Rejection Hurts, the Opportunity That Comes with It Shouldn’t

Vol. 42 No. 2


Erin Binns is director of career plannning at Marquette University Law School.

Rejection is something most students only flirt with from afar before law school. A legal job search tends to change that. Few students navigate a legal job search without becoming intimately familiar with the “thanks-but-no-thanks” letter. And then there are the silent rejections, which are arguably even more painful. You apply; you interview; you wait. In the silence, you cling to the mantra that no news is good news. This works until you overhear a classmate talking about her call-back interview. It’s then you surrender to the belief that the firm’s disdain for you was so great they didn’t bother with official notification.

Rejection stings, but it’s often accompanied by opportunity if you’re attentive enough to see it and industrious enough to pursue it.

Hiring decisions are situational. A few interviewers identify who—in their opinions—is the strongest candidate for a specific job at a specific time. Recognize a rejection for what it most likely is: a statement of “not now” rather than “not ever.” Be prepared to capitalize on the contacts you make and the information you acquire while interviewing. How you handle not getting an offer can impact when and how you do get one. Below are six tips to help you move beyond disappointment and toward a job.

Express continued interest. In the spirit of the “not now” rejection, be proactive in expressing continued interest to employers with whom you felt you had a strong interview and from whom you received positive feedback during the interviewing process. If you reach the final round of interviews, you can conclude that there is a lot about your qualifications the organization likes.

Heather is a great example of how reaching out to a firm can pay dividends. Heather applied and interviewed for a position with a firm’s general litigation group and was one of two finalists. She was devastated not to get the offer. She loved the firm’s size, culture, and people. Because of this, Heather followed up with a letter to the hiring lawyer emphasizing her continued interest. She requested that they consider her in the future should their needs change. The future was two weeks. A member of the workers’ compensation group left and Heather was offered the position immediately. The hiring lawyer told Heather they had been disappointed that she hadn’t had the right experience for the first job, and they were so impressed with her follow-up they were thrilled to offer her the new position.

Trust your instincts. Great interviews don’t always generate offers. You can develop rapport with the interviewer, deliver terrific responses, ask insightful questions, and still not get the job. This doesn’t mean the interview was a bust. Trust your instincts in recognizing when you’ve established a genuine connection with an interviewing lawyer, and take steps toward nurturing a relationship. After the hiring process is over, you can contact an interviewer to inquire if he might be willing to meet with you for an informational meeting. (The purpose of an informational meeting isn’t to backdoor a job but rather to learn from a lawyer’s experiences and perspectives.)

During her second year of law school, Ashley didn’t get beyond a screening interview even though she hit it off with the interviewing lawyer. At that time Ashley’s résumé didn’t support an interest in health law, which was the firm’s primary practice. Ashley followed up with the lawyer after the recruitment season inquiring whether she might be willing to serve as a resource. The lawyer was excited to do so, and a mentoring relationship grew. The lawyer invited Ashley to conferences, counseled her on course selections, and provided input on her résumé. In Ashley’s final semester, her mentor’s firm had an opening for a new associate and through the endorsement of the interviewer turned mentor, Ashley was the only candidate considered for the position.

Apply again. You can and should reapply to employers where your credentials fit their needs even if they’ve previously rejected you. Every job posting captures a new pool of candidates, among which your résumé will play differently. And during the interim between applications, you should be diligent in acquiring skills and experiences to increase the stature of your candidacy. (If your candidacy isn’t evolving, alarms should be blaring!)

Kristin was a tenacious applicant and is presently a midlevel associate with a large law firm that rejected her candidacy three times. Kristin applied as a 1L (was rejected because they hired through a diversity program of which she wasn’t a part), as a 2L (was rejected because she was outside the firm’s class rank requirements), and as first-semester 3L (was rejected because they were hiring for a practice area in which she had no experience). When a position was posted in her final semester of law school, Kristin applied and received the offer. The firm liked her all along. It was just timing. When a need arose in a practice area where she could substantiate skill and interest, Kristin got the offer.

Be patient and take action. Employers’ decision-making processes can be slow. Not weeks slow, but months and semesters slow. This is more frequently true of smaller employers. Adding an associate is a business decision with repercussions that range from financial stability and staffing to availability of physical office space.

Scott applied with a mid-sized firm during the fall of his second year. After weeks of waiting for a response, the firm decided not to have a summer program, but the hiring partner encouraged Scott to stay in contact. Scott followed up with the lawyer in the spring, which led to another round of interviews. The firm again decided not to hire. In the fall of his third year, the firm participated in fall recruiting and again interviewed Scott. The result—a decision to hire a 2L, not a 3L. Despite Scott’s frustration, he continued to be proactive in cultivating a relationship with the firm and its lawyers. A few weeks after graduation, Scott received an offer for an associate position. What was critical to Scott’s success is that he continued to take action. He followed up to express ongoing interest with the firm when he hadn’t heard anything after interviews, and he checked in with lawyers as he was invited to do even when he didn’t get the job.

Don’t internalize your search. The feelings of frustration and disappointment that accompany a job search that is replete with “not now’s” can contaminate future interviews. Squelch their ominous presence by refusing to own job rejections as personal failures. Consider the percentage of the actual work force in any organization that decides your fate. Big Law is a perfect example. A firm with hundreds (maybe thousands) of lawyers sends one or two lawyers to campus to screen you. So you strike out with the screening lawyer. You may have hit it off with the other 599 lawyers at the firm, and one of them may be interviewing next time.

And appreciate that smaller employers have acutely defined cultures. An employer’s decision not to hire you because of ill-fitting experience or personality doesn’t denote a fatal flaw in you. Fit is important, and both parties have to recognize a match for you to thrive professionally. Don’t forget that you’re a decision maker in this process, too.

Assess and learn. Take inventory of what you’ve learned after every interview regardless of its outcome. Use what you discover to polish your interview presence, to define the scope of your job search, and to evaluate future employers for fit. Your school’s career services staff is a great resource for interview preparation and evaluation.

It’s okay to take a moment to mourn the job you don’t get, but then you need to move ahead fully prepared to capitalize on each interview experience. Grab hold of opportunities to stay connected with firms, build relationships with lawyers, and assess your candidacy. n


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