This past summer, many law firms transitioned to virtual summer programs due to the coronavirus pandemic. Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP offered a five-week summer program, which included a mix of real work assignments, virtual lunches, and remote social events. Here, two Fried Frank summer associates share their experiences participating in the firm’s virtual summer program and their advice for navigating remote working.
Cassidy Schuma was a 2020 summer associate in Fried Frank’s Washington, DC, office. She is currently a 3L at UCLA School of Law and will earn her J.D. in 2021. Khalid Vrede was a 2020 summer associate in Fried Frank’s New York office. He is currently a 3L Cornell Law School and will earn his J.D. in 2021. Read on for their insights on working as virtual summer associates.
What surprised you the most (positive and/or negative) about working virtually?
Cassidy Schuma: An individual’s summer associate job is one of the most talked about experiences in law school. When you are a 1L or 2L, you listen to the 3Ls talk about being a summer associate at their firms, how much great experience they gained, and all the fun bonding events they participated in. Thus, when COVID-19 hit, and I heard from Fried Frank that we were going to a virtual, five-week program, I was extremely worried I was going to be missing out on that coveted BigLaw experience. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much experience I gained and professional connections I made even in a shortened, virtual program. Fried Frank was able to give me extremely substantive assignments that allowed me to learn about the work I would potentially be doing when I returned. Additionally, I felt I was able to truly connect and learn from the associates and partners on those assignments as they provided constant feedback, were available whenever I had questions, and truly wanted to learn more about me.
Khalid O. Vrede: I was pleasantly surprised that despite the distance between my colleagues and I, we were still able to connect in a meaningful way. This was in large part due to the wonderful summer program my firm—Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP—was able to put on. The program was complete with virtual happy hours, fun trivia nights, and impromptu lunches with colleagues. I also believe that as human beings, we have an uncanny ability to reach out and connect with each other no matter the circumstances
What strategies can you offer for meeting and connecting with attorneys and forming relationships?
Cassidy: While it sounds silly, you really are the captain of your own ship when it comes to being a summer associate. While the firm will match you with an associate and a partner mentor and create numerous events to help establish connections, it is up to you to be proactive and reach out to attorneys to begin forming relationships. Utilize your firm’s recruiter to connect you with attorneys in fields you are interested, or use your firm’s directory to find their emails. Also, reach out to learn more about the attorneys providing you assignments. They will see your work and work ethic so you should try and learn more about them as well. Never be afraid to reach out to any attorney – the worst they can say is that they are busy and can’t meet with you. If that happens, you lost nothing! You can’t gain anything, including work relationships, if you don’t put the effort in.
Khalid: Meeting and connecting with attorneys was not easy at first, but throughout my summer program I tried to make myself as available as possible. My firm was great at scheduling coffees and lunches with partners and associates, but I was sure to schedule meetings myself with people I was interested in speaking with. Even a quick phone call can go a long way in connecting with attorneys at your firm. I was surprised at how easy it was to find commonalities between myself and my colleagues. Some of us attended the same universities and law schools, lived in the same cities, or loved the same foods. My main strategy during the summer was to put myself out there and be genuine. Noting the unique circumstances of our summer program always served as a great icebreaker when meeting to someone new.
What can someone do in advance that would be helpful in preparing for the start of a virtual job (i.e., workspace, useful equipment/supplies, etc.)?
Cassidy: My biggest advice is if you are living with friends or family, let them know you are starting a virtual job and where you will be working from so that they don’t disrupt you during your work hours or invade your workspace. Moreover, try and pick one area to work from every day if your living situation allows. This will help keep you productive on long workdays in front of the computer and mimic (as best as possible) working at the office where you have one workspace.
Khalid: The first thing I did at the start of my program was to buy a second computer screen. My past experiences in the workplace had taught me that having extra screen space is an important part of staying “virtually” organized. I would recommend that someone starting a virtual job do the same if possible. Also, I would recommend buying a new set of office supplies in order to hit the ground running at the start of your job. Fried Frank’s recruitment team was very helpful in that they sent all of us summer law clerks office supplies, including pens, pencils, staplers, and sticky notes. We even got a snazzy water bottle to stay hydrated! In addition, maintain a close connection with your employer’s tech support team. The team at Fried Frank was amazing and were able to fix just about any of the tech issues that invariably came up while I was working from home. I would also recommend keeping your desk clean and making sure you have a clear suitable background for your video chatting sessions.
Any advice on how to dress for video work meetings?
Cassidy: Reach out to your supervisor to see your workplace’s dress code for virtual working. At Fried Frank, our recruiters let us know to dress business casual, but every place is different, and it is best to ask in advance.
Khalid: My advice on this topic would vary based on the situation a given person plans to dress for. Fried Frank was very accommodating when it came to its dress code given the practical limitations of a virtual summer program. My general advice would be to dress as though you were actually going into your office to work. There are two primary reasons for this advice. First, dressing for work, as opposed to wearing athletic clothes or pajamas, will ensure that when your colleagues see you, they are met with someone who looks like a professional. Second, in my opinion, putting on a nice shirt and pair of slacks can signal to your brain that you are about to start your workday. This can help you maintain productivity and sharpen the line between your home and professional life that that has become blurrier as we live through the epidemic.
How did you stay organized?
Cassidy: I kept a different colored notebook for every project I was working on in order to keep everything together and prevent confusion with overlapping projects. I also always worked in one specific spot to ensure I could get into “work mode” and not lose my focus with things going on in my house. Additionally, I also highly recommend pairing your phone’s calendar with your computer if you have the capabilities. Having everything on my phone allowed me to easily see if I forgot something or when my deadlines were when I was away from my computer.
Khalid: I was sure to keep a file cabinet near my workspace for any printed materials I accumulated over the summer. In addition, the virtual nature of my summer program meant that virtual organization was especially essential. Fried Frank included in its programing several extremely helpful informational sessions that covered various organizational topics ranging from how a summer law clerk should organize their email account to how they should structure their workspace to maximize productivity.
What strategies did you employ to help avoid video fatigue and manage looking at a screen all day? What were the expectations by your firm about work hours and accessibility?
Cassidy: I bought blue light glasses which I truly believe helped keep my computer screen induced headaches at bay! I also went on walks when I had a spare moment so that I could reset myself, feel less fatigued, and keep up a good pace at work. Fried Frank was extremely understanding about the work-from-home situation. My recruiters were always accessible when I needed them, and I always felt I could easily call them if something happened at home, and they would have my back. If I had needed to adjust my work hours due to the work-from-home environment, I believe Fried Frank would have worked with me and helped me every step of the way.
Khalid: Thankfully, Fried Frank was very accommodating in not expecting us, the summer law clerks, to be available for work 24 hours a day. Largely, we were expected to be available during the standard workday and were quite free on the weekends. In order to avoid video fatigue, I made sure to keep a hard copy book to read by my desk throughout the summer. I also made a point to go on walks and hikes with friends in my community every week.
What did you do when you had questions about an assignment; what resources did you use?
Cassidy: Whenever I had questions about an assignment, my main resource was going straight to the assigning attorney and asking to do a WebEx or phone call with them. While email is great for turning assignments in and providing updates, when it comes to questions, it is better to talk with the attorney directly that way you can ask follow up questions, if any arise.
Khalid: When I had questions about an assignment, I was always able to ask the attorney who had given me the assignment for help. Typically, several junior associates were also staffed on the same matters as I was and were thus able to give me very applicable advice about how to approach various tasks.
How did you solicit and receive feedback?
Cassidy: To be honest, I never needed to ask for feedback at Fried Frank because the attorneys who assigned me projects constantly gave me invaluable feedback without me needing to ask. After I turned in any assignment, the supervising attorney would review the project and either call, video chat, or email me his or her thoughts so that I could fix my mistakes or improve in the future. At the end of the five-week program, my mentor, recruiter, and a hiring partner went over my review with me in detail and provided me with even more feedback. Ultimately, Fried Frank was extremely proactive in regard to feedback.
Khalid: Feedback was given formally twice during our five-week summer program. Once during the middle of the program and once at the end of the program. Throughout the program, I always received helpful feedback from any attorneys who gave me assignments. I also tried to ask for feedback myself when I felt that additional comments would be helpful.
What was the most challenging thing about working virtually?
Cassidy: Personally, the most challenging thing about working virtually was trying to connect with the other summer associates. It is really important to know the individuals in your class year and feel comfortable enough to ask them silly questions once you’re a first-year associate. However, while we had a virtual group chat, lunch Webexes, and numerous virtual events created by Fried Frank, creating that real connection virtually is extremely hard. I think my summer associate class did very well given the circumstances, but we will definitely have to put more effort into bonding when we return to the firm in 2021 (hopefully) in person.
Khalid: For me, the disappointment of not being able to meet, in person, the wonderful people I interacted with throughout the program was the most challenging part of the summer. During my virtual program, I made some great connections, and I believe that, had the circumstances been different, we could have had great fun going out to eat or getting coffee and the like.
How can you add value or set yourself apart in a virtual environment?
Cassidy: How to add value: Be there for the attorneys when they need you and show initiative. When an attorney seems stressed with numerous other aspects of a project you are assigned, offer to do more if your schedule allows. If a last-minute assignment with a tight deadline arises, take it! Be there for your firm’s teams when they really need it and help them tick off the hundreds of boxes they have to do. Not only will this make them remember you, but it shows you can add tremendous value and be there when needed.
How to set yourself apart: Be yourself! It might sound cliché, but don’t let the awkwardness of a virtual environment stop you from taking yourself off mute, participating in the conversation, making professional connections, and being the same fun, awesome person you are in the real workplace.
Khalid: This question is tough to answer. A large virtual program in some ways may be easier for more gregarious, extroverted people to navigate. As someone who is much more extroverted in intimate settings, I was sure to take advantage of any small group or one-on-one video chatting sessions and ask as many questions as possible to show the people I was talking to that I was engaged and happy to be there. I believe your work product and willingness to put yourself out there and speak to new people will inevitably demonstrate the value you add to your workplace and your colleagues’ lives.