Reflections on a Virtual Summer

Image by RAEng_Publications from Pixabay

By Sandra Yamate

I’ve had summer interns come and go. I try to stay in touch with most of them with varying degrees of success. Certainly, it has been easier to remain in contact with those who ultimately did decide to pursue a career in the legal profession.

But this summer was radically different. A year ago, I had the most tentative of experience with Zoom or any other web conferencing platforms. Now, I jump between Zoom and Ring Central, WebEx and Teams, with little thought other than to wonder why I think I look better via Zoom while my image on WebEx is decidedly unflattering. Same camera, same computer, . . . well, that’s one of the mysteries of life to ponder on another day.

This summer, I was privileged to work with two extraordinary interns. Hannah is a rising junior at Northwestern. Eleanor is starting her 2L year at the University of Chicago Law School. I find it odd to realize that I have never met them in person. I couldn’t tell you how tall they are, or if they are vegans, if they walk fast or slow, and I might not even recognize them from a distance if I were to see them walking down a street. Nevertheless, as their internships come to an end, I find myself feeling a bit blue, in a way that didn’t happen with their in-person predecessors.

With each of them, their interactions with me consisted primarily of exchanging emails and weekly video check-ins that rarely lasted more than 15 or 20 minutes. Their work was undertaken almost entirely independently. Hannah, who is considering law school as one possibility in her future, spent the summer conducting video interviews of current law students and writing about what these students think and how they view this profession of ours with its lack of diversity amidst pandemic-related disruptions and social reckoning of racial disparities. Eleanor spent her summer learning about how lawyers in the law firm she at which she was supposed to be a summer associate were viewing this “new normal” and what they wanted and thought possible for a “virtual summer associate” to glean without ever setting foot in the office or enjoying all the accoutrements that are typically part of the big law firm summer associate experience. 

But both interns really rose to the challenge of a virtual summer. Their work was excellent. They never missed a deadline. Certainly, they were better, more nimble, and more comfortable with video meetings than I was. Maybe, not having ever had an in-person internship didn’t make the experience seem so far outside the norm for them. It was the norm. 

For me, there was a happy realization that despite never having had a chance to meet in-person, it’s possible to build a relationship, mentor, and become friends across a generational divide – all virtually. It reinforced the fact that working remotely, flexibly, and independently does indeed work, although it might feel more awkward and clumsy for those of us still coming to terms with integrating the use of so much technology beyond emails, texts, and Facebook/LinkedIn into our daily lives. And, it opened my eyes to new or more effective ways of communicating with virtual interns, thinking about the delegation of assignments to them, and doing things that could indirectly impact upon them and their work.

So, as I reflect upon how and why a virtual summer worked, and where it could be improved upon, I offer these points for anyone else who may find themselves in these uncharted waters with new associates, part-time interns, or even (hopefully not!) full-time summer interns and summer associates next year.

  • Regularly scheduled virtual meetings via Zoom or another platform are essential. They may feel awkward at first and there are bound to be occasional glitches, especially when you or the intern find yourselves someplace where WiFi is spotty or just less reliable. These meetings needn’t be long, but they do need to be regular.
  • Be prepared to offer some social niceties at the outset that will help you get to know your intern or summer associate. Again, this needn’t be long and can range from commentary about the weather to apologies for your barking dog. Be prepared to offer some insights into your life, too. You can mention that you tried a new recipe for dinner or that you’ve taken up a musical instrument or a book you’re reading. This helps humanize you and can allow the intern or summer associate to feel a bit more comfortable with you.
  • Approach each meeting with an agenda in mind. Whether your intern or summer associate is working on a single matter for you or several, have an agenda for the meeting, even if it is not so formal as to be written down. Be conscious of the questions you want answered about how the work is being performed or progress on the project. 
  • Be detailed about the assignment you are asking the intern or summer associate to undertake. Explain to them what it is you are asking them to do, the underlying purpose or rationale for the assignment, how it fits into the bigger case or deal or project, and what it is you hope they learn from doing this work. The more information you can provide, including the fact that you may not know the answers and that you are hoping they can provide them, helps them to tackle the assignment with more confidence because they can bring to bear their own common sense and logic and reasoning abilities.
  • Follow up with an equally detailed email or other written description of the assignment so that they have something to which they can consult, if such a need arises.
  • Encourage them to ask questions and when they do, via email or a text or telephone call, answer as promptly as you can, even if it is to simply tell them you’re swamped but will get back to them – and tell them when they might expect to hear from you.
  • Afterwards, give them prompt feedback. It needn’t be immediate but don’t allow days to pass before you acknowledge receipt of an assignment and provide some idea of how well or not you think they did.

Reading these, you might say, that this is nothing new. Indeed, except for the fact that it is taking place online, there’s little difference from working with an intern or summer associate in person. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Whether virtual or in-person, these students still need the same clarity about their assignments, adequate opportunities to interact with and learn from us, and feedback. Working with interns and summer associates virtually isn’t an obstacle unless we decide to make it one. I had two outstanding interns this summer. That it was a virtual summer didn’t matter.