The Legal Beat
How To Say No To A Job Offer
Posted on Thursday August 16, 2018
Whether it is turning down callbacks, having to choose between offers, or a litany of other opportunities, much of a law student’s interaction with the legal recruiting process is about saying “no.” And yet despite near certainty that, as a law student, you will have to say no to an employer at some point, one of the most frequent questions I field from students is, “How do I say no?” Perhaps because I am a child of the “Just Say No” generation of drug prevention, when this was first posed to me by a student, I thought it was a question in search of a problem, and that the answer was the obvious — you just say no.
But after thinking about it a bit more, I realized just telling students to say no by saying no was a bit of meaningless circular logic, akin to saying that “[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This isn’t declining the dessert menu at dinner or rejecting an unwanted advance at a bar; instead, students are turning down an opportunity from an employer with whom they might not want to work with now, but could very well want to work with at some point down the road. Thus, there is a bit of an art to turning down employers.
But before getting into the best practices, there is a fundamental truth that all law students, and for that matter all lawyers, need to recognize when it comes to telling an employer no. Do not obsess over rejecting an employer. While you may very well turn out to be the legal mind of your generation, it is almost a certainty that the future of any legal employer, regardless of size or profits per partner, will neither rise nor fall if you choose not to work there. Lawyers and legal recruiters are, uniformly, adults and will not be emotionally wounded if you choose to work elsewhere. To borrow a phrase from another industry, it is not show friends, it is show business.
That being said, there are a few things to keep in mind in order to be sure that your rejection does not burn any bridges.
First, be quick. If you know that you have no interest in a particular employer, let them know that as soon as possible. No one likes to be strung along, a bit of insight that applies in both professional and personal situations. This does not mean that you have to make a snap decision on any and all employment opportunities that are presented to you. Be deliberate and thoroughly examine your options. But once you make a decision, or even if you have not made a final decision, but have eliminated a particular employer, let that employer know. Not only does this allow employers to shape their summer/associate class in a timely manner, but it is also potentially beneficial for your classmates who might be next on that firm’s list.
Next, be polite. Recognize that when offering a summer position, or especially a full-time position, an employer is making a remarkable investment in a student. This investment is not just a monetary one — though depending on the employer, this can be quite sizable — but one of great human capital. So even if you would rather exit the practice of law than work for a particular employer, do not go all Michael Scott
Politeness also includes the means by which you say no. If news of an offer or a callback comes via a phone call from that firm’s managing partner, do not turn it down via an emoji-exclusive text or email. A good rule of thumb is to match the method by which the employer contacted you. Emails can be responded to via email, phone calls via a phone call (note that this applies for accepting opportunities as well), though much like you would rather be overdressed than underdressed to an interview, it is rare that you would be criticized for going a step above (e.g., responding to an email with a phone call). And while you obviously need to respond to the person who reached out to you, make sure you also inform any others at the employer with whom you developed a connection during your interactions.
Finally, be firm. As mentioned above, your presence at a particular employer will not determine its future, but that does not mean employers will not try to change your mind and turn a no into a yes. If an employer tried to sweeten the deal, by all means listen, but once you have decided to move on to other opportunities, be clear with that particular employer that you are not interested. Again, do not do so in a manner that will submarine any chances of a lateraling in the future, but be firm that your mind is made up.
For many law students, especially those coming straight through from undergrad, saying no to a legal employee might be the first time they have said no in any professional setting. And even if it is not the first time, turning down a job at your college town’s pizza place is a far cry from rejecting a multibillion-dollar legal entity. But that does not mean you need to be filled with trepidation nor should you go on a power trip. Be quick, be polite, and be firm when saying no. If not, you might find that it can be incredibly difficult to try and cross a bridge that you previously burned.
Nicholas Alexiou is the Director of LL.M. and Alumni Advising as well as the Associate Director of Career Services at Vanderbilt University Law School. He will, hopefully, respond to your emails at [email protected].