Coping with the Process of Applying for a Position in a Law Firm: Don't Let Silence, Delay, Ambiguity, or Rejection Get You Down!
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The process of seeking a position at a major law firm is not for the faint of heart. In addition to coping with core issues of financial security and professional identity, a candidate who submits his or her resume to a law firm must also deal with the daily roller coaster of a seemingly irrational and inefficient process of consideration. Before throwing your hat into the ring, it is best to gird yourself for the following four potentially negative by-products of the hiring process: silence, ambiguity, delay, and rejection. Even the most sought after candidate is often faced with one or more of these issues. But the thing to keep in mind is that these elements are a normal part of legal job search process. No one in a law firm intends to direct negative energy at a candidate, but the system is what it is, and understanding how it works can help you cope with what may at times seem frustrating and ego deflating. Once you can anticipate what to expect in the short-run, working with your recruiter to find the perfect position can be a very satisfying joint endeavor, as you negotiate each successful stage in the process.
One of the first things you will notice about the legal job search process is…silence. Days, weeks, and months may go by without you hearing a peep from the places where you have diligently sent applications. This silence can be maddening, for both recruiters and candidates. How many of us jump to the wrong conclusions when we are faced with silence instead of a clear answer to an inquiry?
In the legal hiring business, silence is often the rule, rather than the exception, especially when dealing with law firms. A good recruiter knows the workings of the recruiting offices of each major firm and can interpret the meaning of silence after the submission of a resume and cover letter. This is just one of the benefits of having a good legal recruiter in your corner. Good legal recruiters can “read into” the silence associated with applying for positions at law firms because they know the market and its players so well. They can explain to you what is going on behind the scenes and what silence might mean in your particular case.
Here are some of the things that silence can mean in the initial phase of the legal job search process (after you have sent your resume and cover letter to a firm and are awaiting a response):
You passed the first hurdle and extra time is being spent to pass your resume to the hiring committee.
A key person in the hiring chain is absent and that is why the response has not been more prompt.
The submission was somehow misplaced and inadvertently overlooked.
The firm is unsure about its needs at the time.
The firm is unsure about whether you might be a fit.
The firm is hesitant to rush into anything and is simply sitting on its decision for the time being.
You were passed over on the initial screen but no one has had the time to generate the pass letters for an imposing pile of resumes.
A good recruiter can help you understand how the law firm is regarding your submission and what it means if you do not get invited in for an interview nor receive a formal pass notice within two to three weeks.
Just as silence can be an issue for candidates in the initial stages of the legal job search process, silence also can be an issue later in the process. Silence can happen even after things have gotten off to a good start and there has been communication between the candidate and the law firm. This silence can be especially confounding for candidates who thought things had been going so well.
I worked with one candidate, for example, who had gone through a very positive series of interviews at a major firm. A couple of days before the holidays, the law firm told me it was writing him an offer and would get back to me very soon. But there was no word before the holidays and then everyone was gone for ten days. There was still no word immediately after the holidays. I finally sent out gentle and then more urgent inquiries to the firm. There was still no word three weeks after the holidays. My candidate was understandably experiencing considerable stress from this silence. He was trying to make major life decisions regarding his career and life, including moving across the country, and we were both beginning to grind our teeth.
Finally, I broke all the rules of firm contacts and went to the top to find out what was going on. It turns out that there had been a bit of a stalemate in terms of the final rubber stamp for the offer. Long story short, my candidate received his offer, accepted it, and is happy with his new firm. But it was a stressful couple of weeks for both my candidate and for me (his recruiter), and we had to find positive ways to cope with almost five weeks of absolute silence before the deal could be finalized.
Lawyers are busy. Hiring decisions may take a back seat. Never assume the worst in these situations. Silence does not always mean rejection!
Silence and delay go hand in hand in the legal job search process. But what candidates need to understand is that the process of being considered for a position at a law firm has its own distinct rhythm, and unfortunately that process involves lags in time. What can seem like unreasonable delays are simply normal patterns of hiring in the law firm world.
As an example, here is how a typical submission goes in the Bay Area market: You submit your resume and hopefully get some sort of response within two weeks. If the fit is great, you may be invited in for interviews within days. The interview is usually scheduled at least a week out to find a mutually agreeable time. After the interview, the firm gathers evaluations, discusses the next move, and you may be invited back for more interviews or you may receive a pass. This evaluation process can take from one day to a couple of weeks. Again, if you come back for more interviews, it takes time to find a good date. After the second set of interviews, the firm usually makes up its mind. This can happen on the spot (rare) or it may take up to a month. If an offer is extended, it is usually with a deadline for a response within two weeks. However, firms will often extend this deadline.
Thus, simple arithmetic reveals that the average time to be considered by just one law firm if you are invited to interviews may range from four weeks to three months. If you are interviewing with multiple firms, coordinating schedules and pending offers can be a challenge. The most sought after candidate I have ever represented required five weeks from submission to offer acceptance and every step was expedited at every level.
When you embark on a legal job search, you must embrace the mindset that the process is a marathon rather than a sprint. It is not uncommon for law firms to delay and be silent for months and then suddenly express interest in a resume.
What accounts for this silence and delay? Human nature and institutional realities. Law firms are complex systems run by human beings. When it comes to hiring decisions, you are dealing with hiring partners, managing partners, practice or group leaders, hiring committees, management committees, recruiting directors, recruiting coordinators, recruiting assistants, etc. The interface between these personalities often generates communications that may be inconsistent or ambiguous.
A listing for an attorney position may include a very detailed description of exactly what the firm seems to want. You submit a candidate who is a "perfect fit" in every aspect and yet there is no response from the firm. Often the issue generating the mixed message is internal disagreement about bringing someone on. It is not uncommon for a practice group leader and a managing partner to have divergent views of how to staff a workload or how to strategically grow the office. A potential candidate may get buffeted by the lack of consensus within the firm. A wise candidate in an interview situation will explore the issue diplomatically. But, the bottom line for candidates is, do not take it personally if you do not get invited in. There is much more going on in the background of the hiring process than deciding whether you are a skilled attorney.
Here are some ways to cope with silence and delay during the legal job search process:
If you are currently working, keep focused on your current job and doing the best you possibly can there. You never know how things are going to turn out, and you always want to make sure you leave on good terms and with good recommendations.
If you are not currently working, put your energy into your job search. Review your resume and cover letters and decide if they are the best they can be. Review your writing samples to determine if you have selected the ones that best showcase your talents. Update your representative matters list or deal sheet.
Brainstorm your past work and school connections to determine if there is a possible recommendation you have overlooked.
Network and try to broaden your sphere of professional connections. Whether you utilize these connections in your current search or not, the most successful attorneys always pay attention to their professional connections and always seek to expand their network.
Spend quality time with your family and friends and allow them to alleviate some of the stress associated with your job search. They are your support system and want to help you!
Exercise and stay healthy. You need to take care of yourself both physically and emotionally to get through your job search and so you can throw yourself into your new job when it comes through.
Be positive and do not give up. Success could be right around the corner!
Just like silence and delay, ambiguity can play a major role in the legal job search process, especially when a candidate gets to the interview stage. Many candidates will receive feedback from an interviewer that “they are perfect,” “they look forward to working with you,” “you are on the top of the list of all the interviewees,” and things like that. And then, days go by and that expected offer never arrives. What possibly could have happened? Scores of things! Here are a few things that go on during the process that result in uncomfortable ambiguity for candidates:
Because hiring decisions are rarely made by one individual, a committee must reach consensus and it only takes one “doubter” to preclude an offer.
The position may have evaporated suddenly when a planned departure was suddenly canceled.
There may have already been a pending offer that was accepted.
The firm might have lost a major client that was going to generate the work for that position.
The firm may be uncertain whether the economy justifies additional staffing.
The firm may have decided to focus its hiring in a practice area different from the one you were hiring for.
As you can see, the list of possibilities is endless, and many of the reasons for ambiguity have little to do with you or your qualifications. There are many variables that go into hiring decisions and sometimes they do not work in your favor, but sometimes they do. You need to not get discouraged, understand that ambiguity is part of the process, and keep moving ahead with an optimistic attitude.
As we just discussed, law firms ultimately make hiring decisions for many reasons that have nothing or little to do with a particular candidate’s qualifications. Receiving a “pass” from a law firm may feel like a personal rejection, but it is anything but that. Even the most qualified candidates, if they are wise, will expect to receive passes. Sometimes the reasons for a rejection are quite random or based on macroeconomic factors that impact everyone. Sometimes they are based on a particular firm’s specialized “rules of hiring.” You might be a terrific attorney and person, but if there is a recession coming down the pike, or if you do not happen to fit the mold of a given law firm, you are going to be looking at rejection.
Firm “rules of hiring” have to do with things like grade cutoffs or years of experience required. For example, many candidates will get rejected from certain law firms because their resumes and transcripts do not conform to strict requirements set out by those firms for law school and class ranking to make the initial cut. These firms allow for no exceptions. Other candidates will get rejected if they do not have experience with a certain type and size of law firm for a minimum time period. Again, few exceptions are made.
Similarly, if you are not in the exact range of JD years desired, many firms will not even take a look at your application. And if you had more than one job transition already, that may be the end of your candidacy. For senior attorneys and partners, your book of portable business and your client roster is all important.
For top tier firms, receiving an offer for a lateral position is like running the gamut of a unique set of challenges and tests and successfully reaching the end of the maze. Only a few candidates will have the right combination, appear at the right time, and avoid the potholes. And for them, there will be a measure of luck involved regarding whether an interviewing attorney was having a good day or bad, whether a new case that needed to be staffed arrived the week before their interview, and whether you might share unanticipated esoteric interests that begin to break down formalities.
The bottom line is that much of the job search process is random, even at the most elite levels. Do these factors determine your true value and capability as a skilled and sophisticated attorney? Not really. It makes no sense to take any of this personally or let your ego get caught up in the process.
Another aspect of rejection that candidates find especially frustrating is that firms may not give a reason for the pass, as firms have been instructed not to give reasons for their decisions in order to preclude possible employment lawsuits. Candidates are often eager to get feedback to help them improve their presentation to the next firm or round out their experience. Yet, firms use a few key phrases, such as “the candidate is not a fit,” “we have decided not to move forward,” and “we have decided to pass.”
When your recruiter informs you of a pass and cannot give a detailed explanation regarding the decision, it is often not for lack of attempting to get that information. Most firms are fairly rigid on this point. Occasionally firms will breach the generic communiqué and give an unwritten hint such as “very nervous,” “developmentally delayed,” or “not enough business,” etc. Good recruiters in sync with their markets can usually anticipate who will get invited in for interviews. If you are a borderline candidate and get passed, do not take it personally. If you get passed after an interview, you may not get as much feedback as could be helpful to refine your presentation. A good recruiter can be invaluable at that point in helping to analyze and strengthen your interview skills or “fit” at the next firm.
One of the best ways to deal with all the variables that go into the legal job search process, including silence, delay, ambiguity, and rejection is to work with a knowledgeable legal recruiter. A good legal recruiter can help explain what is going on at every stage of the process and he or she will be a support system for you while you go through all the job search stages from initial job application to final job acceptance. A good legal recruiter can even help “read between the lines” when you have been given a pass for no apparent reason.
If you get a good legal recruiter involved from the very beginning of your job search process, when you are just thinking of changing jobs, you will have an edge in the process. A good legal recruiter will help you assess if you are changing jobs for the right or wrong reasons, help you target your job search to the firms and markets where you will be most successful, and help you evaluate the rejections you get (so you can learn from them) and the offers you get (so you can ensure you are making the right decisions in what job to accept).
Arming yourself with an understanding of the vagaries of the legal hiring process can help immunize you against disappointment and discouragement. You will have realistic expectations regarding the rhythm and timing required. You will expect moments of confusing silence, delay, potentially ambiguous messages, and rejection.
If you understand the game, you will not get unduly discouraged even if you get a bunch of passes in a row or if you get a pass from your favorite firm. You will understand that most of these events are not about you. They reflect the unique characteristics and personality of the firm in question, the economy, and a host of other internal and external hiring variables.
Once you are armed with this knowledge, you and your recruiter can become a cohesive team in strategy, planning, and action for your job search. You will sidestep the negatives and eventually, you will succeed in your quest to find the right legal position for you! If you go into it with the right understanding, and with the right ally in a good legal recruiter, finding your dream job can be a lot of fun.
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