Law Firms Seek Class Plus Dash

April 30, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Spring not only brings up the NFL draft but also law firms' recruitment of senior law students — a process that, like the draft, entails something more like winnowing than recruiting.

The Business Journal discussed the process with Cathleen M. Meriwether, director of lawyer recruitment and development, with Warner Norcross and Judd.

Meriwether said that she and her colleague Mark Wassink — a partner who is the firm's recruiting chair — together sift through about 2,000 resumes and conduct dozens of interviews to wind up with 20 new lawyers for the firm.

She said she believes Warner is looking for pretty much the same thing in a prospective lawyer that most major firms seek.

"The students we choose to interview stood out in common ways," she said.

She explained law firms generally want people who are inquisitive, intelligent, aggressive, goal-oriented achievers with polish, confidence and the capacity for passion about their work, and who express themselves clearly in both speaking and writing.

"Most of the resumes are good," Meriwether said. But she stressed that while a good resume can't guarantee an interview, a sloppy one certainly militates against it.

Generally, she said, resume and cover letter quality are matters of common sense. She said successful students note the firm's deadlines and submit their materials accordingly.

"About 15 percent of the resumes I receive come in after we have completed our hiring for that year," she said ruefully.

"You'd be surprised how many resumes are filled with typos," Meriwether added, "and are sent to the wrong person — something that slows down the application — or are incorrectly addressed." 

Getting the right information, she said, should be a no-brainer. "A simple phone call or a look

at the Web site can get you this information," she added, "and it looks sloppy when an applicant hasn't taken the time to get it right."

It would seem to be an article of faith — especially considering that being an attorney requires good, solid writing — that resumes and cover letters are well written and free of typos.

Sharp students, she added, also take the time to figure out the resume should be addressed to her and to spell her first name with a "C" and "

Meriwether" with only one "R" and one "H."

The Warner team certainly looks at transcripts.

"We're interested in people whose academics both in undergrad and in law school showed a pattern of success," she said. Some of Warner's lawyers may have struggled a bit in undergraduate courses, she said, "but their academics showed an upward trend over the years."

When it comes to writing, Meriwether perhaps has a more acute eye than most recruiters because she happens to have majored in English.

But just as important — as well as being indicators of drive and goal setting — are good grades in legal writing, or involvement with the school's Law Review.

"We also like to see that they have had some practical experience in brief writing and speaking," she said, "either in moot court or law

school clinics, or through a summer clerkship or judicial clerkship."

Clerking with a judge, she said, often shows the capacity to grow professionally and from time to time such work will generate highly informative letters of reference.

If students indicate that they are interested in a particular type of law — say corporate law — they ought to have demonstrated that interest by taking the appropriate law school electives concerning taxation, secured transactions, corporate entities, accounting for lawyers and the like.

Universities over the years have downgraded their foreign language requirements, and Warner's recruiters are impressed to find senior law students who have acquired a foreign language.

"Wee have two summer associates who speak Spanish, five that speak French, one that speaks Filipino and four who speak Chinese," she noted.

Likewise, she said that depth of background — foreign travel, employment before or during college, or even running a business while in college — add substantial interest to a resume.

"Varied experiences and backgrounds give candidates enhanced maturity and depth perception," Meriwether said.

And such depth shows up in interviews — and even in spoken and body language.

"You can tell if someone is genuinely interested in the firm," she said.

She mentioned a candidate who didn't wait for Meriwether to begin the interview, but instead opened it with a question of her own concerning an article about Warner's Financial Services Practice Group in Michigan Banking.

"Now that really got my attention," Meriwether said.

"In campus interviews, they let us know in subtle ways that they had done research on us," Meriwether added, "and then used that information to ask really good questions: 'I noticed on your Web site that you have an extensive training program for associates. What programs would I likely be attending over the course of my career with Warner?' 

"Or a student might ask, 'I noticed on your Web site that your firm recently won a large piece of litigation for Client X. Were there any young associates involved in that case, and if so, what kind of work did they do on the case?'"

Finally, she said, the topnotch students "did all the things our parents told us to do: They showed up on time, were clean and professional looking, had a good handshake, had good manners, looked people in the eye, spoke confidently, sat up straight, avoided slang, thanked the interviewers for their time, and conveyed a positive, interested attitude."

Meriwether laughed at one instance of a dismal contrast to that model attitude.

She said an extremely relaxed student wearing shoes by Converse deprecated a current event by saying, "Like, that sucks, Dude!"

"I couldn't believe I was hearing those three words together in a sentence," she said, noting that if the candidate in question is engaged in the practice of law, it's not with her firm.            

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