I have no idea what percentage of law school candidates ultimately land a Big Firm gig, but in my experience most law students will be rejected by at least one of the Big Firms. And in this economy, some will be rejected by all. I seem to recall being rejected by several Big Firms myself. I may even have a rejection letter or two stowed away in the attic.
The proper handling of rejection is important to both the law students being rejected as well as to the Big Firm doing the rejecting. Law students will want to avoid any actions that prevent future employment, and Biglaw will want to avoid the wrath of those cast aside.
THE EARLY BLOW-OFF
Rejection can occur at many points in the process, and how such rejection is handled (by firms and rejectees) depends on when the rejection occurs.
The first point of rejection is when the law firm declines to even grant the law student an interview. Law students are particularly peeved when a Big Firm rejects them in such a summary fashion -- "How can they reject me already without ever even meeting me?!"
This early blow-off does not usually come with an explanation -- no letter, no call -- just the absence of the candidate's name on the list of those who have been selected for an interview.
It is a lot like those sports movies where the athletes go to an open tryout and spend all day doing drills and jumping through hoops, then, at the end of the day, the coach posts the names of the wannabes who he wants to see tomorrow. The candidates all run up to the locker room door to read the list, frantically searching for their name, and any possible misspelling thereof. In the movies, the ones who make the cut give each other high fives and run off to hit the showers. But there is always that one poor guy standing alone after the crowd has thinned, running his finger down the list for the fifth time to confirm he has not been selected. This scene always seems to occur at sunset.
A similar scene occurs at law school. But usually, the list is posted electronically, and as I recall, those selected get an e-mail with some available time slots for their on-campus interviews with Biglaw.
This type of blow-off leads to a series of questions by candidates hoping to make it to the next stage of Biglaw tryouts. "Maybe there was an error, and they accidentally left my name off the list. Maybe the computer messed up and deleted my résumé. My grades are better than that dude's, so why did he get a slot? Was there a typo on my résumé? Do they have something against my home state?"
If you are rejected at this early stage, don't take it personally. You probably just failed to meet some arbitrary standard used by Biglaw to cull through hundreds of résumés -- such as class rank or GPA. Just forget about it and move on. Unless, of course, you meet all of the arbitrary factors and are still getting rejected. In that case, make sure your résumé is not to blame. Check for typos and other glaring problems such as listing "spending time with family and friends" under the "interests and hobbies" section.
One thing you should not do -- but that I have actually seen done -- is to take your bitter self down to the on-campus interview site and stalk the Biglaw recruiters. Do not follow them to the parking lot or stick your head into the interview room in between interviews and introduce yourself -- "Hi! I'm Rejectee, and I wanted to meet you guys while you were here and just see if I could get some insight into why you didn't bother to interview me. Here is another copy of my résumé -- in case the computer accidentally deleted it or something. Wait ... where are you going ... I'M ON MOOT COURT!!"
REJECTION STAGE 2
Landing the on-campus interview is just the first stage. The next opportunity for rejection comes after the candidate spends a solid 20 minutes in a cramped room with two of the firm's finest lawyers. This rejection feels a bit more personal.
I mean, you shared that heartfelt story about overcoming your dyslexia in third grade to go on to become valedictorian of your high school class. And you thought you were in after explaining that you "are not afraid of hard work" and "love a challenge." Dang it! What went wrong?
This rejection comes in a number of ways. You may sense it is coming when the other kids interviewed get phone calls from the interviewing lawyers that same day asking them to come to the office for a second round of interviews. As you stand next to one of them, his iPhone rings, and you have to overhear it -- "Hi, Jim! I loved meeting you both too. Of course, I'd love to meet more of the fine people of Biglaw LLC. Thanks for the opportunity!"
If you missed overhearing that call or just assumed the calls must be coming alphabetically and your "W" last name has cursed you again, you will start to sense that you have been rejected when no call comes after a couple of days. And finally, to bring clarity to the rejection, you will receive the dreaded rejection letter.
Rejection letters vary from firm to firm, but here is a typical nugget:
"We enjoyed speaking with you. We were impressed. But we have limited spaces to fill. Unfortunately, you are not filling any of them. Some other firm will be lucky to have you. Good luck."
It is probably impossible to draft a rejection letter that won't cause bitterness, but I do have some advice to the Biglaw firms to help avoid gaining a reputation among law students for being particularly harsh: At least thank the kids for their time. Spell their names right. Make sure that you do not send a rejection letter and also call them back for more interviews. Not only is that confusing and just bad form, it also illustrates your firm is so big and inefficient that it can't even figure out if they are rejecting you or not.
THE LAST REJECTION
The final rejection -- at least, during the fall recruiting process -- is the rejection received after you have spent some quality time with the firm through a dinner, lunch, interviews and more interviews.
This rejection can be self-imposed. Maybe you accepted the callback interview because you were taking whatever you could get, but then you ended up landing some other interviews in cities that you prefer. So you went ahead and took the free trip to Atlanta to see some of your college buddies, stayed out too late and fell asleep in your tomato bisque while your lunch interviewers were talking about why they chose the firm. In this case, you should not be surprised when you are not offered a position for summer camp.
Of course, rejection can work both ways at this point. After landing tons of callbacks (because all Big Firms like to call back the same candidates), the law students start to get confident and picky. "Big Law 1 is OK. They did take me to a fantastic sushi restaurant, but Big Law 2 has its own gym and executive dining hall!"
Regardless of who is doing the rejecting -- the firm or the law student -- it is always good to avoid burning bridges. Chances are very high that in a few short years both sides will be back in the lateral market. So avoid any statements that sound remotely like, "Fine, I didn't want to work at your stupid, snobby Big Firm anyway," or "Fine. Go to Big Law 2 -- we have enough Cogs to overwork anyway."
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