Ed. note: This is the latest post by Anonymous Recruitment Director, who will offer an insider’s perspective on the world of law firm hiring.
Following the publication of my initial column, I received scores of emails from polite job-seekers with specific questions about their current employment situations. While I am not able to reply to all of the notes, I can offer some guidance to assist the majority of these job-seekers.
Insider tip: Biglaw firms tend to avoid hiring candidates who have strayed off of the traditional path to Biglaw firm employment. Such “rogue” candidates make the recruitment committee nervous, and any candidate who makes the committee nervous will not be advanced in the process. If you want to work in Biglaw, get a job in Biglaw during your 2L summer. If this is not possible (because you did not land a job in Biglaw or you have already graduated), get a job at a small- or medium-sized private firm in the exact practice area that you hope to work in when you make the jump after a few years to Biglaw. Clerkships are fine, but law firm experience in your desired practice area is the ideal. Also, of great importance, you MUST do well in all courses related to your practice area of choice. If you received a C in Securities Regulation, it will be a hard sell to land a job as a securities lawyer at a large firm.
What are some other factors that will make the recruitment committee uncomfortable?
Post-law-school advanced degrees in non-law-related subjects, joint law degrees in subjects that are not directly relevant to your practice area of choice, public interest law jobs, and periods of unemployment are troublesome. They make the candidate seem unfocused or flaky or, worse still, not competitive. In other words, identify your desired practice area and get experience in that area, at a firm of any size, even if you need to work for free for a period of time. Any other career choices give the hiring committee a reason to doubt your focus and, as such, you will not be given serious consideration.
I appreciate that there are plenty of new attorneys who are not able to get experience in their desired practice area. This advice may be controversial, but I recommend that if this is the case, and if you aspire to work in Biglaw, you must select a different practice area to pursue (namely, one that is available to you early in your career). Biglaw partners love to believe that litigators have wanted to litigate since childhood; they do not respond well to candidates who, after three years as a patent attorney, decide that they now wish to do litigation (unless it is patent-related litigation). In other words, partners are suspicious of anyone who does not start down one path and remain on said path. That’s what they all (allegedly) did, after all; and, as discussed last time, partners like people who are just like them.
While this advice may seem rigid, please consider the matter from the vantage point of the recruitment committee. Here is a sampling of the cover letters that we receive:
1. “I am extraordinary and the reason that I received a C- average in law school is that I was the primary caregiver to my ailing (mother/father/spouse/child) during law school and he/she had six near death experiences, each of which corresponded with an examination period; and, as such, I encourage you to ignore the fact that to date I have not evidenced any ability to excel in the law and hire me regardless.” (the bullsh** applicant) (yes, ladies and gentlemen, after seeing hundreds of these letters over the years, I now assume that they are all bulls**t);
2. “I have no particular interests and, instead, I wish to apply to any opening that you might have at the firm at this time, whether it be in international arbitration, structured finance, employment law, etc. I love the law SO MUCH that I will do anything that is on offer.” (the unfocused applicant);
3. “I do not really want you to consider me for a job because I have so many options that I am overwhelmed. At this time, I am really trying to decide how I will share my legal genius with the world, and, if you want to get on this bandwagon early, which I strongly advise, let me know what you can offer me and when (hypothetically, of course) you would want me to start.” (the d-bag applicant); and
4. “I am writing to express my interest in the position of 4th year tax associate that is detailed on your firm’s website. I am currently a tax associate at [firm] with four years of experience undertaking the following types of [tax-related] matters:…” (the viable applicant).
Only the fourth applicant will get put forward to the hiring committee members. Why? Because, unlike the other applicants, he or she is building a case for him or herself to be hired for an identifiable role; he or she is in effect arguing that the job opening should belong to them. This individual has convincing support for his or her argument.
While on the subject of cover letters, I advise that you write a cover letter, two paragraphs at most, that details who you are, what exactly you want, and why you are a smart hire (if you cannot explain why you are a smart hire for this particular job, and/or if you cannot do so succinctly, you should not be applying for this position). A letter longer than two paragraphs will not be read.
Those applicants sending a letter of interest for a summer associate position can write an even shorter letter. We understand why you are applying and that, at this stage of your legal career, your interests are not fully refined.
The cover letter is in many respects a formality. No one has ever been hired because he or she wrote an amazing cover letter. Many people have been rejected because they submitted a poorly written cover letter. The truth is that the cover letter may not be read until an applicant is sitting in front of his or her interviewer. In recruitment, we have a tendency to scan résumés first, and then, if interested, we review brief cover letters to make sure that there are no red flags. As such, as I will address in the next column, you should focus far more effort on your résumé.
You are an attorney (or soon to be one). In your cover letter, please be clear, be concise, and be convincing. Argue your own case.
Earlier: Greetings From Anonymous Recruitment Director
Lawsuit of the Day: Ex-Kasowitz Associate With ‘Superior Legal Mind’ Sues the Firm for $77 Million
Anonymous Recruitment Director is the head of recruitment for a leading international firm and has 20 years of law firm recruitment experience. Anonymous NYC Recruitment Director can be reached at NYCRecruitmentDirector@gmail.com (please note that job applications sent to this email address will be deleted!).
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Cover letters can be tricky, especially for someone who has been off the market for some time. You want to show yourself in the best possible light, but many cover letters focus on the wrong elements and can easily lose the attention of the decision-makers that are reviewing your submission package.
The best use of the cover letter is not to re-state your resume in paragraph form, but to anticipate questions that the recruitment coordinator or partners may have and to provide these answers in a concise, yet comprehensive way.
Here's what the law firms will want to know:
What you offer them:
Why should they hire you? Firms are interviewing attorneys because they have a problem. They have a need to fill. You have to be their solution. Yes, you went to an excellent law school and have terrific experience. You should state this concisely in the cover letter, but employers will already have seen this on your resume. In addition to your law school and the title of your firm, think about accomplishments that may not be on your resume (or something listed that you can expand upon, briefly). This can be something from law school or during your practice as an attorney.
What are your best legal attributes? The best way to tackle this issue is by quoting what third parties have said about you. If you have a quote from recent review that you feel illustrates your positive qualities as an attorney, include it in the letter. Did you receive specific praise from a client? Include it in the letter. You may truly believe that you are an exceptional attorney and you may be (let's face it, everyone states his or her greatness in a cover letter), but when your best qualities are represented by comments from third party, your assertions are validated.
Why you are interested in other opportunities:
Sometimes you just want "a change," right? Well, that explanation is not going to cut it from the law firm perspective. Employers want to know that you have solid career objectives and a good "head on your shoulders." They tend to not hire attorneys that don't have a reasonable explanation for their job search, since this can reflect a lack of judgment. However, you need to be sure that this explanation reflects positively upon you. It's NOT a good idea to bash your current firm or come off as complaining or negative. The best reasons for seeking new opportunities should always be to better yourself as an attorney and take a step closer to your overall career objective.
Here are some good explanations for wanting to lateral to a new firm:
Geography: You needed to relocate. Perhaps your significant other obtained a position in a different city. Maybe you are seeking to be closer to family/friends, or returning to a place you once lived. If the firm you are applying to is in a different location, it is essential that you establish your connection to the area.
Practice Area: You are interested in expanding or narrowing your practice area. Your current firm is staffing you on a variety of matters, but you seek to specify your practice so that you can become an expert in one area. Conversely, if your firm is limiting the type of work that you're handling, you might be seeking to broaden your practice gain a greater exposure to more areas.
Growth: You feel that you have reached a plateau in a certain position and need to make a lateral move to enhance your growth as an attorney. Perhaps you are seeking a position that would allow you to conduct depositions or give you first or second-chair experience. Maybe you are interested in running your own cases or having greater client contact.
Platform: This is a particularly crucial area for Partners and for associates that are interested in developing business (which, honestly, should be the majority of you). Perhaps, you are currently at a regional law firm, but have opportunities to develop business from another state and are looking to lateral to a firm with a national presence. Or, you are at a specialty tax boutique and your clients have additional labor/employment matters that they would like to send your way, but cannot because your current firm does not support that type of business. In essence, you are seeking to lateral to a firm that has a platform that can better suit your clients and be more conducive to you developing business.
Your PAST Moves - Why you previously moved from XXX LLP to YYY LLP:
Again, employers want to see that you have good judgment. Every one of your lateral moves should make logical sense according to your career objective. All of the reasons mentioned above can also be used as explanations for past moves. Even if you have a number of lateral moves on your resume, the proper narrative can help your cause immensely.
However, if you previously transitioned to a new firm with a partner or group, this should be made abundantly clear in the cover letter (and on the resume, for that matter). If the partner you were primarily working for invited you along to his or her new firm, this speaks volumes about your value as an attorney.
What you are seeking in a new position:
Prior to the interview, firms will want to be certain that what you are seeking in a new position is something in line with what they can offer you. You can keep this concise, but you will want to reflect why a position with their firm will help you meet your career objective. Firms do not want to bring on a new attorney, spend a few months acclimating this attorney, and then have that individual realize they are not happy. You know what you want - and they are the type of firm you want.
Many recruitment coordinators will not read your entire cover letter. They will review your resume and transcript and see if those documents inspire any questions. Then, they will go to the cover. Anticipate the questions and make the answers easy to find. A great way to do this is by piecing the cover letter together in sections and giving each section a heading. Feel free to BOLD or underline section headings and important information.
See 6 Things Attorneys and Law Students Need to Remove from Their Resumes ASAP If They Want to Get Jobs with the Most Prestigious Law Firms for more information.
Employers can have a tendency to assume the worst. Law firms are continually inundated with solid resumes and gatekeepers are trained to look for flaws in the applications. If you can anticipate the questions they may have about your submission and use the cover letter to answer the "holes" on your resume in an efficient way, you prevent them from contriving their own explanations and give yourself the opportunity to be seen in the best possible light, and the best chance at securing an interview!
Learn why attorneys usually fail law firm phone-screening interviews in this article: