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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:


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 303.502.4141 or at

Comments (59)

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  1. Andrew says:

    Good advice given during a proper fisking.

    You are a man of powerful words and well thought out retorts.

    Glad to hear it was taken seriously.

  2. Mike says:

    I appreciate the article and even more so the update. Nice of you to give the student a chance to redeem himself.

  3. Ron Snyder says:

    Dear Bruce: (err, Mr. Webster) 😉

    It is amazing how a mention at Glenn’s site affects traffic.

    Very much enjoyed your post, thanks for sharing.

  4. Matt says:

    Nicely done, especially keeping the high road, even in the midst of that rant ~ thus taking your own advice, and not burning a bridge with him/her.

  5. Kevin says:

    Bruce, you’re way too nice. Name and shame!

  6. anonymous says:


    You are a Douche. That is all.

  7. Anon says:

    Advice to 3rd-year law student: find another line of work. I went to law school, I worked for a law firm. It’s not just a stereotype, these guys are complete assholes. My brother is a lawyer too, and he’s an asshole too. I haven’t spoken to him in about 2-3 years.


  8. De Minimis Matt says:

    I didn’t find “Bruce’s” reply to be patronizing or condescending, but perfectly reasonable. Perhaps it volunteered a bit more than was necessary, but in a well-intentioned way. And, as for your qualifications to opine… well, it doesn’t take a lawyer to know that “Esteemed Mr. Webster, Partner” is a very strange salutation with which to begin correspondence. Who talks that way? Not I, and I’m as old-fashioned as a young attorney gets.

    Now, I’ll drop two cents of my own, because I don’t think the lengthier followup from Bruce goes far enough! I’m sure the job-seeking author was red in the face after his mistake was called to his attention. The proper response though – a professional’s response, to justifiable embarassment cannot be to fire back from the hip. That kind of thing is bad for the profession. Few people I know are able to get away with that blow-for-blow approach. Those that hae hung around in the profession despite that personality are generally associated with detracting from the prestige of the practice of law.

    It would not be fair to hold a mere student to the standards of a professional, but as a law student, I hope he at least aspires to elevate himself to a professional level of decorum.

  9. Nicely done, and nicely put.

    Shoot, as a fourth-year night-time law student currently looking for work, the very second I realized what you did for a living, I would have insisted that I take you out for lunch.

    Not only to establish contacts, but if I were to do anything with IT stuff, it’s always good to have extra insight.

    I’m moving to a new city with my family, 700 miles away, to start a legal career. So far, even though the market is dry down there and I only visit my soon-to-be hometown occasionally, I’ve been able to have lunch with a few attorneys who might not be able to hire me, but were kind enough to accept my invitation and share insight on the legal community in the city.

    Great response by you, though, Bruce. I’d be willing to bet that I’m a bit older than the Third Year Law Student in question — and what you did was provide him or her with an infinitely valuable lesson. Good on you.

    And now, if you know any attorneys hiring in the Charleston, SC area, please let me know.

    Jeff Schreiber

  10. craig says:

    As a third year law student who has no prospects, I completely understand how someone could blow up like that. It doesn’t make it smart, and it doesn’t make it right, but times are tough out here.

  11. zach says:

    I too am glad this got posted, and kudos to the 3L for finally showing some contrition. I’ll add my voice of sympathy (I’ve been out of law school for a year, licensed almost that long, and have yet to get beyond the 6th circle of Document Review Hell), but still: a lawyer’s professional life is stressful, so he/she needs to learn to deal. You can’t tell a client or a court to wait while your personal life sorts itself out.

    Also: he/she needs to actually learn the law at some point. Just because you’re a 3L doesn’t mean you know anything.

  12. 3L says:

    So does that mean you’re not hiring?

  13. Gary Rizzo says:

    So are you hiring or not, Webster?

  14. no thanks says:

    Next time don’t bother putting crap like this on your website. When a career services office sends out a list of nearby law firms in lieu of more effective methods of helping 3Ls and recent grads, you know things aren’t going well. Your response oozes “I’M FULL OF MYSELF.”

    You think your customers actually care about this?

  15. S. Buckle says:

    Bruce. It’s a shame you did not join the legal profession. You clearly have a way with words. Well done.

  16. bfwebster says:

    For those who asked, no, I’m not hiring. 🙂

  17. bfwebster says:

    You think your customers actually care about this?

    Actually, yes. Most of my customers (CIOs, upper level IT managers, and lawyers) interview and/or hire people: either IT engineers/managers or lawyers (including law-school grads). Much of what I said to Third Year Student above applies to anyone seeking a job, especially those fresh out of college/grad school/law school. I daresay most of my customers would echo (or state even more forcefully) the things that I said.

    Your mileage, of course, may vary. ..bruce..

  18. carter says:

    Having spent time at
    I can vouch for Jeff. His legal commentaries are first rate. Surely you know someone in the Charleston area?
    Jeff’s email address is:
    Let’s do it for the Gipper.

  19. Lisa says:

    For heaven’s sake, be a little more gracious. As I see it, you threw the first punch (albeit a light one) at a stressed out, frenetic kid trying to get a job. It’s hard to keep your cool in a market like this one. He’s trying to survive financially, and, in my mind, freaking out about that is perfectly normal. Be nice.

  20. Beldar says:

    You should not only publish his name, but publish all the materials he sent you. He’s a jerk whose future clients need to be warned.

  21. bfwebster says:

    I disagree. This person is not a jerk, s/he’s just a stressed-out 3L (not uncommon, as I understand, particularly in the current legal job market). S/he and I continue to exchange e-mails; I’ve made some suggestions as to alternative career paths based on her/his undergrad degree (e.g., an in-house counsel position at a relevant company or institution).

    I’ve been using e-mail for close to 30 years. I can remember a few instances of my own when I sent off an intemperate e-mail in the heat of the moment, one that I would have gladly taken back and whose consequences were a bit more serious and long-lasting than what this person has actually suffered. It happens. And, as I said, it was better than it happen with me than with someone who might actually have a position for this person. ..bruce..

  22. MSchneider says:

    Well done, Bruce! Happens in the nonprofit world as well. Just have to shake your head.

  23. Stu says:

    Well done, Bruce. Definitely contacting you next time I have a need.

  24. bfwebster says:

    OK, folks, I don’t mind people calling me names, but I’m drawing a line at some language directed towards the student. Make your point, but be polite.

  25. bfwebster says:

    Let’s do it for the Gipper.

    It’s done — ask Jeff.

  26. Jonathan says:


    I found my way to your site through Above the Law and find the tale of the job-seeking 3L quite amusing. Before becoming an attorney a two years ago, I spent close to 15 years developing business for IT companies and can say with certainty that every attorney to be as well as any other professional should always remember that whether a friend or a random acquaintance, they are all contacts for getting a job. They should all be treated with courtesy because you never know where your next job will arise. The service advisor for my car dealership kept a stack of my resumes in his desk and referred me to multiple attorneys who met with me and helped me network to find a job. He was incredibly helpful and the contacts he gave to me provided me with some great advice and leads. So, it is important to remember that courtesy and respect are the foundation of networking.

    That said, I must say that I am very sympathetic toward the 3L who is graduating in the worst economy, especially for lawyers, since thee great depression. I understand his frustration. Despite going to a top law school, being an editor of a law review, and having tons of job experience, it took me sending out over 600 resumes to land a job with a firm. When I was in the IT world I never applied for jobs, they found me.

    Thanks for the humor.


    am grateful that I finally landed a

  27. Kevin says:

    I also found your post through the Above the Law website. What I find most intriguing is that you actually responded. I likely would not have.

    Thank you for the post. I’m capitalizing on the free advice, which is something rare in a day and age where everything comes with a price.

  28. cheeflo says:

    Let’s see. A high school graduate is 18 years old. After four years of college, 22 years old. In the third year of law school, 25 years old.

    This “kid” hasn’t been a kid for seven years. The real world requires a thick skin, no matter what road one chooses to travel. Chalk this up as a rather anodyne dose of reality — just part of his/her liberal education.

  29. Rebecca says:

    Beautifully said, Mr. Webster. This 3L is extremely fortunate to have found you, given your understanding and willingness to advise.

    As a lawyer who was unemployed for seven months after taking the bar exams (thanks to the last crash in the legal industry), I fully understand the professional/economic stresses this young law student is facing. However, I disagree with those who excuse his behavior. Being under pressure is not a valid excuse for lashing out and making outrageous demands.

    Moreover, I posit that we shouldn’t behave in a civil, professional manner simply because we might get something out of it; rather, we should do so because it’s right. Other people don’t deserve to be treated badly simply because we’re going through a rough patch.

    Thank you for the chuckles, and for sharing.

  30. Youth in Asia 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.

  31. bfwebster says:

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

    Well, check back in a year, and we’ll see where things stand.

  32. Mary says:


    It is a very tough economy out there for lots of people besides lawyers. Your response to this law student was extremely rude and in my opinion, condescending and UNPROFESSIONAL. The student made an honest mistake and instead of humiliating this guy and posting this exchange on the internet, cut him some slack and just reply to his email that he made a mistake and that you are not a law firm and wish him luck in his search.

    Your posting something like this would deter me and many people from ever using your services because you are clearly rude and probably cannot preserve confidentiality especially after posting an email exchange on a website. Echoing many commentators on Above the Law, I agree that you are a “douchebag.”

  33. Jason says:

    I have to admit that, as a fellow law student, I did find Mr. Webster’s initial reply to be rather condescending and curt. A simple “We’re not a law firm” would have done (or, as Mr. Webster himself suggests, no reply at all).

    The truth is that in this economy, law students (especially 3Ls) who have not obtained a job are probably well-advised to “mass mail/email” their resumes to firms in the hopes of at least garnering an interview. It is usually impractical to tailor cover letters/perform extensive research, especially when one is applying to hundreds of small firms.

    That being said, the 3L’s reply was a laughable, and certainly not well thought out.

  34. 3rd Year Law Student says:


    What excellent advice! Good that the 3L learned his/her lesson but also great that you provided some useful advice for other young job seekers out there. You sound like a great boss to have!

  35. sandlugs says:

    I believe all lawyers are going to hell unless they work for non-profit organizations.

  36. WerkSmartz says:

    Bruce – Great story and a good lesson for anyone planning to work in a professional service firm of any kind.

  37. Frank says:

    As a holder of an MBA (and no, I have never worked in banking or finance) and current non-traditional law school applicant I am shocked the lack of professionalism from this 3L student. I’m still on the fence of whether to attend law school, but if I do attend I hope I never have a classmate like this.

    Kudos to Bruce for taking the ethical high road. Big Law and Corporate America would not have been so kind.

  38. Tony Luke's says:

    Dear Esteemed General Bruce:

    Truly enjoyed your post, and glad to see that the third year student got some timely advice in this economy. As a 2009 law grad, I cringed reading the reply to your initial email, and immediately was taken back to the time where future “wordsmiths” with no true professional skills looked down upon the pre-supposed ‘non-elites.’ They were called gunners, and I apologize personally for your trouble having to deal with one unsolicited. But I thank you for putting the correspondence on your website, hopefully it can serve as a reminder to all current/prospective/former law students such as myself who are looking for employment. Kids, no matter what your job seeking may include, don’t be a d-bag.

  39. nyclawyer says:

    the snarky 3Ls commenting on this board need to calm down. That said, it is a terrible economy and I feel bad for those who are looking for a job…but, hey Bruce, are you married? or know anyone looking in NY? That’s a stressful jungle to navigate too… 😉

  40. Liz says:

    At least you replied. As a 3L last year, I sent out countless personalized applications to firms that advertised positions, and often never even got a confirmation that my resume had been received, even when I contacted the firm to follow up.

  41. bfwebster says:

    nyclawyer: I’m very happily married, thank you (and, I suspect, old enough to be your father). But you’re kind to ask.

    And to all and sundry: yes, I’m very much aware it’s a tough economy (I run my own business, after all), and I have great sympathy for anyone trying to find a job right now.

  42. Jack Friery says:

    Esteemed Bruce:

    I have to commend you for a couple of things. First, your temperate comments to the doofus who mailed you the resume by mistake. (Based on my experience, I think he has all the makings of a successful Biglaw partner.) Second, your terific writing style. Very nicely done.

  43. Rebecca says:

    Dear Bruce,

    I had to wipe tears away from my eyes. You have made my evening. Can you please come speak at law schools through out the country.

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