student from a non-T14 School

I am excited to produce this series of articles about Big Law and how you can improve your chances of landing a summer associate position. My pathway to a Big Law summer position was anything but traditional. To be frank, I worked my a$$ off during the application process and emphasized my previous experience, and it paid off. You don’t need to have perfect grades or attend a T14 school, but the less you have, the harder it will be. I hope this motivates you to kick things up a notch; you won’t regret it, even if you don’t receive an offer.

Before we begin, I’ll make one request: formulate your own opinions about Big Law. You need to continue asking yourself if Big Law is a strong fit for you. Hint: if you are only interested in the money, it’s probably not a good fit (but no one is saying you have to do it for free). My law school—which I am extremely fond of—did not foster my interest in Big Law. Many of my professors and student colleagues maintain negative opinions about Big Law. I am grateful for their feedback though because it forced me to put extra effort into finding the right firm (more on this in a future article). I am also grateful, however, that I did not heed their advice to run away from Big Law. Serving as a Big Law summer associate was one of the most challenging, yet most rewarding, experiences that I have had in my lifetime. OK, let’s get going!

Here are a few topics that I plan on writing about in this series:

  • Preparing to apply for a Big Law summer associate position;
  • Researching firms to find the right fit;
  • The application process;
  • The post-application interview process; and
  • What to do when you receive (or don’t receive) an offer.

Big Law: this is a term used for the largest, most successful law firms in the world. The exact definition varies, but these firms ordinarily have hundreds (or thousands) of attorneys, offices around the globe, and they pay the highest salaries. Before you commit yourself to the Big Law pathway, you should know two things: (1) Big Law makes big demands of your time, energy, and ability; and (2) securing a Big Law position can be hard as hell. But Big Law may also foster one of the greatest environments you will ever enter, and you might end up appreciating the work and the people far more than you ever imagined.

What Matters Most?

Big Law can be a bit mysterious, but the skills that these firms desire are more transparent (or at least translucent). There is no perfect recipe of skills and knowledge, but focusing on the following areas will likely increase your chances of securing a summer associate position.

(A) Grades

Let’s get this one out of the way. I lost count how many times students and professors discussed the importance of grades during 1L year. Here’s the short answer: grades matter, but all hope is not lost if you aren’t a top student. To be honest, I hate questions about whether or not grades matter. If a professor or practicing attorney said that grades don’t matter, would you put less effort into your classes? If so, then you likely won’t like Big Law—where grit and hard work are prerequisites. I was ranked in the top 25% of my class when I applied for summer associate positions. My grades were good but they were not what got me through the door. There’s no need to harp on this subject, as so many do. Make this your plan: (1) work hard to get the best grades you possibly can and learn as much as possible, and (2) if you are not a top student, you will need to put extra effort in the other areas discussed below.

(B) Writing Ability

When I started law school, I knew how to craft a story and write persuasively, but I was very weak with the fundamentals of writing. I hated my English classes in high school and my undergraduate and doctorate programs did not emphasize writing. So I threw my hands up and said “I don’t do grammar” whenever we had a writing assignment in law school. No, not really. I recognized that I had work to do and I dug in. I am still not a 10/10, but I improved a great deal—and I am still improving daily. If you have a solid command of grammar and style then you are many steps ahead of the pack. I encourage you to read my comments under the “Expertise” section below; you can use your writing ability to stand out.

If you want to improve your writing ability (and learn to enjoy the process), here are a few tips and resources that I rely on to this day:

  • Book: The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
    • If you are only going to buy one aid, I would recommend this book. It is incredibly thin—a real joy for law students—and easy to sift through. It currently sells for the same price as a bag of chips but it has unmeasurable value. Buy it.
  • Book: Woe Is I, Patricia T. O’Conner
    • I love this book. The author’s humor and examples are delightful and her explanations are incredibly clear. This one currently sells for the price of one takeout lunch. If you can’t choose between today’s meal and the book, I would skip the calories—and I love food.
  • Book: Garner’s Modern English Usage, Bryan Garner
    • I would not purchase this book first, but keep it in mind. This is a desk reference; you reference it when you have questions. If you aren’t familiar with this type of book, I would compare it to a dictionary or thesarus. Bryan Garner is the MASTER and I have grown to love this reference. Whenever I have a question about word usage (e.g. who vs whom or easy for easily), I crack it open. It sits right below my monitor just waiting to correct something that I was doing incorrectly.
  • Website: Law Prose
    • This is Bryan Garner’s full website. He offers an excellent blog, online training, seminar information, and more. Once again, he is the master so I encourage you to check it out.
  • App: Grammarly
    • You have probably seen Grammarly ads somewhere online, but maybe you are resisting to check it out. If so, resist no more! I love Grammarly. My suggestion is to install the FREE web application and the Word extension. It runs in the background and makes wonderful suggestions as you work. Tip: read the suggestions before you accept a change! Remember, the point is to learn and improve. I also enjoy using the document feature on Grammarly’s website for websites that Grammarly does not work for yet (cough… Google docs… sigh).

Writing resources are abundant so the list could go on and on. I would suggest you start with some of the resources noted above. It is far better to have one book and actually read it than to have eight books that collect dust.

(C) Expertise

Attorneys at Big Law firms work with big clients and they solve big problems. Therefore, expertise is one of those qualities that can help you stand out. If you are thinking that you are “only a law student” and that you don’t have an expertise in anything, I encourage you to reconsider. You may not be the nation’s greatest [fill in the blank], but you likely have a strong background in something and you also can begin honing your expertise in a certain area. You need to lean on your background and utilize your ability to read and write to forge a pathway of expertise. True expertise requires persistence over many years, but you are likely already on your way. The following subsections repesent my thoughts on what pieces make up the expertise pie.

(1) Your Background

Law school is a new chapter in your life, but that does not mean that you should leave the previous chapters in your “book” behind. Chances are that you invested a lot of time and money to achieve your previous degree(s). In addition, you probably learned more in previous work positions than you realize. Let’s put the knowledge and skills you acquired to use! Think about the areas of law that overlap with the education you received and work you performed prior to law school. Where could you contribute to the conversation? Chances are that you did not spend years working toward your previous degree merely because it was a prerequisite to law school. It was a meaningful part of your life and the lessons learned should not be left behind. The same goes for work, even if you didn’t love your previous jobs.

Even if you want to depart from the educational track you were on, I recommend that you consider the following questions to capitalize on your previous experience:

  • Does the law overlap with the education or degree that you already acquired (the answer is almost always yes)?
    • Try Googling to find practicing attorneys that combined a J.D. and your previous degree.
  • Are you interested in these areas of law?
  • What skills did you develop at your previous institution?
  • What work experience do you have?
  • What do your friends call you for help with?
  • What areas are you most experienced in (even if you far away from being an expert)?
  • What areas are highlighted on your resume?
  • If the entire legal field suddenly ceased to exist, what job/career would you pursue?

(2) Your Joy

What brings you true joy? The legal field is so pervasive that there is undoubtedly a way that you can combine your joy and your career. In addition, learning and expertise will come more easily if you truly enjoy what you are doing. This is a great chance to consider if your background (discussed above) brings you joy. You didn’t sign a social contract stating you would never depart from your background, so don’t hesitate to embark on a new path that sparks joy.

If you are interested in exploring joy, purpose, and happiness further, here are a few resources that I have enjoyed:

  • Video: Start with Why, Simon Sinek
    • Need to get your mental juices flowing about purpose? Start with Simon Sinek’s TED Talk—It’s a gem. If you enjoy Sinek’s work and want to dig deeper, here are his two related books:
      • Start with Why
        • This book provides a background on Sinek’s theories and mission.
      • Find your Why
        • This book is an exercise type of workbook that puts Sinek’s ideas from “Start with Why” into play. I really enjoyed this exercise. Take your time and do it right if you plan on endulging.
  • Tool: Journaling
    • I’m not referring to the “dear diary” type of journaling that you may be envisioning (unless that’s what you want to do). The first thing I do each morning (after making coffee obviously) is write in my journal. I wake up with classic “monkey mind” almost every day. My brain is fueled from rest and my thoughts bounce like a pinball hitting spring devices in a pinball machine. Journaling is my way to dump my thoughts on paper and get focused for the day. I started journaling five or six years ago, and I’ve never stopped. I have become a better person in the process and it has taken my self-awareness to heights that I never imagined. If you are interested in giving it a shot, I recommend starting with Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages approach.

(3) Read. read. read.

You don’t become an expert overnight, or even over a year. The steps you take today, however, will determine where you are a decade from now. The ability to “contribute to the conversation” is critical in Big Law. Clients and partners want someone who knows the latest information and can connect the dots between questions posed and the current legal landscape. Reading textbooks, news articles, blog posts, journals, etc. is the best way to absorb trending information related to your field.

Here’s the type of content I like to read and how to get it:

  • News: Google Alerts
    • Reading news articles is a wonderful way to stay current and provide the latest advice to clients and colleagues. The process of searching and sifting for news can be time consuming and frustating though. I use Google Alerts to avoid this hastle and have relevant articles delivered right to my inbox. Shoutout to another mentor of mine that recommended this! Here’s an example: I have a daily Google Alert set up for news pertaining to “CBD and FDA.” Each day, my trusty assistant Google delivers a feed of relevant news articles to my inbox. The best part? I don’t have to peruse the “health” section of 15 different newspapers online.
  • Books and Articles: Look to the trade groups!
    • I do believe that reading books and articles about the field you are interested in is extremely beneficial. Selecting the right content, however, can be challenging. There is an overload of resources and you only have so much time to consume content. That’s why I default to trade groups for recommendations. By “trade groups” I mean leading organizations or associations that are devoted to your area of interest. For example, I am interested in FDA law (food and drug law). If I Google “food and drug law association,” the top hit is for the Food and Drug Law Institute (FDLI)—the leading food and drug law association. On FDLI’s site, I can locate excellent books, articles, and webinars. In addition, I can connect with FDLI members to learn about other valuable content sources. I recommend performing a similar Google search with your area of interest!
  • Blogs
    • Law firms and leading attorneys love to publish blog entries. This means that you have free lessons at your fingertips. Perform a Google search similar to the point above, but replace “association” with “blog.” Try to find one or two high quality blogs and read the posts religiously.
  • Social Media: Twitter and LinkedIn
    • I’m not going to go in depth on these because I could carry on forever. If used properly, these platforms have tremendous networking potential and spoonfeed excellent content to you. I recommend that you begin by following leading attorneys and law firms in your area of interest.

(4) write. write. write.

This one seems to be overlooked by students far too often. I get it, there are a lot of barriers to writing. You may be asking some of the common questions: What should I write about? When can I squeeze writing into my schedule? Where do I write? Do I share my work publicly (gasp)?! These are questions that I continue to wrestle with. My big issue with writing is vulnerability. I LOVE to teach, but publishing work publicly brings on a wave of concerns. Is my work accurate? Do I sound stupid? Is anyone going to read this? Who am I to write about this subject? I encourage you take a breath and back up a few steps. Writing is simply a tool that you can use to synthesize your understanding of a subject. When you write, you will be forced to ask yourself questions and connect mental dots. In my opinion, it is the best way to retain information and progress toward expertise. You don’t have to become the internet’s next best blogger just because you want to write about a given subject.

These are my favorite places to write:

  • Privately in Notion
    • I listed this one first simply to illustrate the point that you don’t have to publish your content publicly. The true value of writing comes from writing itself. I do enjoy the diologue that publishing work sparks, but fear of putting your work into the world should not stop you from writing period.
  • LinkedIn Articles
    • It blows my mind how few people use LinkedIn articles. The process of writing on LinkedIn is intuitive and enjoyable. Plus, when you publish an article on LinkedIn, their algorithm will love you and your article will often get a large number of views. This is also an excellent way to write in a blogger style, but without any web hosting fees.
  • Blogs
    • If you are interested in blog-style writing, I would recommend one of the following platforms:
      • WordPress;
      • Wix;
      • Squarespace; or
      • Medium.
    • The first three are web hosting sites and the fourth is similar to a social media platform for writers. FYI: each of these will come with a fee.
  • Trade Groups
    • The same trade groups that I mentioned in the subsection above often publish pieces by attorneys and students. If you are working on something that is worth sharing, I recommend that you send it to a trade group. There is a good chance they will include it on their site, in a newsletter, or in an email chain.

(D) Think Critically

One my wonderful mentors illustrated the importance of thinking critically before I began applying to law firms. When I asked her what traits or skills she valued most in summer associates, she listed critical thinking in the top two. “Critical thinking” is a phrase that often gets blurted out by people who are trying to lend career advice, but few people actually explain what they mean. My mentor put it concisely: critical thinking is simply knowing why you took a certain action or provided a certain response. She explained further that incorrect responses or analyses are not a major cause of concern—nobody knows it all. The key, however, is that you need to know why you provided that response. The real cause for concern comes when summer associates are guessing or uncooked legal suggestions. Ever since I conversed about critical thinking with my mentor, I continue to find value in her suggestion.

(E) Deep Work

The value of deep work is tremendous today. This value is exemplified in Big Law. As a summer associate and future Big Law attorney, you will be working on tremendously complex issues. Most of the clients that rely on Big Law firms have their own in-house attorneys. These in-house attorneys handle the bulk of the company’s legal matters. The attorneys at Big Law firms are often called in when the problem at hand is too complex or too large to handle in-house. Therefore, you will be working on the largest and most complex legal issues by default. You need to go deep.

Our days are flooded with distraction: email, social media, Netflix, texts, and so on. Each of these solutions and services has some inherent value, but you need to control the threat of distraction posed by each. Deep work is mentally exhausting, but it is where the magic happens. Cal Newport recommends three to four hours of deep work daily. Personal note: if you are shrugging this hourly goal as no big deal, you have no idea what true deep work is like. I’m no expert, but my yearning to learn has forced me to improve my ability to work deeply.

If you are interested in learning more about Deep Work, I recommend checking out Cal Newport’s content. I highly recommend you start with his book, Deep Work. He also offers a great podcast and blog, but once again, I would start with the book.

I hope that this content has helped you in some fashion! Big Law offers a thrilling environment that pushes you to your limits in many ways. I would love to chat with you further about Big Law or any of the topics mentioned above, so feel free to reach out with questions or comments. -Anthony

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