Aaron Baer has been practicing law for nearly a decade, but says he “had no idea what I was doing” when he got his first job at a law firm. Admitting he’s made a lot of mistakes, and realizing that most law students and summer classmates in their twenties look like him, Baer decides to create Summer Student Survival Guide.
“If you follow this, you don’t make a lot of these mistakes that would be avoidable if someone told you the rules – but they are not logical at all and therefore unavoidable,” Baer said.
The guide has just been updated for 2023 and gives a lot of general advice on how law firms work and how to work within them. Baer, a Partner and Director of Training and Development at the Toronto law firm Renno & Co, gave Law.com International some of his top tips for helping summer students succeed.
This is probably rule number 1 in the profession, Baer said. If you are good at managing expectations, people will like you and you will do a good job. This means managing the expectations of clients and my colleagues, which are often the same for summer colleagues.
He said: Make sure everyone understands if you are unable to do something, and don’t wait until the last minute to say it. Give lawyers a heads up if you don’t know what things mean. Ask if there is anywhere they recommend you look. Ask how long they expect this to take.
Most people are very reasonable. You have to give them some leeway and some warning if you can’t do something, Baer said.
Acknowledge that you are doing something
If someone asks you to do something, you have to admit that you will do it. Baer said it seems clear to him now, but it wasn’t clear to him at the time.
“As someone who works with a lot of colleagues and students, I want to get this off the ground and I want to know that it has made it onto your list, and that you will own it and be responsible for it.” Baer said. “If you don’t respond, I’ll be left in limbo, and now it’s on the list of emotional control and mental loads.”
Control what you can control
“You can’t control what you can’t control, but you can control your behavior,” Baer said. It is a “non-negotiable” that you need to be positive and open to learning new things.
Walk a fine line when asking questions
Asking lawyers individual questions over and over again probably isn’t a good idea. Group them together so you don’t repeatedly bother the attorney, Baer said. And at the same time you have to ask questions. Lawyers should not find out that you made a lot of assumptions and many of your assumptions turned out to be wrong. “This is a horrific result,” he added. “As the reviewing attorney, I’m now stuck trying to decipher what I did and wondering if you weren’t sure, why didn’t you ask me?”
Additionally, everyone communicates differently, so, early on, find out how each person prefers to work.
Schedules are much different than they are at law school
In law school, you might have weeks to finish an assignment, but right now, “I need this for tomorrow or Friday,” Baer said. “You also try to juggle a lot of different projects at once, so get in the habit of keeping track of things and have a way of making sure you don’t miss things and don’t miss deadlines. And that’s something I see a lot of students struggle with because it’s not something they do very often in law school.
Ask what kind of output you have to provide
If you are assigned an open-ended assignment, you need to ask what kind of results the attorney is looking for—memorandum, bullet points, footnotes, etc. Asking why you’re doing the research also helps you understand what needs to be done and he said, “I do a better job.”
Lawyers are busy. They don’t have unlimited time and they need answers. “The last thing I want to do is read research I’ve written when I just need to give practical advice to my clients,” Baer said.
What about the new artificial intelligence technology?
Don’t use or include any confidential information in ChatGPT and make sure you follow your company’s internal rules if they have any rules about using ChatGPT or its AI equivalent, Baer.
ChatGPT can be leveraged to help you understand issues, provide context, or help write things down, but it has been known to “hallucinate the law and citations”, so from a legal perspective, check and validate any citations you get.
Lawyers do not expect perfection but they do make their job easier
The summer fellow’s or student’s job is, in essence, to make the assigned person’s life easier. Always think about this frame of mind: How can I present this information in a way that makes their job easier? That includes being organized and being clear in your writing, which “goes a long way,” Baer said.
“If you get your work done on time, if you can manage expectations, that’s all you really have to do. Nobody expects you to be perfect or to know a lot of the law,” he said.