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How can I get a law firm to focus on my qualifications instead of my past departure?

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Question:

I am an attorney candidate who has strong credentials, but who also has a significant "issue" with respect to my departure from my most recent firm. In addition to explaining the issue in the cover letter, is there anything else I can do to encourage prospective firms to focus more on my excellent qualifications and not be dissuaded by this issue?



Answer:

The answer is a qualified "yes." The qualification is whether the facts are on the candidate's side with respect to the "issue" and whether they have the evidence to back it up. I have previously written on common "issues" that arise with attorney candidates (also called "red flags"). Examples of red flags include "time gaps" in the resume, bankruptcy/credit issues and criminal or other legal problems. The example presented here is when a candidate has left a prior firm for some reason other than to take a new job at another firm. This typically produces either current unemployment or a "gap" in the candidate's past employment record. Firms are unfortunately prone to assume that such "premature" departures are the sole result of poor job performance, a difficult personality, an "incident" or some other in excusable reason.

Of course, sometimes this assumption is right. In other cases, however, this assumption is totally or at least largely incorrect.In these cases, it is imperative to explain up front what really happened and why the firm should not hold this prior departure against them. Whether or not the firm is going to find this explanation persuasive will depend in large part on the degree to which the candidate can effectively assure the firm that - regardless of what may have "really" happened with respect to the other firm - the candidate is not a convicted criminal, a raging jerk, a walking malpractice case or anything else that might give the firm reason not to hire the candidate. This is because the firm is less interested in hashing out the competing perspectives on what may or may not have happened with a past firm than it is in establishing that the candidate truly has the ability, people skills, dependability, work ethic, etc. to do high quality legal work, get along with others and not create any significant problems if they join the firm.

An excellent way to directly address these concerns is to provide written references in the initial application rather than waiting until the end of the process. Ideally, these references will come from partners who know the candidate and their work from the firm that they left "prematurely" (or if that is not possible, at least from the firm that the candidate worked at before the firm at issue). These partners can (assuming they believe these facts to be true) provide credible first-hand evidence demonstrating that the candidate is a highly skilled lawyer with excellent and timely work product; is unusually bright; is friendly/personable/not a jerk; is a team player, a hard worker, and dedicated/enthusiastic; is successful/wins; develops business well; is generally valuable to the firm; and any other point that needs to be made. By using references up front (usually 1-3 tops) assuring the prospective firm that the candidate is not any kind of potential future threat or problem, but rather is the high quality attorney and person they otherwise appear to be, the candidate can substantially increase the chances that the firm will move past the past "issue" and instead make a hiring decision based on the candidate's otherwise strong credentials.

Summary: Getting a law firm to focus on your qualifications instead of a firm that you might have previously left can be difficult. Here's how to do this.


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