I’ve often said (only half-jokingly) for many years—even decades—that in retrospect, it seems that when I graduated with my Juris Doctor degree from Tulane Law School in 1979, “the streets were paved with gold.” Translation: If a young graduate had a law degree, then, he/she likely had work—indeed even work choices—notwithstanding class ranking. Of course, that was a veritable lifetime ago. I coined that metaphor when the proliferation of graduating, newly-minted lawyers and a tightening, increasingly-crowded job market conspired to make navigating job opportunities in the profession increasingly more difficult and for many, seemingly impossible.
Even now, having spent the last eight years focusing largely on domestic and foreign corporate anti-corruption compliance practice and internal investigations with the great law firm of Butler Snow LLP—I find myself frequently approached by former and recently-graduated law students (many from my days as Tulane Law School’s first Assistant Dean for Experiential Learning and my earlier 12 years as United States Attorney immersed in the hiring process), and advising them on the increasingly difficult process of trying to stand out and earn both attention and serious consideration among the crowds of applicants in the quest for both government and private sector attorney jobs. With a flair for stating the obvious, I am motivated to make these observations by a steady flow of young professionals who are doggedly seeking some ways, methods, tips if you will—to simply get the opportunity to interview for that attorney position among myriad (indeed, depending upon the position, sometimes hundreds) of applicants seeking the same post.
My advice (almost ironically) seems increasingly relevant in today’s application/selection/hiring process which across the entire job spectrum, increasingly (if not almost entirely) relies on electronic on-line form applications, that in turn essentially dump applicants into sometimes huge databases, thus relegating the applicants to members of virtual herds.
Having spent some 35 years as a prosecutor (30 of those years with the U.S. Department of Justice), 20 years as a Naval Reserve Intelligence officer, and the last eight years with Butler Snow in the private sector—I have had the pleasure and distinct privilege of seeing and working with—and in some cases, hiring—some of the best, brightest, most energetic, ethical, dedicated and promising young professionals anywhere. To my delight, I still see them and get to interact with them both here in Butler Snow—and as energetic young job seekers in need of direction, they increasingly ask me how to pursue a job application in an impossibly crowded field. Indeed, in my experience it’s not unusual—and even often the norm—that a government attorney post or private sector one for that matter, will be limited to one or perhaps two openings.…but in some cases with hundreds of applicants. Especially in those situations in which the vacancies and application processes are posted and take place online (e.g., USAJobs for federal posts), the singular and most compelling initial challenge is to have a hiring screener actually see, hear, notice and pay attention to the applicant…and to objectively and subjectively evaluate his/her capabilities, motivations and ultimate value as an investment and productive member of the law firm, agency or department.
It is imperative that (notwithstanding any other avenues taken by the applicant), the electronic application process needs to be followed—quickly, scrupulously, and completely. So, if a posting, for instance on USAJobs is attractive, the applicant needs to get into that system, that database—and in essence feed the beast. (This, despite my obvious disdain for these labyrinthine data dumps.) Sadly, too many young people submit their information into these data labyrinths and simply hope and wait for a response—a response which too often just doesn’t come. Yes, there are many very qualified individuals who by virtue of their impressive class rankings, achievements or extraordinary experience, rise to the top and garner appropriate and well-deserved attention as obvious choices. But what about the other hundreds—including those diamonds in the rough hiding among the masses?
My bedrock advice to my former students and current job seekers does (almost surprisingly sometimes) often yield surprisingly good results. First and foremost, do not stop with the electronic application. At the end of the day, the same human contact, eye-to-eye verbal communication…coupled with legitimate enthusiasm, articulated reasons for seeking the post and the ability to intelligently and thoughtfully answer questions, are still the bases on which hiring decisions are forged and made.
To those I advise, my next observation is targeted at the job databases. Yes, as good a search engine as USAJobs is—the fact remains that it’s not always up-to-date or accurate. Very often, whether it’s a U.S. Attorney’s or other government agency legal office (or law form or corporation), many offices find their ability to keep postings current are outpaced by new openings, which have to be filled swiftly. What does this mean? For the would-be applicant who has an interest in any particular position or office— whether or not an opening is posted—it is worth a phone call to that office to simply inquire about the existence of openings. Yes, these often work.
Next, when the time comes to apply, as I said—carefully, accurately and completely fill out the application online and submit it. However, it’s the human factor that will likely carry the day. That is, anyone interested in an office should actually take the initiative and do several things:
- Learn about the job being sought. First, before anything else, the applicant must go online and carefully study all available information on an office’s (e.g., law firm, USAO, etc.) website, in order to learn everything possible about the office: it’s structure, divisions, missions, priorities and key personnel. This is critical because it will prevent the applicant from doing something that I always considered fatal in an initial or advanced conversation or interview…and that is the applicant asking a question about the office, the answer to which was available, and which could have been learned with some modicum of effort.
- Get on the radar screen: Call the office and speak to someone. (I know that to many this sounds unthinkable!) Having done the research, the applicant should determine who in the office is cloaked with the responsibility of reviewing applications and setting up and/or managing the interview/selection process. This may have to be done through a telephone call to the office. Depending on what information on the website is or is not available, it may be necessary to call the switchboard, identify oneself and ask for, say, the chief of the Criminal or Civil Division—or in some cases, the Admin Officer (AO). Every day I hear back from people in the application process who do this and who are shocked by their ability to get through to human beings, who can speak with them and help them determine the availability of openings and where applications and letters of application should most productively be addressed. Placing the call is critical, because not only can it yield important information that will help clarify the application process, but it also does something absolutely essential: It establishes real, live communication between the applicant and an individual or individuals who will be part of the selection process. The applicant is no longer an anonymous, abstract number, lost in a sea of data—but now has a name and has shown the initiative to reach out and make contact…to communicate…in essence to do what his/her effective representation of the office, client or firm will depend on for success in the practice. The applicant now has an identity.
- Make formal contact—with a letter. Draft an accurate, error-free cover letter (not to exceed one page), succinctly stating the candidate’s application for the position and articulating clearly and plainly why this job, this office and this city is important to him/her. Likewise, the CV should be thorough but brief and readable… because the people reviewing these things don’t have time to plough through multiple page resumes. And for heaven’s sake, the applicant must make certain that there are no errors whatsoever. I was shocked and quite frankly irritated when I repeatedly saw letters of application which contained misspellings of names, official titles or addresses. There are no excuses for any errors in the letter of application. If an applicant can’t take the time and effort to do this correctly, the writer will not get past the first read, no matter how impressive it otherwise might be.
- Follow up if necessary. Just as with the electronic application, do not send it and forget it. Conversely, don’t be a pest. Use judgment. If a letter has gone out and no response has been received in, say, a couple of weeks, a brief one-line or short paragraph note expressing continued interest is not inappropriate…nor is a call to the office. To the contrary, the applicant needs to use—and demonstrate—both judgment and initiative.
- The interview process is another thing entirely and in the interest of space won’t be covered here. The purpose of this is to get the individual applicant adequately noticed and into the interview process. That said, in the application form, letter and interview, it is absolutely critical that the applicant is prepared to succinctly and convincingly convey to the hiring office that he/she wants to be there, in that office, and not signal in any way that this is one pellet in a shotgun approach. Hiring attorneys see this all the time and have almost unfailing abilities to detect this. The candidate needs to be candid, enthusiastic and open about his/her reasons for being there. Under no circumstances should a form or one-size-fits-all letter be sent to numerous offices. These are transparent and ugly, and in my humble estimation, render the applicant dead on arrival.
- Finally, if the applicant really wants this job, but doesn’t get selected, he/she should give serious consideration to staying the course: that is, articulating to the firm or office that the applicant wants very much to remain under consideration. It’s critical to remember that, as I indicated earlier—for every one or two open positions, there are often myriad applicants…many of whom who are qualified and who are even compelling candidates to the decision makers. The applicant may be a top contender—which would be especially evident if interviewed—but may be overshadowed by a last-minute opportunity of the firm or office to hire someone who has 30 years of experience, and with whom they will be able to fill the position immediately. If it’s important to the applicant, he/she should stay connected…and periodically call or let the office know that he/she still wants to be considered. There are no guarantees—but the willingness to actively pursue a position can have a significant amount of weight, possibly being a determining factor in a second look.
After almost 45 years in practice, I find myself surprised and repeatedly gratified by young people navigating the job market who take these suggestions—and through proactive contact, self-advocacy and demonstration of grit and determination—end up in otherwise unexpected interviews, often being selected for highly sought-after positions.