Helping Summer Law Students Achieve Success in Times of COVID-19

By Paula Price

June 16, 2020

"What does a typical summer look like?" This was the first question a Bay Street-bound law student asked me. I was helping her prepare for her first law firm experience.

Thinking back to my own summer in law school, there was nothing that compares remotely to life during a pandemic. Students shoved themselves into packed elevators, gathered for lunch-and-learns around crowded boardroom tables, and helped themselves to catered lunches using the same serving spoons as everyone else. Late nights working in stuffy meeting rooms were balanced against lavish social events, including boat cruises, bowling, and picnics at partners' houses.

That's what a "typical summer" looked like at a law firm. At least, until now.

With the "typical" experience off the table, how can a law firm integrate summer students and give them the best learning experience possible? Here are some suggestions. All can be done from a distance of six feet.


Suggestion 1: Communicate Expectations About Workdays

Students working from home this summer want to know: "How do I structure my workday?" Legal professionals who have transitioned from skyscrapers to kitchen table headquarters understand that working from home presents unique challenges. Boundaries between work and home blur. Hallway chats that lead to work and build natural connections don't happen. When it comes to balancing boundaries with output, professionals with years of experience struggle, and they have the benefit of historical reference points. Students working at a law firm for the first time don't have those. Help them by providing clear guidelines.

You may think it helps students to suggest flexible hours and fluid expectations. But students need to know if lawyers expect quick responses to emails between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. They need to know if they're expected to devote a certain amount of time each day to finding work. Students look to you for structure. Provide it for them.


Suggestion 2: Be Transparent About Performance Criteria

On a related note, let students know up front if they're being evaluated based on a set of criteria, including expectations about billable hours. The need for clear expectations goes without saying in any summer, but it's particularly important this summer. I have both experienced and witnessed what happens when firms are not direct with students about what they want and expect from them. It's not ill-intended. It seems motivated by a desire to spare feelings and avoid being "scary." But students need to know when they're off course, especially now when they're not very well positioned to read between the lines. Feelings are less injured and it's a lot less "scary" when students are told about shortcomings when they still have time to fix them instead of learning at summer's end that they completely missed the mark.


Suggestion 3: Offer Guidelines for Engaging with Lawyers

Experienced lawyers can be intimidating to law students. Help students connect with lawyers by giving them rules of engagement. This summer, law students must introduce themselves virtually to lawyers in the firm. Students need to know how to do that. Students want to know if sending an email is appropriate and what it should say. They need guidance about how to initiate contact, be it through email, a phone call, or a Zoom meeting. That guidance is best when it comes from your firm.

And, if you encourage students to reach out to lawyers, please try to ensure that they'll be made to feel welcome. Talk to your firm's lawyers about what students will be doing and give them guidelines about how they can respond. Better yet, encourage your lawyers to make the first move.


Suggestion 4: Be Strategic with Virtual Meetings

Virtual meetings are a gift to professionals working from home. They can also absorb a lot of time and become exhausting. Here are a couple of ideas for your students.

  • Pace your students: Too many virtual meetings can be exhausting and they're easy to overschedule. If your firm offers a series of optional virtual meetings to students, let them know that they don't need to attend all of them. If there's an expectation that they attend a certain number, let that be known. Students will be tempted to attend meetings hoping to get noticed and appear enthusiastic. It may not be the best use of their time. Help them find a balance.
  • Have students participate in meetings: If students are invited to attend practice group meetings, assign them a role. Whether it's reporting on a recent case or summarizing a project they're working on, students will learn more and integrate better with others when they're included on the meeting agenda.


Suggestion 5: Be Deliberate About Feedback

In a virtual work arrangement, there may be fewer opportunities for organic, informal feedback. Encourage your students to ask for feedback after every assignment. Lawyers are generally busy and right now they have a whole host of novel stresses on their plates. But their feedback is invaluable to growth. Remind students to actively solicit feedback. Give them a list of sample questions to help spark ideas.


Suggestion 6: Make Your Conversations with Students Meaningful

Students want to integrate into their new firms. They want to learn as much as they can as quickly as possible. They're entering a workforce in crisis. They may share their thoughts with you. They may not. Make time to speak with them and ask them questions. Ask them about the skills they want to learn over the summer. Listen to their answers. Ask follow-up questions. You'll learn so much about them and how you can support their learning. You'll help them develop skills they'll use in the future, a future that might not be at your firm. Help set them up for success. The way you treat your students will have a big impact on their self-esteem. And don't forget to ask for their feedback. You might be surprised about what you can learn from them.


Atypical Summer

In 2020, no student will have a "typical summer." But maybe that's not such a bad thing. We're all in this together. This could be our collective chance to shift away from a student summer experience that is "typical" to one that is "extraordinary."



About the Author
Paula Price (pprice@uplevellawycoaching.com) is a lawyer coach who formerly practiced at a top tier Canadian law firm. Learn about Paula's coaching practice and summer courses for students at www.uplevellawyercoaching.com and www.uplevelcpd.com.

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