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So You're Not Used to Failing...

A lot of the candidates I work with have never really, truly failed at anything. There’s a kind of person who becomes a lawyer – hello, fellow type As! But when you pair that with the competitive Bay Area legal market, to which associates with the most sterling credentials tend to flock, the result can be quite paralyzing—and new territory for those superstars who have never experienced rejection.

Sure, you went to a top 20 law school and landed at an AmLaw 50 firm in the Bay Area. You are, by definition, crushing it. However, there are almost 1,400 associates in the Bay Area who also meet these criteria. There are almost 1,000 who went to top 10 schools and are at AmLaw 50 firms. This is one of the greatest concentrations of highly credentialed associates in the U.S. So, yes, you’re a superstar—but you’re swimming in a pond with a lot of other very big fish.

I recently had a candidate apologize to me in advance for his transcript. I steeled myself for a rough GPA. Then he sent it, and I saw that he had a 3.6, hardly something to be embarrassed about. But, to him, this was sub par. It is in the lateral process that some of these associates first hear a meaningful no in a professional context.

For some people, entering the lateral market is a seamless, quick process. I just helped place a candidate within two weeks of submitting her application. But for others—especially if you’re a bit more senior or if your practice area isn’t in massive demand at the moment—it can take a while. I worked with one (double Ivy League, absolutely brilliant) senior litigator for a full year before we found just the right job for him.

It’s not that you aren’t the cream of the crop. It’s not just that you’ve got competition. More likely it’s about timing—yours, the firm’s, the markets’.

It may have been a while since you interviewed (many years, in some cases). Interviewing isn’t a place where I want you to rely on muscle memory; this is a skill to practice. I offer mock interviews to my candidates, and I’ve seen it make a meaningful difference. It can feel like a silly thing in the context of how successful you’ve been, but I assure you that even the most polished associate may need a reminder of how to do this. Also, the OCI interview is a totally different beast from the lateral interview. Take the hour to practice with a pro.

Also, firms don’t *just* hire for talent and fit and then think about where they’ll put someone later. Many firms (though not all) in the lateral process are totally focused on the one job they’re trying to fill, and they aren’t receptive to an application by someone who is remarkable but doesn’t fit a current need. I agree that this often seems shortsighted—I wish that more firms would see a stellar resume and think, ”gosh, we don’t want to pass this person up.” But recruiting departments are beholden to budgets and advanced planning, and sometimes they let someone great go by because they just can’t/won’t make the business case. (I will note that in this current economy, some firms are stretching to bring on talent even if the person is not exactly what the firm was looking for—but nobody knows how long that will last).

The lateral process may go more slowly or be more turbulent than you expect. It happens. You have not failed! Not getting the first—or fifth—job is not a reflection of your talent or impressiveness. Instead, it’s a demonstration of the different role you now play in the hiring economy. Try to brush it off, keep an open mind and get yourself ready for the next round.

More Articles by Kate Reder Sheikh 

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