Big Ideas ALA President’s Letter

Don’t Look Back — You Aren’t Going That Way

You know that old saying, “don’t look back, you’re not going that way”? It’s taken from an anonymous poem. If I had a dollar for every time I have read it, heard it or said it, I would no longer be in legal management. If you Google the quote you will find over 3 billion (yes, that is a B) results. You can find this message on everything from keychains to pillows to book titles to Bob Dylan documentaries. It’s a mantra — a message, a forecast.

Debra L. Elsbury, CLM

That’s not to say we don’t look back. We revisit and question and wonder if we have done, said or provided the “right” things. It is a habit that we have developed over the years — it is so easy to look back and judge. And looking back isn’t always a terrible thing. (You would be a terrible driver without a rearview mirror, after all.) If we don’t look back and reflect, we would be unable to gauge how much we’ve grown.

The experiences of the past year with a pandemic and social injustice made us participants in this thing called life, allowing us take the time to reflect. It is a great time for exponential personal and professional growth — if we are not stuck looking backward. It has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink and reframe, but I’d like for us all to pause and ask ourselves: Are we answering the call?

Would you have believed a year ago that you could have managed your legal organization through a pandemic that made the world stand still? I am guessing the answer is a hard no. But look at what our members and profession have stepped up and done. We have learned that we can move through obstacles and challenges with grace and wisdom. We learned just how much we can rely on one another to assist us in being our best.

“But look at what our members and profession have stepped up and done. We have learned that we can move through obstacles and challenges with grace and wisdom.” 

As I come to the end of my presidential year, I fight the urge to armchair quarterback. I feel the need to redo, reorder and reprioritize. But as is the case with each of us, we make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time. However, I am reminded that we can change through our choices going forward, or we can rinse and repeat. We can judge and rank our actions in the past, or we can choose to reflect and improve.

It has been my pleasure to serve as your President this past year. I have missed seeing your faces outside of my 2-by-2 square on my computer monitor, but I am still grateful for the ability to “see” so many of you. I managed to work my day job in Indianapolis and attend a conference in California all in the same day. I was able to attend educational opportunities in my leggings with messy hair. I attended a holiday play in Jacksonville at lunch and went to my husband’s local basketball game that evening. I had dinner with my family and attended a wine tasting in Chicago all within an hour. I talked in Boise during the day and still drove home in the evening. I dropped in on so many chapters and connected with members I might not have had the opportunity to meet. So many more opportunities were afforded me because of the pandemic — or maybe in spite of it!

I have had the opportunity to work with some of the best people in this Association. I am in awe of our Board of Directors, with their great minds and servant leadership attitudes. I have been amazed by our staff and their ability to pivot when plans did not go our way. I am thrilled with the business partners who have stood by us in a less than optimal year.

As the Association is headed into a new strategic plan and new leadership is at the ready, I am excited about the future — the future of this Association, the future of the legal profession and the future of each of you.

So don’t look back: reflect. You aren’t going that way — you are going forward! While rearview mirrors do serve an important purpose, and you should always drive forward with them in mind.

HR Feature Human Resources Management

The State of the Summer Experience

Unprecedented workplace changes affected summer associate programs nationwide last year. Find out how the industry reacted — and what this year’s efforts may look like.

For law school students, law firms’ summer associate programs essentially act as an extensive, detailed job interview — offering students real-world experience and both parties a chance to gauge if they’d be a good fit for each other.

Erin Brereton

Last spring, however, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded and offices transitioned to working remotely, a number of firms had to adjust, pause or otherwise alter their summer program.

“[The response] was all over the map because law firms were scrambling to figure out if they could even still have a program,” says Emily Neuhauser, Executive Recruiter at Parker + Lynch Legal, the attorney recruiting division of Special Counsel. “Some canceled them entirely, some firms were still comfortable having them in-person, and some had them virtually.”

Last year, Florida business law firm Berger Singerman pushed its summer program start date back slightly and let the two participants choose whether they’d work remotely or on site, according to Partner Stephanie Chaissan, who runs the firm’s summer associate program, where social distancing, mask and other guidelines were in place.

“Around the time they joined us, a handful of people were going into the office, but the vast majority of attorneys and support staff were working remotely,” Chaissan says. “We said, ‘This is a global health pandemic; we’re treating you the same way as the rest of our team members — if you want to, work in the office; if not, work from home. Whatever makes you more comfortable.’”

Although the summer associates occasionally worked remotely, she says, they primarily wanted to be in the office. The firm, which usually tries to recruit younger associates and team leaders to take summers out to lunch and coffee and to walk them around to meet everybody, scheduled Zoom and Microsoft Teams calls to introduce its summer hires to firm members who were working from home.

“They did meet-and-greets with everyone from main partners and team leaders to the paralegals and computer services people,” Chaissan says. “We wanted to them to connect the way they would have, had they been in the office seeing these people.”


New York- and New Jersey-based Rivkin Radler — which typically hosts three second-year students and three or four first-year students — brought on a slightly smaller summer associate group in 2020. It consisted of three second-year and two first-year law school students.

The 200-attorney firm’s summer program typically lasts 10 weeks. Rivkin Radler instead offered a fully virtual five-week program in 2020, according to Tracey McIntyre, Director of Legal Talent.

“We just weren’t sure how a virtual program would go, how busy the firm would be and what effects the pandemic would have on our firm,” McIntyre says. “We erred on the side of caution, and in hindsight, a longer program would have been fine.”

“We’re also seeing firms continue to do social events over Zoom so people have an opportunity to really get to know their colleagues. Tours and setting up outside social interactions can possibly help firms get over the virtual hump.”

The biggest difference from previous years, McIntyre says, was that summer associates weren’t able to walk the floors and meet some of the attorneys they weren’t directly working with.

“Under normal circumstances, additional assignments and experience can come from these impromptu discussions,” McIntyre says.

To help provide a robust summer experience, the firm offered a number of activities, including skills trainings, coffee talks with equity partners and “what we do”-type programs, in which firm members discussed their practice areas, the types of matters they handle and what kind of clients each works with.

Rivkin Radler also sponsored a number of Zoom-based social events, including virtual Thursday cocktail hours and a virtual scavenger hunt.

While Berger Singerman’s two summer associates got to briefly socialize with team members at the firm’s pre-pandemic 2020 holiday party — which they were invited to after being offered the position in 2019 — the firm’s monthly happy hours, birthday parties and many other of its team culture efforts had to be put on hold due to COVID-related guidelines and shutdowns.

Social events were generally limited to things like a small pizza party that remote employees were invited to attend virtually. “That was a big component of our program that was affected by the pandemic, unfortunately,” Chaissan says. “We encourage a good work-life balance. We all approach the firm as a team and a family, rather than just a workplace to go and have colleagues. It’s something we try to show all summer long because it sets us apart from [other] firms.”

Fully or hybrid remote settings can make it harder for people feel like they’re truly joining an office, according to Neuhauser. Some organizations, though, have come up with creative ways to entice new hires to their firm.

“For example, a client of mine decided to record a couple of different virtual tours of the office [as if to say], ‘If you do come here in the future, this is where you’ll be,’” Neuhauser says. “We’re also seeing firms continue to do social events over Zoom so people have an opportunity to really get to know their colleagues. Tours and setting up outside social interactions can possibly help firms get over the virtual hump.”


Having summer associate programs be partially or completely virtual has provided some unexpected advantages. With firm members working remotely, interns at Berger Singerman, for instance, were given prime seating in a partner and an associate’s office, placing them closer to Chaissan in case they had any questions.

The various communication solutions the firm had in place to facilitate collaboration may have helped showcase the firm as a tech-forward organization, Chaissan says. Seeing the way hearings, depositions and other litigation aspects were being handled virtually may have also helped prepare summer associates for any future process changes that come from the pandemic.

“Summer associates saw that we’re on top of the latest developments in the legal and legal tech industry and have taken advantage of that to make the effect of the pandemic as minimal as possible,” Chaissan says. “To the extent Zoom hearings continue after you pass the bar, you know you have a leg up because you did it for a summer.”

Rivkin Radler found the revised on-campus interview process law schools instituted due to COVID-19 helped facilitate summer candidate screening.

“[With] the time and financial advantages, virtual interviews are probably here to stay. … It has opened up the whole world to people — because if you are interviewing or working virtually, you could come from anywhere.”

“In a typical year, we interview second-year students at the end of July/beginning of August,” McIntyre says. “Due to the pandemic, the law schools pushed the on-campus interviews to late January/early February. We interviewed all candidates virtually, which made for a very fast recruiting season, as travel was not involved to bring people in the door.”


This summer, a number of firms are hoping to return to their pre-pandemic format as much as is possible. Rivkin Radler, for instance, intends to include one more first-year student than last year and, as of mid-March, was planning to have its summer associates start out working virtually in June.

If the firm’s return-to-office committee decides it’s safe for all employees to begin working on site again during the six-week summer program, the associates would transition to coming into the office.

“A lot of firms are having associate programs this year,” Neuhauser says. “We’ve seen some have already called it off for the same reasons; we’re also seeing an interviewing process that’s totally different because people couldn’t meet in person as freely.”

Candidates, Neuhauser says, may actually find the new interview system advantageous, since the age group grew up with significant exposure to technology and should be comfortable using the tools involved in both interviewing and working remotely.

Firms and in-house departments, too, can benefit from using virtual summer associate program elements on an ongoing basis — saving firm members from having to take time out of their day to trek to a campus for an in-person conversation and enabling organizations to look for candidates outside their traditional market, Neuhauser says.

“[With] the time and financial advantages, virtual interviews are probably here to stay,” Neuhauser says. “In the past, a lot focused on local schools in your market. We might see some changes in where people are coming from or where they’re sitting in the future. It has opened up the whole world to people — because if you are interviewing or working virtually, you could come from anywhere.”