General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionBest of ABA Sections

FALL 1997

Law Student Division

The Top-10 Blunders You Don’t Want to Make When Looking for a Job

David C. James

10. Use a poorly crafted cover letter. Your cover letter should be substantive, not merely a transmittal letter. It should explain why the employer ought to interview you, and it’s your first writing sample. If it’s not a good one, you will diminish everything you enclose with it. Many applicants adopt a stilted style, a variant of legalese. Showing you can write legalese is not a qualification for the job. To favorably impress employers, write in plain English.


9. Confuse one employer with another. It never ceases to amaze me how many students write to me and refer to my office by the wrong name. Even in interviews, some applicants consistently refer to my office by the wrong name. Most often the mistakes are near misses. My office prosecutes cases, so applicants incorrectly call us the district attorney’s office or the state’s attorney. Such carelessness deflates what otherwise might be a strong interview.

Other mistakes, such as inaccurate name-dropping, also can deflate your credibility. I have had interviewees drop the names of lawyers in my office whom they claim to know, but mispronounce the name or use a given name when the lawyer goes by a nickname. Don’t insinuate more familiarity than you have. It destroys your credibility, and with it goes your candidacy.


8. Send resumes to the wrong people. When you write to a law office, contact the correct person. Many students take a shotgun approach, sending resumes to friends of friends, alumni or anyone else they know in a law office. This approach shows you haven’t done your homework. With a little research you can find out whom you should be contacting.

Count on every letter you send to the same employer being collected in one file on you. When a hiring lawyer is forwarded three or four identical letters you’ve written to different members of the firm, it undermines your credibility. Rather than appearing genuinely interested, you appear to be blanketing the legal community with resumes.


7. Recontact a law office without mentioning your previous contacts. If you’re writing to someone to whom you have applied before, mention it. When I receive letters from students whose names I recognize, I check and often find we have exchanged letters as recently as three months earlier. I often receive letters from students I’ve interviewed before—perhaps the previous interview season—who don’t even mention that we’ve met.

How much better it is to say, "Perhaps you will remember that I did a clinic in your office last year," rather than acting like you haven’t met the person you’re writing to. If you fail to display the normal social graces, your chances of being hired are remote.


6. Have someone else submit your resume without contacting the employer yourself. If someone is going to send a letter introducing you to a partner or hiring lawyer, be sure to speak for yourself, too. Frequently lawyers send me letters touting the virtue of someone. All too often that someone never contacts me on his or her own, and I have no reason to believe they are really interested in working for us. It is frustrating to respond to someone who has not contacted me. I’d like to say, "So-and-so forwarded your resume to me; if you care, let me know."


5. Don’t take "No" for an answer. Sometimes you need to accept that a particular employer is not going to offer you a job. If you get turned down for a job, it’s fair to ask the employer whether you might be competitive for some future opening. If the employer offers real hope, it might pay to be persistent. But it’s not a mark of character to be persistent when it is futile. If you keep going back to an employer who offers you no encouragement, you are wasting time that you could better spend on realistic prospects.


4. Don’t be on your best behavior with secretaries and other support staff. When you’re being interviewed, everyone you meet is a potential ally or detractor. Act accordingly. Applicants know to put their best foot forward when they talk to hiring committee members. A surprising number don’t realize that impressing other members of the office is equally important. When you’re applying for a job, assume that the hiring committee will ask everyone you talk to what they think of you. Your fate may be determined by what support staff members think of you.


3. Call to follow up your cover letter and resume. Whereas a human relations department takes telephone inquiries in stride, busy hiring lawyers find telephone calls unwelcome interruptions. It is poor form to mail a resume and say in your cover letter that you will follow up with a telephone call.

When you are competitive and your timing is good, hiring lawyers will be happy to respond to your letter with an invitation to come in for an interview. But when you call and interrupt a lawyer, what might have been an enthusiastic reception (had you waited for a response in the mail) will become a begrudging, if polite, reception. Don’t make a nuisance of yourself.


2. Cold-call on the telephone, especially when you’re evasive about who you are and what you want. Every hiring lawyer, recruiting coordinator, and law firm receptionist is used to would-be job applicants calling to inquire about jobs. Those calls are burdensome, but the most aggravating calls are from people who try to avoid telling receptionists or secretaries what they’re calling about.

You are really doing yourself a disservice if you go even further and misrepresent what you’re doing. Some callers are disingenuous enough to tell the receptionist that they are responding to my letter, implying that I asked them to contact me, when the truth is that I simply sent them a letter acknowledging receipt of their resume. If you call a law firm and reach the hiring lawyer only by using guile, you have not succeeded in establishing the kind of relationship that will lead to a job offer.


1. Drop in without an appointment. All too often my recruitment coordinator and I have to deal with would-be applicants who drop in without an appointment and want to talk about applying for a job. People do it often enough that I’m sure some book out there somewhere encourages job seekers to do it. Whether or not dropping in on a firm has its place in the nonlegal marketplace, I can tell you that dropping in on a law firm is not well tolerated.

While companies in other professions have human resources departments, most hiring lawyers do not. Besides hiring duties, hiring lawyers have a busy law practice. They do not want to take time from their practice to entertain the overtures of applicants who drop in. Hiring lawyers want to invest their time with applicants only after they have screened resumes and know whom they’re dealing with.

David C. James is the hiring lawyer in the Office of the San Diego City Attorney.

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared in Student Lawyer, March 1997 (25:7).

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