Ed. Note: Our post on harsh rejection letters generated a lot of talk among people interested in applying to Small Law jobs. Donna Gerson — the author of Choosing Small, Choosing Smart — provided us with a list of tips that former-Biglaw associates should consider when applying to smaller firms.
I spend an enormous amount of time interviewing small firm practitioners throughout the U.S. and speaking to law students about the expectations small firm lawyers have when it comes to interviewing, hiring, and promotion.
The feedback from SOLOSEZ, the ABA’s solo and small firm mailing list, was on point. Take the time to write to an actual person at the firm and never use a “To Whom It May Concern” salutation. Mass mailings are the kiss of death and lawyers know when they’re getting a mail-merge monstrosity. Know what practice areas the firm engages in and write a cover letter that addresses one’s interest in those practice areas. An applicant’s cover letter ought to connect the dots for an employer and not simply recite one’s résumé. And – of course – job-seekers need to clean up their Internet presence. I cannot even begin to tell you some of the atrocious (and hilarious) stories I’ve heard over the years from legal employers about Facebook.
So what should former-Biglaw associates keep in mind when applying to Small Law?
Here are some other tips from small firm practitioners to would-be applicants:
• Experience matters. More than grades or law school pedigree, small firm practitioners value associates who can hit the ground running and practice law. Be specific about the skills you have acquired as an associate. If you are a law student, acquire experience while in law school. Whether that experience is paid, unpaid, volunteer, clinic, or an externship – experience matters. These experiences do not necessarily need to relate directly to the firm’s practice area (although that helps).
• Location matters, especially in smaller markets. Few lawyers in Manhattan, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco will inquire why an applicant is looking for a position in a large metropolitan area. But when you’re seeking a job in a smaller market (St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, the suburbs, etc.), an applicant ought to have some plausible narrative to explain one’s presence in that market. Small law firms hire on an “as needed” basis and each hire matters. Small firm employers want to understand an applicant’s connection to a particular area because it can relate to your business development skills, retention, and general happiness (see Gretchen Rubin’s article for more on happiness).
• Business development skills matter. While Biglaw doesn’t typically expect its associates to build a book of business (at least for several years), a thoughtful job applicant can impress a small firm employer by broaching the issue of business development. As one small firm partner explained, “it’s important to understand not only your clients’ needs, but where those clients come from.”
• Grades matter, but less than you think. While some small firms do place weight on grades as a hiring criterion, many small firm practitioners focus on evidence of good judgment, discretion, a solid work ethic, and a client-focused mentality. How does one convey those intangibles? Start by writing a well-written, thoughtful cover letter and preparing for an interview by discussing those skills and connecting one’s experience to the needs of the firm.
• Networking matters. For associates accustomed to hiring via the on-campus interview process, here’s important information: small firm employers expect you to reach out to them. Several small firm practitioners have mentioned to me that they post job openings on Craigslist because it’s free. They do not typically engage the services of headhunters due to cost. What other ways can you reach out to small firm employers? In addition to research and sending unsolicited cover letters and résumés, consider the following networking tips: Conduct informational interviews, attend networking events through one’s law school and local bar association, connect to one’s undergraduate alumni network, and more. Yes, I hear the collective groan of disgust out there, but these are important steps toward finding a job with a small law firm.
Donna Gerson is the author of Choosing Small, Choosing Smart: Job Search Strategies for Lawyers in the Small Firm Market (2005) and writes for the American Bar Association and Thomson Reuters.