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How not to handle a cold contact e-mail mistake

February 3, 2010 59 Comments

[Instalanche™ in progress, and I had no clue until I started getting e-mails about the post. I’ve gotten more hits today on this web site than I’ve had here in the past 12 months combined. Ah, the power of Instapundit — thanks, Glenn! Thanks also to Elie Mystal over at Above The Law for the link as well.]

Earlier today, I received an unsolicited e-mail (with attachments) from a 3rd year law student here in the US who is looking for a job. Since I’m not a law firm, as I think is quite clear from this website, and since the e-mail had a strange salutation (“Esteemed Mr. Webster, Partner:”) and sounded like boilerplate, I wrote this person back as follows:

If you did just a wee bit more research — such as actually look at my website — you’d discover that I’m not a lawyer, nor is my company a law firm. I’m an IT consultant who also does work as as a consulting/testifying expert in lawsuits that involve computer technology. If this is an example of the contacts you’re trying to make at actual law firms, I suspect you won’t have much luck.  You really do need to track down actual live people and speak with them.  Good luck on the job search.  ..bruce..

I was a bit surprised to get the following reply:

Bruce:

Your patronizing and condescending tone is not appreciated.  I’m glad you have your career made and are so far removed from the stress of finding a job as a fledgling attorney.  By your own admission, you state that you are not a lawyer, and have thus never had to look for a job as an attorney; but then you proceed to belittle and criticize my method, and to give advice regarding how to get a job as an attorney.

You’re right: in searching for the “Webster & Associates” that was contained in a list of law firms that was given to me from my Career Services department, I was not informed that the firm does not even have a website.  Thus, my cursory review of your website (I did look at your website), and the subsequent assumption that your firm was theirs, led to an innocent mistake on my part.  Fortunately for me, I had a kind-natured accidental recipient who understood the concept of innocent mistake and politely explained the matter in a nonjudgmental way.

The materials I sent to you were not intended for you and I hereby require you to destroy them and any copies of them as required by federal and state law.  Failure to do so, or the publication or distribution of any part of them, will subject you to liability for violation of those laws, including criminal and civil penalties and damages.  Thank you for your immediate compliance.

I was mostly amused, particularly at how quickly I had gone from “Esteemed Mr. Webster, Partner” to “Bruce” (apparently, contempt breeds familiarity). But because I like lost causes, I took the time to write said Third Year Law Student back:

What I said was well-meant advice. I’ve spent 35 years in another stressful (and, generally speaking, less lucrative and less stable) profession, namely information technology. I’ve done my own job hunting at various times in the past; I’ve also done a lot of interviewing and hiring as I’ve built engineering and consulting teams, so my comments were based on my own experience on both sides of the table. Also, I’ve worked closely with dozens of attorneys (and their law firms) all over the US for the past 10 years, so I probably have a better insight into the people and firms you’re trying to get to hire you than you do.

For starters, your greeting line:

Esteemed Mr. Webster, Partner:

made me wonder right off the bat if this e-mail was spam from India or somewhere else overseas, and second if this was a mass mailing. That’s not how cover letters/e-mails are typically sent to professionals within the US. A simple “Dear Mr. Webster:” would be far more appropriate and effective.

Your subsequent comment that

Webster & Associates is precisely the kind of quality organization where I am confident I can gain excellent experience and contribute to the legal field at my full potential.

told me that you knew nothing significant about my firm. That statement was also apparently made with no knowledge about the real “Webster & Associates”, since as you said, you could find no web site for them. Even if I were a law firm, it shows no actual awareness of the firm itself; it sounds like boilerplate language. Were I in your shoes (and, by the way, I did consider for many years going to law school myself, but decided I was just too old to be a first-year associate), I would try to find something specific to the firm — and preferably to the lawyer to whom I was writing — to put in here: location, practice areas, some major case that the firm and/or the lawyer worked on.

The fact that you would take such umbrage at my relatively mild (if brusque) comments — and then go so far as to write me back a clearly hostile letter, instead of just a simple “Oops, sorry.” or even not replying at all — makes me wonder if you’ve got the thick skin it will take to survive and succeed as a lawyer. As a first year associate, you will be at the bottom of the totem pole; you will be criticized, chastised, and cursed and yelled at for things that are not your fault (as well as those that are); and you’ll be expected do to the impossible on a weekly basis, then harassed when what you do isn’t perfect. (True, you could in turn yell at paralegals and secretaries, but that would be a fatal mistake — they have far more power to damage you and your career than you might realize.)

Oh, and while this aspect is changing, some law firms will still expect you to put in 2000 billable hours that first year; many law firms, like big consulting firms (I was a Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers), still work on the ‘pyramid’ model, and partners depend upon revenue from fully-utilized associates. (The change is not necessarily good news for you — those abandoning the pyramid model for the ‘diamond’ model usually don’t hire many, if any, first-year associates.) So the stress level will be pretty high.

Finally, your demands regarding your e-mail attachments are ill-advised and ill-founded (and frankly just plain impolite). You did clearly send them, unsolicited, to my e-mail address and to my firm (as you understood it to be, having been to my web site), so you can’t claim they weren’t intended for me. There’s no privilege or protective order attached to the documents, so while you can ask me to delete them, you can’t enforce your demand that I do so. (Simple question: under penalty of what? What civil or criminal action could you successfully bring against me for keeping that which you sent to me voluntarily and unsolicited by me in an effort to get me to hire you? The misunderstanding was entirely on your part, not mine.) I occasionally have practicing lawyers — partners, even! — accidentally send me things they didn’t intend to (usually due to e-mail address auto-fill-in); their requests that I delete the e-mail (and any attachments) are always polite and never demanding, since they know they cannot compel me to do so; it was their fault, not mine. And, of course, if you’re threatening me with legal action, I now have every incentive and right to hold onto your e-mails and attachments, since they would be critical evidence in said action.

In short: lighten up. Sheesh.

Finally — and this ties back to the previous few paragraphs — I personally know and correspond with over 100 practicing lawyers, most of whom work for major law firms here in the US (actually, I correspond annually with nearly 200 lawyers, but of those, I’ve probably only actually worked with 100-120). I’m talking about lawyers I know on a first name basis and for whom I’ve done work (sometimes more than once) as a consulting/testifying expert, and who therefore are far more likely to open and read my e-mails than they are to open and read yours.

So now, stop and think: what if, instead of the reply you wrote below, you had said, “Sorry for the misunderstanding — but since you clearly work with lawyers, can you think of any who might be interested in hiring me?” That could have led to a few exchanges between us as to what areas of law interest you the most, and that would have probably led to me either giving you some specific contacts at specific law firms (probably pre-vetted by me) or, better yet, having me forward your e-mail on to those specific contacts. It never, ever pays to burn bridges that you could possibly make use of later, even if it’s not quite clear how you can make use of them.

Best of luck in your job hunt; I know this isn’t the greatest time to be competing for opening slots at law firms, but that merely underscores how important it is that you go about your job hunt in an effective, efficient, and polite manner.  ..bruce..

P.S. Be advised that this e-mail exchange (but not your attachments) may well show up on my website, sans any identification of you, of course — I may be blunt, but I’m not cruel.

And here it is.  ..bruce..

UPDATE 02/04/10: I received a lengthy and humble e-mail from the Third Year Student apologizing for his/her initial response to me and outlining the various stress factors — general and personal — of coming out of law school right now. I very much understand them, and it’s far better that s/he blow up at me now rather than at a prospective employer later.  I’ll also note that the Third Year Student said in that e-mail that having this exchange up on this site “is a good idea…as a warning to others.” Class act, that.

UPDATED: 02/13/10: Due to the increasing amount of spam appearing in the comments, I’m changing the comment system to require registration. If you want to post a comment and have problems doing so, drop me a line.

About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 720.895.1405 or at bwebster@bfwa.com.

Comments (59)

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  1. Entertained 1L says:

    Mr. Webster,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your comments and advice to a 3L. Your tips on drafting a cover letter seemed to reiterate what the career development office at my school has been saying all year. Thank you for making me feel better about my law school (and my cover letter).

  2. Great post. It is clear You have a great deal of unused capacity, which you have not turned to your advantage.

    The way you write shows you have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself.

    It seems to me that while While you have some personal weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them.

  3. Legal Consultant says:

    I am amazed at the replies here that criticize Bruce for telling the truth and trying to help 3L. Even if some people find Bruce’s response to 3L offensive (which I do not), your comments criticizing his skills, business acumen, and psychological needs are completely unwarranted. As someone who has recommended Bruce and worked with him as an expert in legal matters, I can tell you firsthand that his frank and forthright approach only enhances his credibility as an expert. If anyone is looking to play a game of one-upsmanship here, it is you who criticize and do nothing else to assist…

  4. Unpretentous Law Student says:

    As a night law student, with about 8 years working in law firms, I have no sympathy for the 3L. Bruce, you handled the situation masterfully. Law students think that “finding a job” in a tough market is akin to having brain cancer. There are far harder tasks in the world. For anyone to be disrespectful to a complete stranger, ESPECIALLY WHEN AT FAULT, is simply childish. If this emmy award winner ever does land a job, they will will probably flame out, or be hated by everyone that has to work with/for them. I’m not a fan of many lawyers in general, or of the elitist atmosphere of the legal “practice.” Insolence and stupidity should be met by humor and sharp wit. Well done sir, well done.

  5. philsimon says:

    Bruce

    I’m with you.

    I’d be lying if I said that I never used “templates” back in the day when applying for W-2 jobs. I’ll also cop to making occasional mistakes.

    Seems like an overreaction from the law student, although kudos to him for the apology.

    Phil

  6. bfwebster says:

    Glass houses, my friend. You’ve probably done more damage to your “career” by the publicity this debacle has garnered than you could possibly have expected.

    Good luck in your future endeavors Bruce.

    As promised, it’s now a year later. It’s been a remarkably busy and successful year, and I have multiple active cases even as I type this. The only “fallout” I’ve seen from this post has been a few e-mails from lawyer friends right after the link from “Above the Law” appeared congratulating me for the posting and the link. And, last I heard, the 3L was doing just fine. All’s well, and all that. ..bruce..

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