1) Be professional
This point was heavily emphasized. “Don’t forget that you are at work,” says Natalie Zinman, director of student programs at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP’s Toronto office. “Students should always maintain professionalism, even if they’re out in a social context.”
On that note, don’t drink an excessive amount of alcohol at firm events! (I think that one goes without saying.)
To ensure a smooth integration, observe the way people behave within the firm’s environment. Are people casual or formal? What’s the dress code? Do lawyers expect you to respond to them by e-mail, phone, or in person?
It’s also a good idea to stay away from office gossip and politics.
2) Communicate effectively
“Always make sure that you are professional in your e-mail communications, no LOLs, smiley faces, [or] hey,” says Zinman.
Introduce yourself to the lawyers at the firm and consider coming up with a two-minute pitch. “A lot of students sometimes tend to be a bit nervous and feel like they might not be able to tell people who they are, but I think it’s a great way to make a first impression,” she says.
3) Be a team player
Treat people with respect and co-operate with your colleagues, it will make for a better working environment. Acknowledge others’ contributions and treat everyone equally; don’t treat the staff differently from the lawyers.
Being friendly and open will help you establish better relationships with co-workers.
4) Be engaged
Attend work events. It’s a great way to build your internal network and profile at the firm, and if the lawyers get to know you, they’ll keep you in mind for work opportunities. Try to work for as many lawyers as possible to gain exposure to a broad range of practice areas and styles.
5) Be proactive
Seek out work opportunities. “We’re looking for students who have potential for great leadership and those who have initiative,” says Gail Wong, Ontario director of student programs at McCarthy Tétrault LLP. Steer your own career by looking for work that interests you.
Take advantage of any opportunities to watch proceedings, attend a discovery, or participate in a closing.
“You learn a lot by watching experienced practitioners do those things well,” says Zinman. “It models good practice skills, it gives you a great understanding of the process, and it can add a lot of context to the work that you may have done for that professional in preparation for that discovery, proceeding, motion, or closing.”
6) Use your resources
Learn about the resources that the firm has to offer and take advantage of them. Use the library and its assistants, talk to lawyers about their career paths, etc.
“It’s always helpful to learn from others in terms of what their paths were and how they ended up practising in the area that they did,” says Zinman.
Utilize your mentor. Check in with them every so often, reach out to them, offer to take them out for coffee, schedule an appointment, etc. Don’t rely on your mentor to chase you; you should be proactive in the relationship.
7) Be thorough
Focus on the quality of your work and ensure you do the assigned task well. Provide the lawyer with regular updates and come prepared to meetings. Treat the lawyer as your client; this will also build client development and practice management skills. And always proofread your work!
8) Don’t miss deadlines
Along with being thorough, you also need to be realistic about your workload.
“Don’t take on more work than you can do in the time promised. Every student has this happen to them at the beginning because they’re very keen and very eager to get the work done and to take on the work,” says Zinman.
However, asking for an extension or submitting incomplete work won’t make a good impression. It’s OK to turn down work if you can’t handle it.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s always better to clarify what is being asked of you and it shows the lawyer that you’re actively thinking about your assignment and striving to do a good job.
The sooner the better — as soon as you realize you can’t meet a deadline, you need to inform the lawyer. It’s a good idea to engage in an ongoing dialogue with the lawyer from the outset about managing expectations so that nothing is left to the last minute.
9) Be feedback friendly
To all you high achievers, this point is for you! It can be challenging for lawyers to provide constructive criticism if you are easily offended and get defensive. Make it easier for them by being open and accepting of their feedback.
“[Law students] are all high achievers, and the challenge with high achievers is that they often take it very personally and it can be difficult to stomach,” says Wong. “Don’t take it personally, it’s about your professional development.”
Also, take ownership of your mistakes. Students are often anxious about making errors, but if you’re honest about it and work with the lawyer to solve the problem, it will look better on you.
10) Be excited
Demonstrate interest and engagement in all work opportunities. Wong says this is especially important for work that isn’t so glamorous. “The less exciting tasks can often lead to more substantive work,” she says.
Make an effort to outwardly express your excitement. Take notes, acknowledge, smile, nod, ask questions, etc.
“Interest and engagement is perceived differently by different people and there are students who feel internally that they’re interested and engaged, but they’re not necessarily demonstrating it in a way that we would expect in a legal work environment,” says Wong.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone.
“For a lot of students, this is oftentimes their real first professional work experience, and I recognize that it can be very overwhelming,” says Zinman. “But firms will work very hard to make sure that they have good resources to support them and students shouldn’t be afraid to use those resources.”
Your law school will also likely host workshops and seminars throughout the school year to help you prepare.
“That period of transition from law school to working in a law firm environment is a really critical time,” says Wong. But, she points out, your firm’s student committee is there to help you.