Vol. 40 No. 9
Erin Binns is director for career planning at Marquette University Law School.
Getting a job offer feels fantastic. Deciding whether to accept it doesn’t always produce the same euphoria. Your legal training has taught you to assess situations from every angle, to analyze, to overanalyze, and to respond to questions with “probably yes” and “likely no” rather than definitive yesses and nos. So a job offer for permanent employment—while welcome—can generate a whole bunch of “what ifs” and uncertainties for legal minds to painstakingly evaluate.
This seems even more so in recent years as the economy has given employers the upper hand. Few students have multiple options lined up from which to cherry pick ideal and best-fit positions. Offers are arriving later and in many instances don’t come in the form of a job seeker’s ideal job or preferred compensation package. The result—you’re left questioning whether you should accept the first offer you get, whether the first offer will be your only offer, whether you can ask for an extension of time to consider the offer, and what you’ll do if your ideal job becomes available shortly after accepting a less appealing option.
Students weighing offers for summer and academic term positions have real factors to balance in their decisions. But know that you can’t really go wrong as a 1L or 2L accepting a clerk position. Don’t unnecessarily obsess about temporary opportunities. Legal experience is good experience. It’s different for job seekers who are contemplating permanent positions. The offer you accept impacts where you’ll sit for the bar exam, how quickly you’ll be able to repay student loans, and what training and experiences you’ll have early in your career.
The following guidelines will assist you in working your way through the what ifs that are frequent companions to job offers.
Assess job offers before they arrive. Examine whether you’d accept a specific job offer at the time of application. If you know up front the job is in a place to which you won’t relocate, the salary range is below what you need to earn, and/or the work is by definition unappealing to you, don’t muddy your later decision-making by interviewing.
Prior to applying for a position, and certainly while preparing for an interview, you should identify your expectations for the job. What do you need from the employer in terms of opportunity, work, and compensation in order for you to be prepared and excited to say yes to the offer? This is different from identifying your dream job and holding every opportunity up to the highest of standards. Rather, realistically assess how the opportunity fits within your big-picture career goals. Consider how the job can cultivate skills and experiences that will benefit you immediately and long term.
Use interviews to scrutinize opportunities. It’s much easier to evaluate an offer when you know what you’re getting into. You shouldn’t accept an offer for a permanent position until you have a comprehensive understanding of the work and the employer’s expectations. The best time for this due diligence is during interviews.
Use interviews to assess and explore. Ask questions the answers to which will—or should—reveal a realistic view of the work, expectations, and culture of the organization. What will your first three months/six months/year look like? What are the expectations for your performance and productivity? How much freedom and flexibility will you have to define the position and develop a practice? Will the work be hands-on and substantively rich? What are the benchmarks for raises, bonuses, partnership? What feedback and training can you expect in the first year of the job?
Define your baseline expectations in advance so you can discern during the interview where the opportunity is exceeding, meeting, or falling below your preferences. Evaluating the job’s potential and having a sense of where it places you professionally before it arrives help to quell the what if’s.
Know that it needn’t be forever. Lawyers change jobs. Your first job isn’t likely to be your last, so deciding on an offer doesn’t carry the weight you may be giving it. It has been noted that about a quarter of all associates change jobs within two years of graduation and nearly half of associates leave their employers within five years of graduation.
Consider the offer’s immediate positive impacts on your growth and development. Evaluate how it positions you to move within the practice or legal community. Identify where there are crossover skills and proficiencies with other career paths that appeal to you. You won’t be forever accountable to your first job after graduation, but you’re best positioned to determine whether to accept the offer if you understand at the time of acceptance how the position may propel you toward your preferred work.
Mean it when you say “yes.” A student e-mailed me panicked about an offer that wasn’t her first choice. The salary was low and she really wanted to work for another organization with which she had already had a preliminary interview. The employer who extended the offer wanted a quick response. The student’s preferred employer wasn’t planning second rounds of interviews for at least another month. The specific question posed to me was, “People have advised me to accept the current job offer and see what happens down the line with the other employer. Any suggestions?” I did have a suggestion: “Don’t listen to the people who have advised you.”
Only say “yes” to a job offer if you fully intend to follow through and work for the employer. Once you accept a position, your job search stops. You should contact employers with whom you have interviewed and inform them you are no longer pursuing the job. You should stop applying to posted positions. You should stop sending out cold letters asking
So where does the idea that you needn’t stay in a job forever intersect with your professional integrity of being loyal to the employer with which you’ve accepted a position? In some instances, this is dictated by the discussions you’ve had during the interviews with the employer. If it’s clear the organization is expecting a long-term commitment and it takes steps toward that end (e.g., changing the firm letterhead, expanding office space), you need to go into the position with the intent of staying. Don’t take the job if you’re unwilling to make a commitment that coincides with the employer’s actions of reliance.
Accept offers for a professional position with the idea of staying for about 24 months. If you’re not prepared to do so in good faith, don’t accept the offer—even if it is the only one on the table. You run a very real risk of injury to your professional reputation and to the reputation of your law school when you rescind an acceptance and/or begin a job with the intent to run from it as soon as possible. Understandably there are many legitimate circumstances that may shorten your time with an employer, but approach positions with a two-year mentality.
A job offer is the pay-off for semesters of diligent studying and the seemingly endless job search activities that punctuate each year of law school. You can best position yourself to celebrate an offer’s arrival by evaluating early on where it fits into your professional goals and how it positions you to excel as a new lawyer.