Inside Perspective: Open letter to a ‘could have been’ summer intern

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co.  He is also president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

Dear Mr. Intern,

We were very pleased to invite you to participate in our corporate internship program this summer.  I am sure that you too were pleased and very proud to have been accepted.  After all, you were chosen from over 100 applicants after a rigorous vetting process.  Your resume was impressive enough to make the first cut and you were selected for an interview.  What an interview it was – six seasoned lawyers grilling you for an hour.  But it was worth it, you were invited to join a very exclusive club.  You were invited to be an in-house summer intern at one of the premier corporations in America.  You would be exposed to many excellent in-house lawyers and interesting and varied work.  You would be mentored by the very best legal professionals in your area.  There would be introductions to some powerful and influential people who could influence your career for years to come.  Congratulations on such an accomplishment.  We were positively thrilled when you accepted the invitation and we commenced planning for your arrival.

Of course, we did have to inform those who did not make the cut that unfortunately, they would not be participating this year.  There are only so many spaces available and we had to make difficult choices.  Those conversations are never easy, but every applicant understands when they apply that they are competing against others for the opportunity and that not everyone will make it.

You probably did not realize that the six attorneys who interviewed you had to spend at least 15 minutes on each of the other 100-plus applications.  If you are good at math, you already figured out that each lawyer spent about 25 hours on this part of the process (multiplied by six that equals 150 hours of valuable professional time).  But these professionals donated their time for this project because they are committed to the program and to the people that participate.  Alums of the program are better lawyers, better professionals, and most importantly,  better people because of their participation.  This time does not even contemplate the hours that went into planning the program and working through logistics etc.

It is not likely that you thought about those six lawyers taking two full days away from their jobs and families to interview you and the other candidates.  Of course, the prep time for the interviewing process was probably done late at night at home so as not to interfere with the other important aspects of their lives.

You might not have realized that the senior executive who recommended you for the program carried a lot of sway in the decision-making process because his judgment about past candidates has been proven true and he is highly respected among the selection committee.  He has a reputation for identifying the good ones.

Once selected and paired with a corporation, you probably did not realize that your corporate sponsor had to budget for your ten week salary.  In fact, it was pretty tough this year getting approval for an intern because of the state of the economy.  Among many corporate layoffs it was a pretty hard row to hoe, convincing the boss that it made sense to bring in an intern to work “part time” for the summer.    Wouldn’t it be better to keep a full-time employee on the payroll for that much longer?

Once the boss was persuaded, the company had to prepare for your arrival.  There were computers to acquire, access to systems, security clearance and all the other administrative work that comes with bringing a new employee on board.  They even had to build an office space for you in which to work (ok – a cubicle, but at least it was “yours”).  Finally, the department had to plan the allocation of work assignments.  But hey – this is all normal back office stuff that is routine and doesn’t take much effort, so you really never gave it much thought.

We figured that you had not given much thought to the effort that went into providing you with this opportunity – the time spent planning, reviewing applications, picking one candidate over another (perhaps equally deserving) one, budgeting, allocating work, preparing office space, spending personal capital getting an internship approved etc., because a few days before your start date you informed the company that you would not be available after all.  Of course, you probably have a good reason for reneging on the deal, maybe another, better offer that was in the offing came through and you just had to take it.  Or maybe there were other reasons that caused you to pull out at the last minute.  I cannot judge the reason for your decision, only you will be able to determine if, on balance, it was a good decision.

You probably have not read the brief article that initiated this column.  It is titled “An Honorable Calling” and can be found here: https://h20cooler.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/an-honorable-calling/ .  If you had read it before making your decision to drop out of the program, you might have decided differently, maybe not.  I recommend that you read it very carefully now.  After reading it, I urge you to personally reach out to the people mentioned above and apologize for letting each and every one of them down.  Of course, you won’t be able to apologize to the person who did not get slotted for the position because you don’t even know their name.

I recently spoke with a good friend of mine at a large company who told me about the trials and tribulations that she faced when a summer intern backed out of a lucrative and sought after position he  had firmly accepted.  The internship was arranged by a local bar association.  If I was mentoring the intern involved, the above letter is what I would say.

The mentoring process never stops, even after the program ends.  It is my  sincere hope that the intern and anyone else in a similar position take the advice in this letter under consideration and act on it.  The last thing any one of us wish to see is even a speck of tarnish on that shiny new suit of armor before the student even graduates from law school.

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19 responses to “Inside Perspective: Open letter to a ‘could have been’ summer intern

  1. Wonderfully said. However, unfortunately it’s generational. I highly recommend reading “The Narcissim Epidemic, Living in the Age of Entitlement” by Jean Twenge. I and the many people to whom I have recommended it have found it very enlightening. I had the privilege of being a summer intern at both Xerox and Pacific Bell many years ago. I never for one second considered backing out of my internship. I valued the opportuntiy presented to me and tried to get the most out of each program. What I learned at these programs has helped me throughout my career and provided me with life long mentors. I hope the person who backed out at some point discovers what goes around comes around. For what it’s worth, my thanks to the people who dedicated their time to this and I hope for them as well that what goes around comes around. Thank you for your committment to help others.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comments Karen. I hope the young man involved learns from the experieince and that this mistake is not made again. Dan

    • YEAH, KIDS THESE DAYS, RIGHT? Just kidding – younger generations have always been belittled and vilified by older generations. Congratulations on being the perfect hard worker, Karen. If only we narcissistic whipper snappers could be more like you. Maybe someday we too can sit on our own high horse, tarring and feathering an entire (if ill-defined) age range of people with a slanderously broad brush! Good golly, that’s my dream.

    • “The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint.” Guess where that comes from.

      At this point in your life, your colleagues are reliable, professional people – in part, because you are older and more experienced, but also in part because those weren’t professional and reliable have left the field or been kicked out. There are people like this in every generation; you just don’t have to deal with them any more.

      And if the original author complains about the professional hours spent on the candidate: We know that we will be the first fired. We will take the best opportunity given us, especially after having offers rescinded at the last minute, stealth layoffs, and one year or longer waits between graduation and start dates. We don’t trust you, either.

      Thank you for the perspective you provide. We will be using it.

  2. experience

  3. I am truly humbled by and extremely appreciative for all of the hard work, time, and leadership I have received thus far through the ACC summer internship program. From the day I received the initial phone call that I was a finalist and eligible for an interview, I felt honored and privileged just to be considered. Personally, there has never been a moment that I have felt entitled to anything. After all, as you noted, it was the generosity of the company and the several lawyers that even gave me a chance to participate in this program. Also, the fact that I have had such a fantastic experience so far has encouraged me continue to make summer legal internships a continued success once I am a licensed attorney. It is a shame that this particular student backed out; I would not trade my experience so far for any other internship. I would like to thank every lawyer and company that has allowed legal interns, especially through the ACC summer program. In a few years, I am anxious to give back to future interns the priceless knowledge and leadership skills that fantastic people such as yourself have graciously demonstrated to me.

  4. You have a reason to be pissed, for sure. That’s cool. And this kid clearly could’ve handled it better. Fair point.

    But maybe the kid just found out he’s dying of cancer? Or or one of his parents is? You admitted you don’t know the reason, and so you can’t judge whether the decision was right. So stop judging!

    And seriously, would you have been this indignant if the company had to rescind the offer at the last minute “for business reasons?” Because of an unforeseeable budget cut, or heck, because the CEO wanted to hire her nephew instead? Are you that indignant when your company lays off people whose livelihoods depend on you? Doubtful. We all make business decisions that help ourselves and screw over others. Don’t make it a moral issue unless you want that standard applied to yourself.

  5. Totally Unimpressed

    It is quite silly that this entire post is implying that all of the hard work was for naught. All of your self-indulgent and self-righteous whining becomes quite pointless as soon as your friend picks up the phone and calls an applicant who was initially turned down. I’m sure any one of them will be thrilled to have the opportunity. Seriously, stop sniffing your own farts (Google “South Park hybrid episode” if necessary) and write something that is actually useful.

  6. Deciding not to show up after the projected start date is a no-no, we can all agree.

    That said, accepting and then reneging on an offer is A-okay, provided one informs the involved parties in a timely manner. Most contracts have a line stating that either party “may terminate this agreement at any time, with or without cause, at their sole discretion” and when I sign a contract like that I have no qualms about continuing to interview with firms who might offer better opportunities than those contained in the contract previously signed. Labor agreements are rarely binding and it seems like many companies forget that they aren’t the only ones who can benefit from that freedom.

  7. An an afterthought, I’ll add that the column’s reference to “the senior executive who recommended [the intern] to the program” reeks of nepotism. If this company had hired the state-school kid with hustle instead of the one whose daddy plays golf, then they probably wouldnt have been shortchanged in the end.

  8. Unless this “large company” never terminated anyone without cause, (e.g., laid them off) I smell a pot callling a kettle black. And of all the stories, in all of Corporate America, should we really be shedding tears over wasted resume review time?

  9. Do you really think there’s a chance he didn’t do it because something better came along? Would you really take a worse job just because it was offered first?
    I imagine, had things gone the other way, and your boss that you had to try so hard to convince to bring on an intern had said “sorry, turns out we just can’t justify it” your benevolent company wouldn’t have had much trouble telling the interns who had spent so much time on their applications and foregone other offers not to let the door hit them on the way out.
    Of course somehow that doesn’t seem like it would cause much tarnish.

  10. Amlaw50, now inhouse

    bwaaaah bwaaah, it’s like listening to my two year old cry about not getting a cookie. suck it up, it’s real out there; if there’s a corporation out there that wouldn’t do the same and throw it’s attorneys into the abyss, then there is no such thing as capitalism. who care if the shoe is on the other foot sometimes?

  11. Karen, you’re right when you say it’s generational: these days *many* employers couldn’t care less about their interns, and they use them like cogs in a machine. While Mr. Harper and his company seem to go against the grain in that regard, and deserve not to have interns back out at the last minute largely because of that old school, caring attitude, many employers simply do not care about the professional progression of their interns. It’s a damn shame, if you ask me. But it’s also a damn shame that you want to blame it on kids who are in large part reacting rationally to the stimuli provided by increasingly cold, distant employers. It’s far more complex a portrait then you paint it to be, and as a member of the younger generation, I find it downright appalling that you think this is a portrait that can be painted in black and white.

  12. I’m sure the kid just got an offer at a better place. So I guess he should have said “no, thanks, I already accepted another position that I’m not thrilled about, but took under the pressure of worrying I wouldn’t get another one and saying no would leave me out in the cold.”

    So I guess the lesson here is, if you’re offered a job at a small studio and take it and a week later Steven Spielberg calls and says he wants you to work with him, you should tell Steve no thanks.

    Great advice. Sorry slavery ended a long time ago.

  13. And yet, you didn’t offer them the best offer, in their eyes. Just the earlier one. Good job getting your offers out early though. Let you potential interns decide what the best choice for them is. Your second or third choice might still be your best synchophantic fit.

  14. It’s a free country. If someone doesn’t want to work for you, that is his/her decision. Just as you turned down 99 applicants for this position, perhaps the person on the other end of your offer had other opportunities.

  15. I’m sorry, but this article is a little bit ridiculous. When a candidate gets 2 offers, and they don’t come at the same time, sometimes the better offer comes later. I would hope that you interviewed more than one candidate, and can then simply choose to offer this position to your second-favorite?

    Or, as another poster pointed out, perhaps there was an emergency in the family? Whatever it was, it was sufficient for the candidate, who was the best of the one hundred you considered (indicating maturity and Olympian work ethic), to withdraw. It happens, sometimes. While businesses tend to have more predictable futures, allowing them to make a commitment of this sort for a summer, the life of a student-intern is extremely variable. Which is exactly why this happens. All the time.

    Here’s what life looks like on the other side of the tracks. You send out 30 individually-tailored resumes and cover letters every week from August until May. You hear back from maybe 5%, most of which are outright rejections. You get a few interviews, but nothing really lines up. If you’re lucky (like I was), eventually you’ll get a couple of offers of non-paid or low-paying internships. You’ll accept them, because worked-from-home-for-free looks better on a resume than sat-at-home-playing-Madden. Then, if you’re REALLY lucky, you’ll get a paid offer somewhere, and immediately withdraw from your non- or low-paying internships. You know you’re inconveniencing someone, but if the net effect is that you are running up less credit card debt to feed and clothe yourself while simultaneously accumulating $200k in student loans to earn your J.D., you feel a little less concerned about that.

    I’m sorry for being so selfish.

    Signed,

    One of the 99 that you didn’t call back or interview, just ignored
    Top 1/3 of his class, Top 20 USNWR law school

  16. A rebuttal of sorts has been posted at the following link if you care to read it: https://h20cooler.wordpress.com/2011/07/13/inside-perspective-open-letter-on-summer-intern-revisited/

    Dan Harper

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