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Should I apply to a law firm even if I do not meet all of the requirements listed in the job posting?
It depends on the requirements that you meet and the ones you do not. Generally speaking, the more specific a firm is in the requirements it lists, the more likely they are going to stay within the requirements.
In terms of class year, I've found that firms can be flexible within a one-two year range of what they've listed. Any more than that, however, and you are simply not matching the firm's needs. Remember a law firm's structure and hierarchy, compensation and partnership tracks and how those cannot be disrupted easily.
With regards to background and experience, pay attention to what the post lists and whether it is named as a requirement or a preference. If it mentions a specific degree as being required, say for instance, electrical engineering, then a chemical engineering degree will not fly. It is simply not what the work requires or what the firm has promised its clients. If "big law experience" is listed as a preference and you do not have it, consider that it is not only the actual big law firm name that will be missing from the checklist but, also, the level of work undertaken at those firms (think size of the deal or the matter, market of the clients, etc.) that will be missing from your resume. If, however, you have comparable experience at a boutique or in-house, then think about highlighting that experience that is on par with what they are seeking and measuring you against.
In the case of academics, when a firm states that the right candidate will have graduated in the top 25% of the class from a top law school, believe them. Some firms have strict grade and school cutoffs and they do stick with them. So, no matter how much potential you exhibit, how many hours you are billing, or how often you take the lead role on matters, when a firm specifies its cutoff and you do not meet it, do not waste your time applying to this firm.
Regarding bar admissions, here, too, firms will clearly spell out if licensing in the particular state is required at the time of application, or if eligibility to waive in or willingness to take the bar exam is also acceptable. If a firm states that one must be licensed in the state, it will not typically entertain candidates who do not have the proper admission already.
Consider each requirement a firm lists and the potential reason(s) for the employer's mandate. Examine the language used. Is it a preference? Is it a strong preference? Consider also that in this market, firms can be as picky as they would like. And since a job search can be a full-time job, be efficient in applying to jobs for which you do meet the basic requirements.
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