Preparing for Your Summer Internship – Professionalism Dos and Don'ts

By Alison Monahan

Working at a summer internship is an important step in your legal career: it’s a chance to gain experience, expose yourself to different practice areas, see how a real law office operates, and, potentially, set yourself up for a post-graduation job offer. You will start to build your reputation and resume at your summer job, so making a good impression is key.

To have a successful summer internships experience, it’s important to be aware that your employers aren’t only evaluating your substantive knowledge of the law, but also your ability to act like a professional. If you behave like a professional at your summer internship, you’ll demonstrate that you have the potential to be a responsible, competent lawyer, which is ultimately what employers want to see.

To help you make a good impression at your summer internship, here are a few professionalism Dos and Don’ts to keep in mind:


DO Dress the Part.

Part of being a professional includes looking like a professional. It may seem unfair, but people will make assumptions regarding the quality of your work based on your outward appearance. Presenting yourself as a professional doesn’t mean you need to wear expensive clothes or designer brands, but it does mean you should look clean, appropriate, and put together. 


DON’T Take Support Staff for Granted.

A true professional is always polite, considerate, and appreciative of support staff, whether it be a paralegal at your office or a docket clerk at the courthouse. Colleagues will notice – or at least hear – if you are rude or ungrateful. What’s more, support staff are often incredibly helpful and knowledgeable about their area of work, so it pays to be on their good side, especially when you’re just learning the ropes as an intern.


DO Communicate Appropriately.

Effective, refined communication skills will set you apart from other students and give employers confidence that you can handle important tasks. Of course, it’s absolutely essential that any written work you produce be polished, proofread, and properly formatted. But it’s also important to communicate professionally in more casual conversations. Avoid emoticons, acronyms, or cuteness in email exchanges and use proper grammar when speaking. It’s also best to avoid obscenities, gossip, delicate personal issues, or other topics of conversation that may not be office appropriate.


DON’T Forget Your Manners.

Having good manners and being a considerate officemate doesn’t take much effort, but it can make a big impression on those around you. Remember to follow the basics rules of etiquette at your summer internship: say please and thank you when appropriate, stand up and shake hands when introduced to someone, say hello to colleagues in the hallway, and so on. It’s also important to do your part to promote a peaceful and productive environment at the office, which means closing the door when you’re on a loud conference call, cleaning up common areas, or letting the right person know when the office supplies are running low. Lastly, professional etiquette demands that you show up on time (or better yet, early), whether to a meeting, hearing, or just to start the day.


DO Put Your Phone Away.

You’re there to work, not check social media. If another lawyer constantly sees you on your phone when passing by your office, they’re going to wonder how much you’re actually working and why you seem to have so much free time. Just put your phone away – in a bag, in a drawer, anywhere other than on your desk where it is easily accessible. If you have to check your phone or make a call, close your door or step outside briefly. Putting your phone down during the work day is a great habit to start cultivating; not only will it prevent awkward moments where your boss catches you texting, but it will also make you more productive.


DON’T Undervalue the Social Events.

If your summer internship includes social events, firm lunches, or mixers, you should definitely make an effort to attend. These events are a chance for you get to know the firm culture and make connections with the attorneys. But remember, even though these events are taking place outside the office, you’re still being evaluated. An embarrassing episode or a few too many drinks at a firm function may haunt you for a long time. It’s perfectly acceptable to socialize and have fun, but you still need to be on your best behavior.


DO Make the Work the Focus.

Ultimately, the most important aspect of professionalism isn’t about what you say or how you dress, but about your attitude and work ethic. A professional is always striving to do a little better, work a little hard, and produce their best work. Make sure you show your summer employers that you’re eager to learn and willing to work hard. Ask questions, volunteer for assignments, come in early and stay late. Keep the focus on the work and you’ll earn respect.

Professionalism will not only help you have a successful internship, but it will also serve you well throughout your career. Make a consistent effort to produce your best work while still being considerate of others, and you will be on your way to building reputation as a professional.


You might also like:

Strategic Planning For Your Summer Internship

3 Easy Steps Toward Achieving Your Career Goals

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How to Answer Really Tough Interview Questions


Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl’s Guide to Law School®, which is a leading resource for women (and some men) embarking on a legal career. Alison is also a co-founder of the Law School Toolbox® and Bar Exam Toolbox® which provide free resources, tutoring and a variety of courses and tools to help law students and bar exam takers succeed with less stress and anxiety.