A Review of Summer Associate Skills

by Erik Adams

CC License

Our summer associates have gone back to school, and we’re taking a few minutes to review their tenure in our law firm. Usually this involves swapping war stories about ridiculous research projects assigned by mentors, like legislative histories of code sections that can trace their lineage back to colonial times or 50 state surveys on obscure points of law. At my library, this means thinking about three specific questions, and asking if we need to do anything different next year.

First, were there any signs of clumsy or inefficient research? Thanks to websites like Westlaw Analytics, we can really dig into the search habits of our users, without having to stand over their shoulders. Generally, every other year I must have a conversation with a summer associate about how their research could have been done more quickly or efficiently. But this year my group was better behaved than previous years. I’ve written before about the problem of “Google think” and the excessive costs and wasted time it can lead to. This year we saw none of that. This may be because during our orientation we made a point of introducing associates to the concept of Google think, which seemed to resonate. But I’d like to think that law school students are getting better at doing research.

Second, did the associates make effective use of all the resources we have to offer? In other words, did they use websites other than Lexis and Westlaw? Like most large law firms, we offer a lot of subject-specific resources like Docket Navigator and RBSource and countless more. I don’t think these websites get the same exposure in law schools as Lexis and Westlaw because my summer associates always seem a little surprised to learn about them. They generally aren’t the first stop in a research project. But this year was different: in our orientation we made a point of telling our class that the firm had many resources side from Lexis and Westlaw, and that often these resources will save time and money, and make them look good. The message stuck, and we were often asked if there was some tool better suited to the research project at hand.

Third, were any of them annoying? My mother was a fifth grade teacher, and by the second week of every school year she had a pretty good idea of who the troublemakers were in her new class. Every year she would tell us stories of the latest “star” pupil, except for one when she came home and announced “No troublemakers this year; they’re a little slow, but well behaved.” Similarly, after a few weeks with our summer associates we know which ones will need extra attention and which ones will only need to hear an explanation once. This year, none of my summer associates were annoying, which was a pleasant change. And I wouldn’t describe any of them as “slow” either.

(We also talk a lot about the research projects the mentors assign. I think some of them save up obscure questions solely for the purpose of giving the summer associate a challenge.)

So, I say “good job” to those of you teaching legal research at law schools. At least for my group, things this summer went smoothly. The summer associates were willing to listen and seemed to appreciate that research isn’t a mindless task that can be overcome by brute force. Hopefully it will continue when they return with their freshly printed JDs.

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