Summer interns? The jury’s out

This year’s summer placements have arrived. Nick Hood examines the pros and cons

Partners at firms of all sizes are currently either delighted by the efforts of their summer interns or, in some cases, regretting the day they took them on. Fresh-faced young people, most with scant understanding of legal practice, will have their first exposure to the realities of commercial life. With no legal qualifications, and probably little office experience, they are likely to be testing the patience of their more experienced colleagues by disappearing for hours to complete the simplest of tasks and questioning time-honoured routines and procedures.

Firms turn eagerly to this source of additional labour when many permanent staff are on holiday, especially if it happens to be the son or daughter of a valued client. Moreover, they relish the thought of bypassing recruitment consultants by unearthing future talent at no cost.

But just as every silver lining has a cloud, summer interns can cause as many problems as they solve. Firms that fail to chaperone carefully their summer interns sometimes find afterwards that a key client relationship has been irreparably damaged. This can happen simply because some firms give interns tasks that are usually the responsibility of absent staff, without any thought about their abilities or the consequences.

The problems usually start when interns are not integrated into existing management or reporting structures and when no single person takes responsibility for managing their work. In fact, they are often far less closely supervised than the average staff member.

Take some basic precautions when you decide to take on summer interns. Allocate a single staff member to oversee them while they are with you. This will help you to find out more easily what they are achieving, as well as providing a shoulder to cry on when they find out how brutal commercial life can be for the uninitiated.

Introduce summer interns to all relevant staff members, do not expect them to have the confidence to do this for themselves. It is also advisable to give them a rudimentary lesson in whatever version of office politics you have.

Remember that they will benefit from an induction programme even more than other new staff. They will not know how your computer network operates or how your filing systems work, but worst of all, they may never have had any experience of how these things work anywhere else either, so they start with something very close to a blank sheet of paper on these fundamentals of office life.

Before they are given any work to do, ensure interns are thoroughly briefed on how the firm operates and its quality standards. In these days of email communication and direct-dial numbers, they need to be told very clearly what they can and cannot say to the outside world.

Regardless of whether the intern’s parent is successful in business, do not assume that their child has the same experience or skill sets, equally do not make the classic mistake of thinking that they are capable of only the most mundane tasks. The bright young individual you chained to the photocopier for the whole of the summer could have been one of your future stars. A remarkable number of these placement students want to return and try a career with you, but not if they became completely disillusioned with the sheer boredom of their time with you.

Try to combine some long-term tasks with shorter or smaller pieces of work, although think carefully about their suitability for larger projects. Most of all, try to remember to explain why they are doing the tasks you have given them. Not seeing the point of a task or knowing how it fits into the jigsaw can be soul destroying, especially for intelligent young people.

Nick Hood is senior London partner at corporate rescue firm Begbies Traynor