I'm a corporate lawyer at a small firm in downtown NYC. I pretty much hate everyone I work with - I'm not trying to be a jerk but I think I'm a lot smarter than most of the people here. I attended a good law school (in the top 15 law schools in America) and graduated in the top 12% of my class but had a hard time getting a permanent job because the market stunk when I graduated (2002). I didn't get any offers to be a summer associate when law firms came to interview 2Ls because I thought the "cattle call" nature of the whole thing was stupid and someone told me that it showed. I graduated without a job and started temping to pay the bills. One of the firms that hired me as a temp offered me a full-time job and I took it; I've been here for about four years. Now that the markets are a little healthier, I sent out some resumes (through a headhunter) and got a lot of interviews with big law firms. I felt pretty good during my interviews - most of the people were nice although the conversations were a little dull but it's been four months and I haven't gotten any offers. I'm starting to feel cursed. My headhunter told me that almost every firm that rejected me said that I seem like a "highly intelligent guy" (those words exactly) but that the "fit" doesn't seem right. What the hell does that mean? And I guess, more importantly, is there anything I can do to get a job?
Am I Cursed Forever?
I've been inhaling and exhaling rhythmically as I've contemplated how to answer your note, trying to find my "happy place" so that I might proffer some sage career advice. But I'm stuck. Yes, I can tell you what I think law firms mean when they say that a lawyer is lacking the requisite "fit" but I don't think that's the advice you're really looking for. In fact, I'm not at all convinced that you want to be inspired or affirmed for your strengths while lovingly scolded for your "potential growth areas." You seem responsive to harsh realities (you turned a temp position into a permanent one, good for you). The fact that you took the time to send in your note suggests that you're at the end of your rope and hopefully, ready for some truth, even if it's chilly. I'm going to embrace my inner drill sergeant and tell you what your note suggests to me. You've been acting like a dope. And you need to stop it right now.
For starters, I'm going to excuse some of the negative tone in your note because you are clearly upset and have determined that this forum is a 'safe' venue in which to honestly vent your frustration. There are a lot of righteous (and I mean that in a good way) lawyers out there who have shared their stories with me. Notwithstanding, your note evinces a history of less-than-perfect judgment and this history warrants scrutiny. You say that you graduated from a highly-ranked law school and that you were ranked in the top 12% of your class. That's impressive. Assuming that your academic success was consistent throughout your three years of law school and that your first year grades were solid, you should have secured an invitation to join a summer associate class at a firm in New York. Let me say that again. You should have secured an invitation to join a summer associate class at a firm in New York. I simply don't "buy it" that you couldn't get a job because, as you say, "the market stunk." Did other classmates (with weaker grades) at your law school get job offers? There are over 250 impressive, highly profitable and competitive firms in New York City that belong to NALP and visit law school campuses (particularly top ranked law schools!) to recruit potential first year associates. Chances are, your career placement office held some kind of lottery and you were allowed to interview with 20 to 30 law firms. If this is true and you used these interviews as opportunities to make a passive-aggressive statement about the commoditization of attorneys (reference to your "cattle call" disdain) only to leave yourself out in the proverbial cold of no-job-land, you made a bad call, my friend. You're probably saying that you know all this now and that I'm not doing you any favors by rubbing salt in the wound. I disagree. I am not doing you any favors by failing to point out a crucial connection between your law school days and your present job search. You seem utterly oblivious and/or indifferent to how YOU might be coming across during your interview.
You "hate everyone [you] work with," and you think you're "a lot smarter than most of the people" at your present firm. In law school, you didn't like the "cattle call nature" of on-campus interviews. Present day, you observed that your recent conversations with interviewers were a "little dull." Let's now consider what the response has been from these same "dull" folks, also known as the people holding the keys to the castle. "Not the right fit." Is it starting to sink in? I'm being blunt because it sounds like you're really frustrated and want to see change. I sense that your experience with your on-campus interviews had some pretty long lasting negative impacts, and I want you to know that history does not have to repeat itself. Stop looking for change and start effecting it.
As a favor to one of my colleagues, I recently prepared a young lawyer for his slate of interviews with law firms in the New York metropolitan area. I conducted a mock interview, pretending to be a partner at one of the law firms he was scheduled to meet, and asked the typical questions one might expect in a job interview. Why are you presently looking to leave your current situation? What do you see yourself doing in a few years? Is there a particular transaction that you enjoyed working on in recent months? This young lawyer responded with the following: he didn't respect his colleagues and would never want to become a partner at his present firm. He wasn't sure that he wanted to remain a practicing lawyer and he might, if he could financially afford it, leave the practice of law altogether in pursuit of authoring the great American novel. When quizzed on the nature of the transactions on his deal sheet, he responded with ambivalence and said, "That is precisely why I want to leave my current firm. I don't care about the work we do." I stopped the mock interview five minutes after we'd started.
The funny thing is, I liked this attorney immediately upon walking into the conference room. Before we actually started the mock interview, we chatted briefly about one of the personal interests detailed in his resume and had a good laugh about his recent horrifying, humiliating yet hilarious sidewalk collision with a celebrity chef (we both love to cook). I assumed he would excel as an interview candidate. After I brought the mock interview to a screeching halt, I asked him to explain. I believe I said, "Tell me that you were joking." He responded earnestly, "Was I really that bad? I was trying to be honest, I figured any worthwhile employer would want me to be honest and not give a B.S. answer."
His is the classic example of the very nice candidate who is completely clueless as to how he is coming across. In his effort to be "real," he lost sight of how he might be perceived. Please don't misunderstand; honesty is always a good thing. The problem is when someone is being interviewed for a job and focusing all of his energy on providing answers that are only "true-to-himself," he's unlikely to actually get the job because he'll be perceived as too self-involved.
Now, I don't know what is being said during your interviews or what the dynamic is like in those rooms. But I don't think that the conclusion I've drawn about your need to work on interviewing and general attitude is such a far stretch. Frankly, your very own recruiter has tried to spell it out for you: you are able to demonstrate your intelligence (hence, the "highly intelligent guy" comment) but you're not connecting with people on a personal level (hence, the "no fit" comment). Connecting with people in a job interview isn't only about matching up one's professional interests or base-line intelligence with another's. It is crucial that a candidate demonstrate that he is someone that colleagues will want to spend time with, whether in a conference room over a late dinner, on a plane en route to visit a client or at the umpteenth drafting session at the printer. How do you do this?
First, get out of your own head. Stop spending so much energy thinking about what you hope to get out of this interview and what you hope to get out of this new job and start thinking about the person sitting across from you. Does she look tired from a late night of work? Does she have stacks of files on her desk? Maybe you should thank her for taking the time to meet with you as you expect she must be very busy. Does she look distracted? Maybe you should ask her about what she's currently working on and give her an opportunity to share or vent.
Second, make it easy for your interviewer to connect with you by putting yourself in her shoes. Imagine that you haven't slept in days because of a particularly stressful deal and suddenly, someone in your firm's recruiting department calls to say that you have to interview a lateral candidate for your very busy department. You say, "Can't do it." The recruiting department won't leave you alone. You say, "Fine," but you're resolved to get rid of the candidate within 20 minutes. The candidate sits across from you and waits for you to ask a question. You ask. She answers. This goes on. You ask her if she has any questions and she asks questions you've been trained to answer ("What's your assignment process like? How is feedback delivered at this firm"?). Your mind starts to wander and you realize that you're hungry and that the cafeteria is serving turkey reubens today. Before you know it, the 20 minutes are up and the candidate leaves. You write her a mediocre review and you never see her again. The candidate didn't get a strong review from you and probably wouldn't get a strong review from other interviewers because she didn't connect with you. Ah, "the perfectly nice but no fit" comment comes to mind (that's the counterpart to "highly intelligent but no fit"). So, now that you've visualized yourself on the other side of the desk actually conducting the interview, maybe you'll be able to try a little harder to connect with your future interviewers. Think about the kind of day she might be having. Show her, through your efforts, demeanor and energy that you appreciate his time. I know it sounds simple but it is. You have a highly ranked school on your resume. You earned good grades. You have 4 years of experience, cultivated at the same firm. Make it easy for your interviewer and you'll get the job every time.
Your situation saddens me because I'm certain that you are a very intelligent and perfectly nice person with a great deal to offer a potential law firm employer. One day, you might be the person behind the brain trust that creates intricate and innovative investment vehicles exploited by issuer companies and global financial institutions. Who knows, you could turn out to be a no-holds-barred negotiator that is the coveted hired gun in the world of M&A lawyers. But until you start thinking about the other people in the room and showing them that you appreciate and respect them, nobody will ever know. Good luck with all of it and please stay in touch,
Do you have a question about your legal career? Click here to email Sang directly.
| SANG J. LEE, ESQ |
Sang is the President and Managing Partner of SJL Attorney Search, LLC. Over the years, Sang has placed hundreds of attorneys in the New York metropolitan area with global, national and boutique law firms and has partnered with numerous Fortune 500 corporations, investment banks and technology companies in identifying top talent for in-house legal departments.
Sang has been invited to speak at Stanford Law School, New York University School of Law and New York University's School of Continuing Education and City College of New York. She was a panelist at the 2004 NALP End of Season Series for the session entitled "Dog Eat Dog: The Reality of the New York Legal Market" and has also been featured on panels for NYCRA and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Sang consults for the Office of Career Services at New York University School of Law where she counsels, coaches and prepares law students and alumni for interviews with prospective employers.
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