Interview Stories, Job Searches, Shameless Plugs, Small Law Firms

Small Firms, Big Lawyers: The Secret to Finding a Small-Firm Job

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Small Firms, Big Lawyers, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

It’s been many years, but I still remember the steps I took to land a job at a small law firm. Even though some of the methods have changed with technology, law students and potentially on-the-move associates might find this tale instructive.

After flaming out in the on-campus-interviewing process, I went to the library and looked up law firms in the Boston area. (This was before the Internet but after libraries.) I wrote down the names of dozens of firms, then went to the Martindale-Hubbell books and looked up the different firms. (Yeah, I know: quaint.) I selected lawyers whose practice areas or backgrounds or law schools or something seemed like a match for me, and I wrote down (in actual handwriting) their names and contact information. I then went back to my apartment, fired up the Wang word processor (OK, now I’m just messing with you), and entered them into a mail-merge form letter.

I then mailed dozens of nearly identical form letters (“Dear Lawyer …”) to attorneys around Boston, enclosing completely identical copies of my résumé. The letters said basically the same thing as the résumés, except in paragraph form (I used bullet points in the résumé), and asked for an interview.

Guess how well this method worked.…

That’s right: not at all. If I got a response at all (which was maybe 20 percent of the time), it was a two- or three-line form letter from some HR flunky. And the nonresponses were even more demeaning. No, this was definitely not the way to go about it.

(Side note: The one thing I did do right was put bullet points in my résumé. No one reads résumés; they skim them. Bullet points are much easier to skim than droning paragraphs about the things you did as a legal intern. My first (and only) boss’s first words to me in my job interview were: “I invited you to come in because you used bullet points in your résumé.” I kid you not. Hey, whatever works.)

Fortunately, I’ve learned a thing or two over the last 17 years. During that time, I’ve probably interviewed a couple hundred lawyers. I’ve seen what doesn’t work, and I’ve seen what does. So let me tell you what the best method is for getting a job.

Two words: Cash bribes.

No, no; just kidding. That would be wrong. Effective, but wrong. The correct two-word answer is “informational interviews.” Seriously. Hear me out on this.

Informational interviews are exactly what they sound like: interviews with people for the ostensible purpose of gaining information, rather than an actual job. You get in touch with a lawyer, and you ask if he or she can share some insights on the particular practice area you’re interested in. You’re not looking for a job; you’re looking for tips.

Since there’s no job on the line, you will be much less nervous and much more yourself during the interview. It’s not really an interview in the traditional sense; it’s more a chat with someone you’re just meeting. Likewise, there’s no pressure on the interviewer either. Because there’s no position hanging in the balance, the interviewer doesn’t have to worry about whether you’re the right person for the job.

Informational interviews are much, much easier to obtain than “real” interviews. Most lawyers are, er, egomaniacs to a degree (myself included). We fall for flattery. “Oh, Mr. Shepherd, you’re such an expert on employment law. Please allow me to slake my thirst for knowledge in your font of wisdom.” Or words to that effect. (Yeah, that sounded weirder than expected after I wrote it. Sorry.)

Even better is when you refer to something that the lawyer did or wrote. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve granted an informational to some stranger who tells me that she loved my Gruntled Employees post on a twitterable Twitter policy, or whatever. I mean, I know exactly what she’s doing here. I know that she couldn’t care less about my blog post. But I fall for it anyway. Cases work, too. (“Oh, I happened to read the Lindemann case that you won in ’05. Just brilliant. Please tell me all about it.”)

Yes, I know: I’m making lawyers out to be venal and vain. This is news?

Another successful approach, besides the implicit (or explicit) flattery of his or her prior work, is to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with your target lawyer. This method uses the power of what Malcolm Gladwell calls “weak ties.” (See his New Yorker article on the subject, especially at Part 6, which discusses getting a job with weak ties.) If a friend of mine asks me to meet with someone for an informational interview, I always will consent. And vice versa. (Advanced-level tip: Ask your informational interviewers to suggest other people you should meet. Then you can say, “Jay Shepherd said I should meet with you.” Don’t use my name there; I’m just an example. You get the idea.)

So send an email to your target interviewer. Mention his or her blog or case or law-review article or adult Craigslist ad (kidding). Or mention the person whose name you’re dropping. Up to you whether to include your résumé at first, or in the follow-up to scheduling the interview.

(Another bonus tip: Don’t tell me in your cover email that you’ve enclosed your “resume.” That’s a different word. If you don’t know how to spell (or type) “résumé,” you’re too dumb to work here, anyway.)

When it’s time for your informational, show up on time. Do not show up ten or 15 minutes early. What the hell am I supposed to do while you’re sitting outside my office? Of course, don’t show up late either.

Come prepared with intelligent questions, but not ones that sound canned. Plan on being there for 20 minutes, and be ready to bug out at that point. If your interviewer is enjoying the conversation, he or she will keep you there longer. Always send a thank-you email or note. And then follow up again down the road.

Does this method really work? Absolutely. Over the past 13 years, I have hired five lawyers whom I first met in informational interviews (months or even years before I hired them). In addition, I know of six other informational interviewees who ended up with jobs that they got after I sent them to other lawyers. It absolutely works.

One of my former associates asked for an informational with me when she was a 2L. She dropped the name of a colleague of mine to get it. She then followed up with another informational during her third year, and then another after she graduated. She never once asked for a job, and I wasn’t hiring at the time. She then showed up at a CLE I was giving. (A little stalkerish, but still cool.) Shortly after this, we were having trouble finding a midlevel associate, so we decided instead to hire a first-year lawyer. Guess who we hired?

So embrace the informational interview. It works much better than blind résumés and form letters.

You can tell them I sent you.

Jay Shepherd has run the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group for the past 13 years. Jay also founded Prefix, LLC, which helps lawyers and clients value and price legal services. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at

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