Summer Associate Series: Business Etiquette for Interns (and other Newbies)

Business Etiquette Tips for Summer Associates, Interns, and Other Newbies | CorporetteThis week, in our Summer Associate Series*: what are some of the business etiquette tips that summer associates and interns should know? Etiquette can often be one of the hardest things for schools and mentors to impart — but of course it matters, and business etiquette is something we’ve talked about a LOT through the years.  Readers already working: what are the biggest business etiquette tips you wish interns and SAs knew? Which are the biggest blunders you see (from both the guys and the gals)?  Summer associates and interns: what are your biggest areas of confusion? 

(*Name aside, we hope this series will be helpful to ANY intern, whether you’re a law student or another woman interning in a conservative office for the summer.)  Check out our previous posts on general summer associate style and what to wear for the creative summer associate events.  (Stay tuned next week when we specifically talk about dining etiquette.)  

Readers, what are some of the etiquette issues you’re seeing at your offices this summer?  (Fun question: do you chalk it up to “newbies!” or “generational divide”?)


N.B. PLEASE KEEP YOUR COMMENTS ON TOPIC; threadjacks will be deleted at our sole discretion and convenience. These substantive posts are intended to be a source of community comment on a particular topic, which readers can browse through without having to sift out a lot of unrelated comments. And so, although of course I highly value all comments by my readers, I’m going to ask you to please respect some boundaries on substantive posts like this one. Thank you for your understanding!


  1. Anne Shirley :

    Don’t refer to partners you work for as Mr. Lastname or Ms. Lastname in conversation around the firm unless they’re bizarre eccentric types and you have been told specifically to humor them. It makes you sound juvenile and out of place.

    • Lady Tetra :

      I was just coming here to say this. Even after I mentioned that our interns didn’t have to use Mr./Ms. Lastname, they still do it!

    • +1. This happens so often I’m worried it’s actually an instruction that career services offices give. It’s so odd! (Speaking specifically of people who have already been hired. It doesn’t bug me during the hiring process.)

    • Math Chick :

      Using Mr/Ms Last Name is social manners. This is OK in social settings.

      Using Bob for Bob @ work is work manners, even if Bob is 60 and you are 20. You may not want to do this socially, even once you’re not 25 any more.

      But the key thing here is that work has its own set of manners and you need to use them at work. Your social manners aren’t wrong, but they are secondary to work manners when the two are inconsistent. And if people are expensing the food, it is a work event, even if it feels social.

    • Unless you are working with military legal — they use last names in my experience.

      • Math Chick :

        or titles.

        This and anything diplomatic may have the most specialized work manners of all. Not all workplaces are the same, so be sure to pay attention!

      • Only if prefaced by rank. Civilians in JAG offices can use first names. It’s common.

    • Senior Attorney :

      OMG I can’t help sharing my favorite summer associate faux pas story (again)! This is actually a summer associate interviewee story because for reasons that will become clear, the guy was never hired.

      At my former firm, there was a Most August Elderly Partner. He would introduce himself as “Al Partner,” but it was understood that he should be addressed as “Mr. Partner” by everyone including his junior and midlevel partners.

      One day when I was a senior associate, I went on a recruiting lunch with Mr. Partner and a young summer associate candidate. The candidate failed to notice that I called Mr. Partner by his last name, and addressed him as “Alfred” throughout the lunch.

      Which would have been bad enough, if Al Partner’s full first name hadn’t been Alvin.

  2. Of Counsel :

    This mostly applies to larger firms – but don’t send out firmwide emails unless specifically told to do so by someone senior (and in that case say “at Senior Attorney’s request”). If your firm has a process for having work assigned, DON’T send out firmwide emails saying you would be happy to help with any assignments (again unless told to do so). If you don’t have work and need work, talk to your assigned contact person about how to make that happen. Maybe that will be sending out an email to your practice group or office – but at my firm that is a major faux pas that clutters inboxes, pisses off partners, and makes people think you don’t know how to take directions.

    • Yes. THIS!!! Back in 2004, there was a summer associate in my class who sent out an email to the entire office with the subject “FREE BJs DOWNSTAIRS!!!” Turns out he meant Free Ben & Jerry’s but everyone had a good laugh at his expense (and incidentally, he was the one Summer Associate that was no-offered).

    • Senior Attorney :

      And of course I would never ask anyone to send out a firmwide email… ;)

  3. Please don’t email excessively or unnecessarily. I have one intern this summer who writes me a thank you message to every group email that’s expressly just an FYI and who gives me unnecessary updates on her whereabouts / status. I believe I’ve communicated that the updates in particular are not necessary, although I’ve never said “Please stop thanking me for every stupid thing.” Also, when she submits assignments, she describes how interesting or fun or challenging she found the assignment, which I find both implausible and grating. I’m not sure I need to know her feelings about everything.

    This sounds really grumpy. If I were going to phrase things more diplomatically, I would advise externs to be thoughtful with the frequency of interruptions. (However— ALWAYS ask substantive questions if they arise!)

    • I’m not a summer but a first year, and I have a question regarding the point you just made. I submit assignments via e-mail on a regular basis to partners in different offices. Sometimes they respond with a “good job.” I usually respond with something like, “Thank you, it was a very interesting issue.” And leave it at that. Is that too much?

      • I think that’s ok whereas the intern is coming across overeager and brown-nosy – you’re (1) not proactively volunteering how great you thought the assignment was in your cover email, and (2) acknowledging praise while encouraging more work along those lines.

      • For me, yes, that’s too much, but I don’t consider what you’re doing an egregious faux pas. When you’re dealing with someone in another office, it might be more important to email more frequently, whereas I interact with my interns pretty often.

        I guess I still just don’t understand the purpose of saying that you found the issue interesting. You were assigned work you had to do regardless of how you felt toward the assignment. Also, it can sound very naive (or disingenuous) to an experienced lawyer (” THAT was interesting? She hasn’t seen much!”).

        I think a better bet is to respond by offering your services on anything further or any future assignments. It sounds bad but your supervisors are much more interested in what you can do for them than in how you’re feeling about what they’ve asked you to do.

    • you KNOW somewhere there’s a Career Services staffer who’s telling everyone to “be sure to mention how much you’re appreciating the learning opportunities you’re given to show that you’re invested in the firm and have a positive attitude about working hard!” I’d give her the benefit of the doubt on this one but agree it comes across overeager.

      New pet peeve from this summer – if I ask what you’re working on, saying “I got staffed on an asset purchase deal and so far I’ve been learning about what the schedules are supposed to include” is much better than “I’m handling an asset purchase right now” — no, no you are not.

    • Woods-comma-Elle :

      A related pet peeve is this e-mail (worst when it is ‘reply all’).

      “Dear Elle

      Thank you very much.

      Kind regards


      This kinda gets filed in the ‘eager beaver’ folder and actually, it’s nice to be polite, so I can’t be too upset about this, but it’s a bit brown-nosey and just clogging up everyone’s inboxes (especially because, most of the time, at least two out of the fifteen people copied on the chain really wish they weren’t).

      • anon for this :

        I get a lot of these. I tried with a few particularly egregious offenders writing, “No response necessary” at the end of my email – varying degree of success with this.

        I wish junior associates would rely less on email. Understand when you are working remotely or with a different office. However, my cases are pretty collaborative and face to face interaction is how I prefer to communication with my team members versus many faceless emails. And, yes I’ve made this known. I go and stop by people’s offices or tell them to come by. I never give assignments by email if I can help it. Email also lacks tone. In the example above if the person loved the assignment and thought it was so interesting, pop by and say so. We are more likely to have a natural conversation/interaction than me being annoyed by

        • Woods-comma-Elle :

          I generally agree with this and I would always pop in to see people and wish juniors would do this more. That said, I have learned my lesson about giving assignments in person and though I will always speak to the person first, with more complicated stuff in particular I tend to follow up with an e-mail because sometimes people don’t listen/things get lost in translation and there is then a written instruction the person can follow (and I can refer to when they do it wrong).

        • Clueless Intern :

          I’m always wary of just stopping by because I’m concerned I’m interrupting and it’s disrespectful of the other person’s time. If they haven’t said anything to indicate a preference for email or stopping by, should I always assume that dropping in is the safe choice, or is there an easy way to figure this out?

          • Lorelai Gilmore :

            As an intern/summer associate/junior associate, I think it’s good practice to go for a little walk around the office at least once a day. Walk past the door of someone you’re working with, see if they look like they have time. Maximize your odds of catching people in the coffee room, or on their way back from lunch. I routinely do a lap around my floor or take the long way to my office to try to encourage serendipitous in-person meetings.

            Also, just ask.

          • Woods-comma-Elle :

            Yes, ‘just ask’ is great advice. People are different – some people like the phone, hate e-mail or vice versa, so the best way is to just say to people ‘how do you like to work’. That way, you avoid all the drama.

          • Lorelai, stop fronting like you know law firms. You run the Dragonfly Inn. And Michel dresses better than you.

  4. (Formerly) Clueless Summer :

    Beware the friendly young associate! Just because we aren’t so far apart in age (maybe we’re even the same age if you took a few years off before school) does not mean I am your BFF or the guy down the hall is your bro. You don’t have to be overly formal, but you do need to be polite, respectful of my time, and understand when you’re doing work for me, we have a different relationship than when we’re having a drink together.

    • I agree with this person. When I was a first year summer intern, I tried to be freindley, yet professional. However, the male’s (not men) all thought that b/c I was freindley, that I was availeable for sexueal activity with them and they immedeately all made move’s on me thinkeing that I would be haveing sex with them. I learned right then and there NOT to be to freindley to men, especialy those that were within 10 years of my age and single, b/c they were the one’s most likeley to want to take me home for sex, and in DC, when it’s hot out, the best thing you can do is to find a place with good air condition, which is what these guy’s had at their apartement’s. Wow, did I learn NOT to go there after the first two guy’s put the move’s on me! FOOEY!

    • +1 I think this is a pretty common mistake. Junior associates are not your friends. They may be friendlier and more approachable than partners but they are evaluating you like every other attorney.

    • The other message here is: When you are socializing with “friendly young associate” outside of the office, don’t forget that you are still drinking with a firm employee who you have no reason to blindly trust, despite the outwardly friendly demeanor, and may have influence over hiring decisions (or work very hard to gain that influence by offering up things you thought you had shared in confidence, esp. if he/she doesn’t end up liking you in August). Sorry, but this is the truth.

    • AnonLawMom :

      Yes. This is a huge mistake many summers make. Sometimes the young associates are the most critical because they view the summers as future competition, so beware.

  5. Orangerie :

    Don’t put smiley faces in your emails (we have someone, who is sadly not an intern but a full-time hire, who does this and it makes me cringe every. damn. time).

    • I work with a very senior, very important person who does this, as well sends emails that say “thx” and “gr8 job!” – it makes me recoil internally every single time. Recently I got an email from this person complaining about some attorneys that forwarded their emails with the tag line, “enuf already!” and I just didn’t even know how to respond. Obviously, not everyone feels as strongly about this, but I always think it’s best to err on the side of caution and just spell things out in professional emails. I’ve yet to hear someone say their pet peeve is “people who insist on spelling a word properly.” By the same line of reasoning, don’t write LOL or the like in your work emails either (surprising, but also comes up).

      • Ohh I agree!! Text speak is not appropriate for an email ever. The only one I might be willing to give someone a pass on is “thx,” but even then only under the correct circumstances.

    • Alanna of Trebond :

      Haha, the partner I worked with sent smiley faces in emails to clients…. I think it was well-received though.

  6. All interns should read the DC Summer Intern blog to understand some big blunders…

    A couple of my favorites:
    1) Don’t assume that because you work somewhere high profile you deserve any special favors… like someone else’s cab in the rain
    2) Don’t send company-wide emails about how you’re spending your 21st birthday
    3) Learn what your company actually does and who works there…


  7. Understand when you are being “volun-told” to do something. If there is an event that multiple people from the firm are attending and you are asked to go as part of the group, say yes. You aren’t that busy and personality/social fit is super important.

  8. Don’t act entitled. Yes, you may be taken to fancy lunches, and get nice tickets to baseball games, but you are not entitled to do any of those things. Don’t complain if you haven’t eaten at the hot new spot in town, or you didn’t get to go to the game you wanted.

    And proofread. Everything. Missing punctuation = not detail oriented / doesn’t care about job = no offer.

    • Anne Shirley :

      It’s your prerogative to set hiring standards of course but I loathe this attitude. I suck at proof reading. It’s not because I don’t care about my job, it’s because no matter what steps I take, it’s a skill I haven’t been able to master. This may mean I’m not the right person for a job that requires that skill but it doesn’t mean I don’t care about that job or don’t pay attention.

      • I merely report what happened at my firm to a summer. Like it or not, law firms need attention to detail. If you miss a comma, you could cost a client millions.

        • Anne Shirley :

          I don’t disagree. But missing that comma doesn’t mean you don’t care about your job. It’s entirely possible to care a great deal and just not be very good at it. I think it’s important to distinguish “bad lawyer” from “bad person.”

          • Missing that comma means you did not ask one of the paralegals/legal assistant to look over your work before you gave me the final report. That tells me that you are not using firm resources wisely and does not show that you care about this job.

          • Diana Barry :

            IME getting paralegals or legal assistants to look it over has no impact on catching proofreading mistakes, at all.

        • I agree w/ Nancy’s firm. I don’t have room for an employee who can’t master proofreading— it’s *so* important to legal drafting and writing that not mastering it isn’t an option. I take the point that it doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t care about the job, but a lawyer who does care about the job but can’t proofread is still pretty useless to me. Perhaps there are jobs where it’s possible to always farm out the proofreading to someone else, but to me that’s practicing law with one hand tied.

          • I always tell interns that proofreading is the one thing that is more or less in their control. We all make mistakes but when you’re new and learning there are mistakes you can’t help and mistakes that – right or wrong – I view as being within your control. I expect interns to miss some substantive points, but if their drafts are filled with typos or spelling errors, I do take points off for that, mentally. At least where I am – our interns aren’t working on tight deadlines where not proofreading carefully might be excusable.

            Also, I always tell them this before they do anything and if I get not one, but several drafts where I still have to make substantial spelling and grammar corrections, I am going to ding your work for that. Not all lawyers need to do a lot of writing, but if you do, there’s just no excuse for not paying more attention to these things.

          • Woods-comma-Elle :

            I agree that not being good at proofreading doesn’t mean that you don’t care about your job, but in law at least, it is the junior associate’s job to check the detail and do the proofreading and you have to be able to rely on a junior to do a good job. It is not worth the client’s dime for a senior associate to proofread a 200-page loan agreement – that is what the juniors are for and if someone isn’t good at this, they will struggle in a law firm.

            Of course this isn’t the case in other professions, but in law it really does matter, so a poor proofreader would, ultimately, not be seen as a stellar summer/junior associate.

      • Sucks to be Anne Shirley :

        Are an intern? Good luck finding a job.

        Are you just emotional? Stop taking comments personally.

        And learn to proofread. There are several great books on it. There are classes on it. Perhaps if you took charge of your problem instead of attacking people who INADVERTENTLY mention it, you make not have to carry that chip on your shoulder around with you.

    • People can and do get fired for bad proofreading. You may not like it, but tough toenails, tbqh.

  9. I already have an example from this year’s crop of law students. Do not interrupt my phone conversation because you don’t like my language. If you’re curious, the offensive word used in the phone call was “idiot.”

    • Do you mean a law student interupted your phone call and asked you not to use the word idiot????

    • Yep. And she stood by my desk until I motioned her out.

      • I am actually very surpised that it was a woman. Did you talk to her after? I would give her a very serious talking to. Or just get rid of her if you have that power. that is truly terrible.

    • Lorelai Gilmore :

      What was her objection to the word Idiot? Did you call her an idiot? This is such bad behavior that I can’t help but think that there must be more here!

    • I think she thought she was being helpful and that somebody could be offended by my coversation.

      • Lorelai Gilmore :

        Good heavens. That is insane. I hope she doesn’t end up working in white collar, where the language is routinely way more offensive than “idiot”!

        • … sounds like an activist Tumblrina, to be honest. There’s some language one should never use in a professional setting, but c’mon. Objecting to idiot makes that person look really oversensitive and “you hurt my fee fees!”. It would be different if the woman was say, Chinese, and an offensive slur was used in conversation – then she would have the right to speak up.

          There are some people and places you will not change and as an intern, that ain’t your job. You don’t educate people on what they say, you’re there to listen. Grow a spine and realise that a wrong word will cost you a potential job. (In my case, if spastic was used, I’d speak up – my muscles are tight and they spasm hence the description, but that’s within the right context. But otherwise, I’d keep my mouth shut.)

  10. I think one earbud in the ear is fine these days, a short personal call with your mom is fine as well, but calling the young associate bro or “hey girl, hey” = inappropriate. I cannot describe the phenomenon, but young associates will always have more contact with the interns than the partners/those making hiring decisions. As such, the hiring committee will keep in contact with every young associate to ask their opinion of you. If they feel disrespected, you will get a bad report, regardless of the quality of your work.

  11. Do not call other female associates “sweetie”, even if they are junior associates. There was a summer associate who did this at my previous firm and it drove me and other female associates up the wall.

  12. Do not show up an hour and a half late on a Monday morning in your second week…and miss an important training and then shrug it off with “oh, totally spaced on that.” Remember that having an intern/summer actually creates more work for me and is pretty much never helpful. Ugh. Can you tell I’m not a fan of the crop we have this year?

  13. AnonLawMom :

    Here are a few things past summer associates have actually done to raise eyebrows:
    1) Boldly proclaim that they never plan to work from home once they start practicing.
    2) Talk about the 5 bedroom house they plan to purchase in a HCOL area when they graduate law school.
    3) Let their spouse order a round of $50 shots (each!) at an evening event.
    4)Wear turquoise skinny jeans to work.
    5) Say they are too busy to do a project and then go to a 2 hour lunch.

  14. SummerGal :

    As useful as the linked articles are, I was hoping for some new substantive content rather than a list of previous posts. I hope that doesn’t sound snarky – I love the site; there is hardly a substantive post I haven’t read!

    • SummerGal :

      I now realize that the new substantive content was likely meant to come from the comments (which have been very helpful!)

  15. Storm trooper :

    I saw a summer associate eat a french fry off of another summers plate at a group lunch during her first week. The “owner” of the fry didn’t know what to do, and it was all so awkward. Don’t eat off other peoples’ plates.

    Get assignments done on time, and if you absolutely can’t meet your deadline, let someone know as soon as you do.

    Citing another lawyer in the firm as your resource for a research topic doesn’t fly. I can’t cite to Attorney X as authority in my memo of law to the judge. Yes, this happened.

  16. No skinny jeans on the day when you are attending a (known in advance) formal business meeting with a client.

    Also no flip flops at the office. The office you work at is not formal (no suits) but it’s not that casual. Other offices might be fine with flip flops but this workplace is not.

  17. Intern, please pay attention:

    Sentences do not include “like”, “I’m like”, “was like” every 5th or 6th word.

    Find a way to express yourself without resorting to this lazy speech. You are at work, in a place of business, most likely conservative. You are college educated. I am surprised your coursework did not include any public speaking where they train you to avoid filler words such as, “um” and “uh”.

    Saying “like” 10 times a minute is not professional.

    Stop it. Find a way. Record yourself and see how many times you use that as a filler when you should be conveying your thoughts in a succinct, intelligent manner. Have a friend listen to you and clap their hands every time you say like. Whatever it takes, learn to drop the “like” habit.

  18. I would not be unhappy if the word “like” is completely deleted from English. I’m in a completely different field than most of you folks but I don’t appreciate hearing that word all the time either. Constantly saying it makes the person appear unprofessional no matter how intelligent and skilled s/he is. I think “idiot” fits in here!