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Sybil Procedure: Summer associates’ worst lunch experiences

Ahhh, summer. Time for walking around our beautiful lakes, waiting in line at Sea Salt, and dining with summer associates. Having looked at life at both sides now (as a summer associate and law-firm attorney), I wanted to share some of my worst experiences in an effort to spare you from repeating my own missteps.

As a summer associate, I would stress out before lunching with firm members (especially partners). I hoped to make a good impression. I wanted to seem intelligent, committed and serious, but also fun and lighthearted. Accomplishing these aims without food is difficult enough, but add ordering, eating and drinking to the menu, and I perceived a lot of room for error.

My worst lunch experience occurred during my summer in Washington, D.C.  Two young (male) associates invited me to lunch. On the way, the high heel of my shoe got stuck in a metal grate on the sidewalk.  I didn’t notice for a step or too. When it occurred to me that I’d lost my shoe, I had to scurry back (with one bare foot) and use all my strength to hoist the shoe out of the grate. The young male associates (who presumably had never experienced getting a heel stuck in a grate) appeared puzzled by the whole affair. I assumed that they must be entering the restaurant already wondering whether I could demonstrate competence in the law when I couldn’t demonstrate competence in walking.

The restaurant served only sushi. I love sushi and ordered several pieces, but when the sushi arrived I couldn’t decide whether it would be more polite to simply stuff each entire piece of sushi in my mouth whole (I only had chopsticks, so cutting wasn’t an option) or to bite the sushi in half to avoid too big a bite. I decided to raise my conundrum as a topic of conversation (which was already stilted due to shoegate). The associates declined to offer an opinion. I was left facing what felt like a prisoner’s dilemma of eating choices. I vowed, in my head, never to subject another summer associate to a perilous eating situation.  (I know, I know, these are the ultimate first-world problems.)

Drinking alcohol at summer-associate lunch in D.C. was not only acceptable, but encouraged (this was pre-2008 recession). Visits to a Belgian pub required tasting the Belgian beer and visits to a Mexican restaurant resulted in rounds of margaritas. I know myself, however. A drink at lunch will most certainly result in a nap around 2 p.m. — a not-cool way to prove your mettle while summering. I would order the drinks to match everyone else but drink so slowly that I’d only finish 1/4 by the time we left.  Sometimes I would order coffee with the drink.  (Summering in Minnesota was a horse of a different color — we were actively told never to order a drink at lunch. I was happy to oblige.)

A law school friend of mine still experiences nightmares about her worst lunch. She was a picky eater. During lunch at a fancy establishment, she accidentally ordered the head of a trout (it was called the “angry trout” — apparently because it didn’t like being beheaded). She ate it, of course, not wanting to reveal her secret identity as a picky eater. Vowing that she wouldn’t suffer trout head again, she began pouring over the menus in advance of each lunch to identify her edible options. I have no idea how much of her life this pre-menu review must have swallowed.

We believed our paranoia had good cause. Stories about other summer associates messing up at lunches became instant lore. We all heard the story of the summer who ordered dessert even though no one else did, forcing everyone else to wait while he finished his tiramisu. There were stories about the summers who ordered the most expensive thing on the menu. Or who drank too much. Or who talked with their mouth full.

These days, however, I am on the flip side of the equation, taking out summer associates instead of being one. Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I do aim to make the process as painless as possible. I pick restaurants with lots of choices — you never know if a summer will be a vegetarian, vegan, or sufferer of celiac. I also ask about preferences (although most folks looking for permanent employment are loath to identify any preference). And I tell folks what I’m getting as soon as I decide, so they don’t need to worry about whether they should order two courses or one.

These lunches have such potential to be fun — getting to know new lawyers provides an opportunity for insightful and interesting conversation. Summer associates have the opportunity to ask questions, network, and learn. Established professionals can provide mentorship, answer questions, and hear from the next generation about their ideas and concerns. But with the potential for future employment hanging in the balance there will always be stress. Perhaps it is just another example of why there is no such thing as a free lunch.

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