Denver Bar Association
February 2005
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Ten Ways to Mess Up a Job Application and Interview

by Barbara Weil Laff

A Rant from a Seasoned Veteran

Finding a job with a legal employer is difficult enough — here are my suggestions for how to make it worse, based on the mountains of resumes I have reviewed over the years. Each "tip," all real-life examples, is followed by my suggestions.

1. Don’t follow the firm’s posted guidelines for applications. Better yet, after reading the posted guidelines, send the hiring partner or recruiting coordinator an e-mail asking what the firm would like you to send.

Suggestion: If the firm takes the time to tell you (on the Web site, NALP form, or in the advertisement) exactly what it would like you to send in to complete the application, follow the directions. If the employer requests a resume, writing sample and transcript, and you send only one of the items, you demonstrate inattention to detail, and disrespect for the time of the person who has to follow up with you to get the rest of the items.

2. Proofreading is for Sissies. Lawyers don’t have enough amusement in their lives, and live for resumes and cover letters that indicate the applicant is looking for an "assocatie" position, or attended a certain "universtiy." Other amusement comes from improper syntax ("your practice area peeked my interest") or grammar ("my law professor have recommended me").

Suggestion: A poorly-written or mistake-filled cover letter and resume will demonstrate your actual writing ability and attention to detail to the employer. Be very careful if you are using a mail merge program, so that you don’t tell a California firm how much you are looking forward to working in New York.

3. Write to Dead People. One applicant’s earnest letter to a partner who passed on many years ago prompted my 10-year-old daughter to create special letterhead for our response. And no, though we wanted to, we didn’t actually send it.

Suggestion: If you do not have Internet access, go to the public library. Look up the firm’s Web site. See if the person to whom you are writing is still alive or, though alive, has left the firm. (Hint: if there are two dates in parentheses after the person’s name in Martindale-Hubbell or on the firm’s Web site, it means he or she is no longer alive.) Speaking of addressing the letter, if you have a true connection with someone at the firm, by all means write to that person. The resume may still end up with the hiring partner or recruiting coordinator, but with a favorable comment from your contact.

4. Call every other day to make sure the hiring partner received your resume. If you took the time to send the application, the least the partner can do is let you know he or she got it, right?

Suggestion: Seriously, one call might be a good idea, especially if you use snail mail (my preferred method for receiving resumes), but more than one is annoying. I do not, however, mind receiving a call from an out-of-town applicant who plans to visit the area. A call might prod the hiring person to dig your resume out of the stack and agree to meet with you. Every applicant deserves a respectful response, but in "real life," busy lawyers cannot respond to everyone within days.

5. Respond to ads for positions for which you are not even remotely qualified. Hiring partners love to get applications for a third-year tax associate from a 10-year employment litigator "looking for a change." Expecting the firm to pay a salary commensurate with your experience while training you in an entirely new area is a nice touch.

Suggestion: If your qualifications are in the neighborhood of what is being sought, go ahead and apply. If your qualifications are in the next ZIP code, wait for a job that will fit you, and everyone will be happier. I am informed that certain career counselors advise people to apply for jobs when they do not have the specific qualifications requested, such as years of experience, academic accomplishment, and practice area knowledge. There, now I’ve presented a fair and balanced view of the debate.

6. Send everything you’ve ever written. Why choose your best work when you can inundate the hiring partner with ALL of your work? The person in charge of most law firm hiring is also trying to practice law, but your work is so wonderful, he or she will surely take the time to choose a favorite from among the linear foot of paper you submitted.

Suggestion: Choose one document that demonstrates your legal writing and analytical abilities. That means you should not submit a brief that was extensively revised by the supervising attorney. By the same token, do not submit a document that contains almost no original work, such as a basic answer to a complaint or an agreement full of form boilerplate. I am especially fond of research memoranda, because those tend to be the attorney’s own work, and I learn something by reading them. Redact client names and ask permission to use documents that have not been made public record. One applicant actually sent as a writing
sample a confidential opinion letter he had done for a client who was a competitor to one of our firm’s clients. I sent the entire packet back with a suggestion that he not do that again.

7. Use Flowery Language. One individual wrote, "Words are the foot soldiers of the legal profession, and I look forward to deploying my troops under your command." When we stopped laughing, we sent a polite rejection letter.

Suggestion: Use plain, direct language. A well-written cover letter explaining your background and interest in the firm can go a long way toward landing you the interview.

. . . and when you get the interview . . .

8. Don’t iron your shirt, polish your shoes, or clean your suit before the interview. This is especially important if you are looking for a job that will require sitting in a warehouse all day reviewing documents. Your easygoing appearance will convey that certain "don’t ever introduce me to a client" air that law firms love.

Suggestion: Yes, you have to dress for the interview, even if the firm advertises a casual atmosphere. You also have to be on time, and call if you’re going to be late. Save
the khaki pants, polo shirts, and late starts for after you get the job. A neat appearance is required, but you need not run out to buy a suit in the latest style, especially if it involves the blessedly short-lived fad involving women’s tweed suits with sequins sewn into the fabric.

9. Don’t look the interviewer in the eye. This goes nicely with a limp handshake and constant fidgeting. I once became so dizzy watching an applicant rock and spin around in an office chair that I had to take a break from the interview.

Suggestion: If you are a shy person, now is the time to get over it, at least for the duration of an interview. I am forever grateful to the law school classmate who taught several
of us a good handshake — firm but not bone-crushing, accompanied by direct eye contact and a smile. Practice with friends until you can meet a new person with confidence. If there is a reason you cannot shake right hands, offer your left hand, which lets the other person know something is different (I received this advice from a friend who has a paralyzed right arm).

10. Don’t ask questions, don’t show interest in the firm’s needs, don’t listen. I’m going to admit that I learned this lesson the hard way during a long-ago job search. If that interviewer is reading this, I sincerely thank you for taking the time to tell me afterward how really awful I was. I’m not the only one who didn’t get this right away: One lateral applicant, after hearing the salary our firm planned to offer, told us he couldn’t possibly work for less than a much higher number, but was really interested in the job. A Florida resident informed us in a letter that, although she’d never been to Colorado, she’d like to try it for the summer.

Suggestion: There must be something you want to know about the place you are interviewing, even if you have asked the last 10 interviewers the same question. You may get a surprising answer from number 11. Enthusiasm is contagious. If you are enthusiastic, your interviewer will probably be, too. The best interview is a conversation, and the deadliest interview is one in which no one is talking. If you have the luxury of knowing the names of the attorneys with whom you will be meeting, do a little research and find out something about them. It helps if you can relate some experience of yours to something of the interviewer’s: "So, I see you are a certified martial arts referee. I wonder — would that have helped me in the student mediation clinic last semester?"

In conclusion, my suggestions boil down to making it easy for the person reading your resume to want to meet you and get to know more about you. Your law school’s career service office should be available to assist you with writing cover letters and resumes that are clear and state your objectives. I know I will appreciate it!

Barbara Weil Laff is an attorney with Ireland Stapleton Pryor & Pascoe. She can be contacted at

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