Given the recession, a lot of lawyers shut out of Biglaw are trying to get jobs with small firms. The problem is, the skills required to get one of those jobs are not obvious to your average recent law school graduate.

Of course, small and solo practitioners want to help young lawyers better themselves! In the spirit of helping, here’s what one small practitioner sent to the ABA’s solo and small firm mailing list, SOLOSEZ:

I just received a resume and cover letter from a young attorney seeking employment in my firm. I honestly don’t notice things like spelling errors because I can’t spell myself, but I’m sure the letter and resume were flawless technically. I didn’t even read it that closely because the cover letter was addressed “Dear Sir or Madam:”

Here’s my response to the job seeker. Yes, I addressed it to him personally, but I’ll keep that private for his sake.

Undoubtedly, this response will be so helpful. Let’s take a look at this public service announcement…

As rejection letters go, this one is pretty harsh:

[NAME],

I recently received your resume & cover letter. While I’m not hiring right now, I thought I’d give you some feedback that might help in your approach.

1. Take the three minutes or so that it requires to research each firm to at least get a name to address your letter to someone. I don’t like being called “Dear Sir or Madam.” Especially when it would only take about 30 seconds to find my name online. This shows that you did NO research into my firm to see if you might be a fit for what we do. You are trying to push the match onto me. I don’t need you to make more work for me. I only hire people who make my life easier.

2. Your cover letter was all about you, and frankly, none of your experience has anything to do with my firm’s work. Again, if you had taken just a few minutes to search online, you would have found out what we do. Then you could make a decision. You could either write a cover letter that tells me how you’ll make my life easier, or you could save a stamp.

You have an interesting background – especially the National Outdoor Leadership School training. In Colorado, leading with that might be more effective than leading some of the legal experience you’ve had that really doesn’t translate to the local legal market.

I wish you the best in your job search.

The lesson: do not send generic cover letters to small firms.

But there were a lot of responses to that post on SOLOSEZ. Young associates should take note: the grass isn’t always greener on the small firm side. Here is one response from another attorney on the mailing list:

Bravo to you for taking the time to teach a young attorney an important job seeking skill- show potential employer how you will make their life easier. You may have saved him quite a few rejections AND may have saved him from getting a job that he’s not a fit for and will therefore be miserable doing.

At my last firm we hired a jr. Assoc. Because her mothers best friend was a big client of our small practice (which we could not afford to offend). Jr. was in the top 20% of her class, law review & did an externship completing legal research for BK Judge. Very bright, articulate attorney.

But, this poor girl we hired had never ever had a job before, was very soft spoken and had no clue about practicing BK or Civil litigation (our main practice areas). I took her under my wing and really did my best to help her wade into practice..

Fast forward to a year later, she is miserable, my former boss is miserable because he cant fire her (= lose client) and still cant do client consultations or court appearances because she gets so flustered/tongue-tied.

I guess the moral of my story is that young attorneys aren’t taught how to find the job that’s right for them..She was not a fit for a 2 attorney office that was very fast paced and heavy on face to face client contact. In a quest to find a job, any job it seems to have been a complete waste of a year.

With mentors like these, who needs enemies?

But, as long as we’re being so helpful, this seems like a good time to remind prospective candidates to scrub their Google footprint so that it’s clean enough to stick up a nun’s … habit:

I didn’t see it come up here, but I’d offer another bit of advice to potential candidates. Review your public profile information and adjust it appropriately to how you want potential employers to perceive you.

We receive 1-2 CV’s/week for people wanting to work with us and from all over the world given the nature of the business. We do a bit of due diligence to make sure they actually exist and if what is on their CV jives with what’s publicly available (google, linkedin, facebook etc.). One of our latest wrote a very professional letter, but when we researched her on the net I thought she was applying for a job in the adult film industry.

Now given the letter, I was impressed with the qualifications so I responded in kind. I didn’t do it, but part of me wanted to explain to her that she really needed to evaluate her profile on Facebook. Some potential employers might not be so open minded to think “I don’t care what you do outside of work”, particularly given her potential set of employers (EU institutions, etc.).

On the one hand, it’s shocking that job seekers haven’t already cleaned up their Facebook page. On the other hand … have any of these SOLOSEZ actually been looking for a job during this recession? I know every three-person practice likes to think that they are the most supercalifragilisticexpialidocious employer on Earth. But these graduates are sending around potentially hundreds of resumés a week.

One SOLOSEZ poster seemed to get that:

In defense of attorneys applying for jobs everywhere, it becomes somewhat frustrating to carefully tailor your resume/cover letter to specific firms that you apply to, only to never hear back from 98% of them. In the year and a half I spent in the wilderness of document review hunting for jobs, I probably sent out something in the range of 1,000 resumes and applications for various positions across the great State of Texas (and only for jobs that I at least seemed remotely qualified for; I didn’t simply throw my resume to the winds.) Six months into that period, after drafting carefully worded cover letters that mentioned something specific their firm does, emails that reference something in the hiring person’s bio, resumes that emphasize experience that seems relevant to the firm I was applying to, etc., etc. and still receiving an abysmal rate of response, I finally narrowed my cover letters down to several practice-specific generic cover letters, one generic cover letter that seemed suitable to almost any firm, and one resume that everybody got. Perhaps I lost out on an opportunity by not being more specific with my cover letters, but I had simply lost patience at that point (though I was never too lazy as to at least not attempt to figure out who I was sending my information to, so that my email/cover letter would be addressed properly.) A generic cover letter and generic resume got me the job I have now.

That being said, I would have been infinitely grateful during that year and a half for some guidance from prospective employer’s about what they are looking for in cover letters/resumes/interviews. I never even managed to irritate someone sufficiently so that they would respond and tell me-truthfully-what they thought of my cover letter, resume, qualifications or anything else.

If you’ve ever been out on the street, you know that getting ignored is the cruelest cut of all. And the vast majority of employers will ignore you … or send you a generic rejection letter.

While the advice offered by these small firm employers is absolutely correct, it’s not particularly helpful. Maybe you should walk a mile in the shoes of the unemployed and desperate before you’re so quick to criticize the minor annoyance of a form letter?

Earlier: 3L Achieves Networking Failure: Disaster Preserved via Email


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