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.
Law students love to bash the staff of their law school’s career services office. Students often roll their eyes as they describe a staff, usually all female, most with law degrees, who have allegedly traded in the law firm life for a 9-to-5 job. The students often comment that the staff does nothing to help the students secure jobs. Well, I wish to share with you a harsh reality that your law school counselors may not be able to impart directly.
When a student presents to the career services office at law school for a résumé review, there is very little that the counselors can do at that point. The counselors can, of course, suggest the reordering of text and/or tighten certain job descriptions. But YOU are the one who has made certain professional choices, and the staff cannot rewrite your history. A résumé is impressive not because it is well-written; a résumé is impressive because it demonstrates curiosity, risk-taking, and a desire for depth of experience.
So what is my main advice about résumés?
I encourage you to stop worrying about the formatting of your résumé and, instead, focus your energies on your professional choices. I assure you that Biglaw recruitment staffs do not care about how you describe your experience; we care about the experience itself. A person who spent his first summer at Cold Stone Creamery is going to be at a disadvantage when his competition spent the same summer at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Now, you may think that this advice is obvious. However, as someone who has seen thousands of law student résumés over two decades, I believe that this reality is not taken to heart by a large majority of applicants. Résumés fall into two piles: competitive (20%) and noncompetitive (80%). In 2014, a competitive résumé is one that evidences a hunger — a hunger to grow and expand. We receive résumés from people who have successfully battled physical and mental illness, who have worked in remote and dangerous parts of the globe, who have founded and eventually sold companies. It is very hard to ignore these candidates. The strength of their character and their directedness are written all over their résumés. They are actively steering their own development by pushing themselves.
By 2014 standards, I have a noncompetitive résumé. Before I moved to New York, I held a few local jobs. I folded sweaters summer after summer at a local boutique. I share this with you because today I would not even get an interview at a Biglaw firm for a role on a recruitment team. By analogy, as a law student, you will not get an interview at a Biglaw firm if your résumé is similarly provincial.
I appreciate that some people have greater advantages than others — whether it be parents with connections, relatives living overseas, etc. But I am just being truthful. When a recruiter has a stack of résumés in hand, he or she will always gravitate toward the safe bet. The recruiter, like any employee, wants to walk into the bosses’ office and ultimately receive praise. In order to receive praise, the recruiter will present the shiniest résumé first. This does not mean the other résumés in the pile are not viable; it just means that they will stay in the pile.
So how does one get impressive experience if, after trying all traditional paths, a student is not able to land a position at, for instance, the U.S. Attorney’s Office? You must immediately commence a nontraditional job search. You must research the people who make hiring decisions, and you must find a way to get onto their radar while maintaining your professionalism. You have chosen to go to law school, so it seems fair to conclude that you are (somewhat) passionate about the law. Well, do what a passionate person does when he or she wants something — namely, anything it takes. Do not simply complain that the career services office is not handing you opportunities.
I know of one attorney who graduated at the bottom of his class at Georgetown. After graduation, he spent six months sleeping on the couches of his employed friends as he chased his dream of working in Biglaw. Specifically, he pursued any lead that he unearthed. He eventually met the right person who set him up with an unpaid, term-time internship at a large firm, and, over the next year, he proved that he was talented enough to excel at the firm. Twenty years later, he is the managing partner of the New York office of the same firm. Clearly, he wanted the job badly enough.
On the subject of résumés, I wish to address the question of whether or not a candidate should consider a résumé a marketing document. In other words, does a résumé have to be the truth and nothing but the truth, or can a candidate rewrite his or her experience in order to make the résumé more shiny? I suggest that you keep the five-second rule in mind. Without lying, do what you need to do to make your résumé stand out because, on the first pass, it will receive no more than five seconds of the recruitment staff’s attention. I am not suggesting an absurdly large font, colored ink or the like. I simply mean that you need to lead with your strengths because if they are buried in the résumé, they may never be seen. I am a fan of bullet points to quickly and clearly set forth your strengths.
Finally, I wish to reinforce a point that I made in my last column. When applying for a job other than a general summer associate position, the experience on your résumé must support the fact that you are a good fit for the open role. If your résumé does not support your supposed interests, you will not be advanced in the hiring process. If you say that you love antitrust law, you must have taken Antitrust and you must have done well in this course. You must be able to explain why you like this practice area (beyond giving the most common response of “it has always fascinated me”). You are building a case and each component of the case must ideally point in one unified direction. It is fine that you do not pursue nine of out ten job openings. The tenth opportunity will be your job, and you will be well-placed to seriously compete for this position.
This Week’s Email Response
This week I received an email from a couple, both law clerks, both of whom are seeking to join a Biglaw firm. The couple asked me if they should respond truthfully when asked by potential Biglaw employers if they are currently holding any offers, and, if so, with which firms.
The answer is straightforward. If the firm that you hold an offer at is more prestigious than the one at which you are interviewing, yes, share this information with the interviewer. I have seen attorneys fall over themselves to rush a candidate through the interview process because they believe that they can steal the candidate away from a competitor. On the other hand, if the offer is from a notably less prestigious firm, I would not share the particulars of the offer. I would promote an air of mystery and leave the interviewer knowing that you are employable and that you have options. The fact that you have an offer will make you more interesting to your interviewer. If, however, you are pressed by your interviewer, do not make an issue out of it; just share the details of any open offer.
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!).