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!).
Cover Letter Tips
Like the resume, the cover letter is a sample of your written work and should be brief (preferably one page), persuasive, well reasoned, and grammatically perfect. Before crafting your cover letters, review the following tips.
A good cover letter
- Tells the employer who you are and what you are seeking;
- Shows that you know about the particular employer and the kind of work the employer does (i.e., civil or criminal work, direct client service, “impact” cases, antitrust litigation);
- Demonstrates your writing skills;
- Demonstrates your commitment to the work of that particular employer;
- Conveys that you have something to contribute to the employer;
- Shows that you and that employer are a good “fit;” and
- Tells the employer how to get in touch with you by email, telephone, and mail.
Hiring attorneys and recruiting administrators use cover letters to
- Eliminate applicants whose letters contain misspellings (especially of the firm name and the name of the contact person) or other errors;
- Eliminate applicants whose letters show a lack of research, knowledge about, or interest in the employer’s work;
- Eliminate applicants who are unable to exhibit the value they will bring to the employer; and
- See if there are geographic ties or other information to explain the applicant’s interest in that city or employer.
Cover Letter Format
Your current address should be aligned with the center of the page or the left margin. Under your address you should include a telephone number where you can most easily be reached (i.e., your cell phone) and email address. The date is included under that contact information.
Determine to whom you should address the cover letter. If you are applying to law firms, address your letter to the recruiting director, unless you have reason to do otherwise—for example, if you have been instructed to address the letter to a particular attorney at the firm. For NALP member firms, use www.nalpdirectory.com to obtain that contact information. For other firms and public interest employers, you can refer to their websites, or contact the office to determine to whom your materials should be directed. The name of the person to whom the letter is addressed, his or her title, the employer’s name, and address follow the date and are aligned with the left margin. If writing to an attorney, include Esq. after the person’s name. The greeting appears two lines below the employer’s address and should be “Dear Mr.,” “Dear Ms.,” or “Dear Judge.” Avoid addressing your letter generally, such as Dear Sir or Madam; instead take the time to find the contact person and address the letter to that individual.
The body of the cover letter ought to be single-spaced with a line between each paragraph. The closing of the letter (“Sincerely” and your signature) should be two lines below the last line of the letter and either in the center of the page or aligned with the left margin, consistent with how you set up the top of your letter.
Cover Letter Body
Although there are many ways to write a cover letter, the following general format has worked well for candidates in the past.
- In the first paragraph of your cover letter, explain why you are sending your application to the employer: “I am an experienced attorney admitted in New York and am seeking a position with the Trusts and Estates practice group at your organization.” Mention your education background very briefly. In addition, if you have been referred by a mutual contact, you should mention that contact in the first paragraph.
- Use the second paragraph to explain your interest in the employer, including your interest in the employer’s geographic location, reputation, specialty area, or public service.
- In the third paragraph, stress why this employer should hire you. Try not to reiterate what is already included on your resume. Elaborate on the qualifications and experience you have that make you an exceptional attorney. As a lateral candidate it is particularly important to show the value you will bring to the organization.
- The final paragraph should thank the employer for taking the time to review your application and inform the employer of how you can be reached to set up an interview. You may wish to state that you will contact the employer in a couple of weeks to follow up and then actually do so. This is especially true with public interest employers who are often understaffed and will appreciate your extra effort.
For additional general cover letter advice, consult CDO's Introduction to Career Development. You are welcome to schedule an appointment with a CDO counselor to review and discuss your cover letter draft.