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To how many firms should I apply?
As many as you can.
When deciding to apply to a firm, there are a number of factors to consider. These include whether or not the firm has the attributes that you are seeking, such as a good partner to associate ratio and the opportunity to do pro bono work. Also, ideally, you want to apply to firms that are seeking or have a history of hiring people with your skill set and level of experience. You may have other preferences as well, such as firm size and geographic location. Thus, when I say "as many as you can," I don't mean apply to as many firms as resumes you can print; I mean apply to any and all firms they may be a good fit for you based on all relevant criteria.
However, candidates are often very nervous about applying to more than five or six firms. There are two predominant reasons why this is so. One, the candidate is afraid his or her current firm will find out they are looking for another job. Two, the candidate thinks it is better to be very selective about which firms receive their resume.
The first situation occurs generally for one of two reasons. One, the candidate knows there are attorneys at the prospective firm that know attorneys at the candidate's current firm. Often, this issue arises when the attorney at the prospective firm used to work at the candidate's current firm. The situation may also come up when the attorney at the prospective firm has worked with the attorney at the candidate's current firm in either a collaborative or adversarial manner. Because an attorney at the prospective firm knows an attorney at the candidate's current firm, the candidate worries that his or her current firm will find out that the candidate is seeking employment elsewhere by virtue of the attorney at the prospective firm seeing the candidate's resume and telling the attorney at the candidate's current firm.
Two, candidates worry that by simply marketing themselves to a number of firms, their current firm will find out they are seeking other employment based on the theory that if their resumes are floating around enough firms, people will talk and eventually someone that knows someone at a candidate's current firm will reveal the candidate's intent to find another position - sort of like six degrees of Kevin Bacon.
While I cannot guarantee that this will not happen, it is well established that all candidate submissions are confidential and, as general rule, firms respect that. Additionally, if it became known that the identities of attorney candidates were being leaked by members of a firm, candidates would not want to apply there. The firm would then lose out on many excellent candidates, which is the last thing a firm wants to happen. Thus, the fear of being found out should not prevent you from applying to as many firms as you can.
The second predominant reason candidates do not want to apply to a large number of firms is that they think they should be selective. In other words - only apply to firms that they are sure they would want to work. That is very likely a mistake. Of course, there are exceptions. If you work at a huge firm and hate it and want to only apply to smaller firms -that is reasonable (usually). However, if you have heard a few negative comments about a firm or just don't know very much about a firm and are wary, you should go ahead and apply anyway. I am a big believer that all firms have idiosyncrasies, and no firm can be generalized to have a particular personality. Practice groups within a firm have different personalities. Attorneys within the same practice group can have vastly different personalities. And, candidates have different personalities. A firm that may be not be a good fit for one person may be a great fit for another. What is that saying? One person's trash is another person's treasure. You never know if you are going to like something until you try it. Interviewing at a firm and meeting the people that work there is the best way to find out if the firm may be a good fit for you. And, sort of on that note, interviewing is a skill. The more you interview, the better you get at interviewing. Thus, if you apply to a firm at which you think you may not want to work, and you interview at the firm, and it turns out that you don't want to work there, you still have not wasted your time, because you have gained additional interviewing experience, which can be difficult to come by. So, apply, apply, apply!
Summary: When deciding to apply to a firm, there are a number of factors to consider. How many should you apply to?