How to Boost Your Lateral Application as a Junior Associate

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Albert Tawil, Founder & CEO of Lateral Hub

I often get questions from junior associates about applying for jobs where the requested years of experience are more than the junior associate has.
My general advice is: it doesn’t hurt to apply.  But, there are certain easy things you can do to help your application in that case.
I’ve seen multiple second-year associates recently get offers (and several interviews) for jobs that were listed as mid-level positions.  Firms are often flexible on class year by a year or two for a strong candidate.  (This was the case with my lateral move too, as a second-year associate).  And sometimes even the firm doesn’t have an immediate need for a junior associate, now you are in their system, and the firm may call in three, six, or nine months, for example, if a need opens up.  
The most common example is a second-year associate applying to a posting asking for 2 or 3+ years of experience.  (If a job posting asks for a senior associate with 6+ years of experience, and you are a second-year or third-year associate, that is a different story and probably not worth your time to apply.)
Here are some easy things to do to help your application if you are more junior than the experience listed in the posting:
1/ Where Possible, Apply Directly (Without a Recruiter)
Many, many firms have told us they prefer when laterals apply directly, instead of applying through a recruiter (aka, a search firm, or headhunter).  When you apply through a recruiter, the firm is required to pay a fee equivalent to 25-30% of your base salary (for junior associates, around $60K); therefore, many firms prefer to avoid the fee where possible. (This is one of the main reasons we launched the Lateral Hub Job Board.)
Firms have told us explicitly they are especially sensitive about recruiter fees for junior associates.  Many firms get frustrated when a recruiter pushes a second-year associate for a mid-level posting, to try and get a fee from that.  The firm is less likely to want to pay a recruiter fee for someone with 18 months of experience… especially if the firm is looking for someone with 3+ years.
And by making your application (much) less expensive for the firm, you are putting yourself at an advantage.  Some firms do not use recruiters at all for associate hiring.  Some firms post job openings that are not open to recruiters, to see if they can get strong direct applicants first. It is also often easier for a firm to coordinate directly with the candidate, instead of doing all of the communication, scheduling, etc through a recruiter.
For these reasons, I always recommend to junior associates to apply directly where possible.  You don’t need to rely on a recruiter and I’ve seen many juniors find success on their own.
For any postings on Lateral Hub, you can apply easily on the site and save the firm the expensive recruiter fee (make sure to include a strong cover letter, see below).  For firms that are not listed on Lateral Hub, apply through their website, with a strong cover letter.  (You can also explore applying through a referral, see below.)
I recently had this conversation with a second-year associate.  Based on this conversation, the associate applied to several jobs directly (including through Lateral Hub), even when they asked for 3+ years of experience.  The associate has interviewed at several firms and secured multiple offers… all from direct applications.  
It is always good advice to take initiative and agency in your job search and not just outsource it, and especially the case for junior associates.  (You can read more in our blog post about working with recruiters here.)
2/ Include a Cover Letter Explaining Your Experience and Why You are a Great Fit
Even if a job posting does not require a cover letter, my general advice is to include one anyway if the firm has any questions about why you are applying – for example, your years of experience are different than what is requested in the job posting, you are in a different location, your experience is in a different practice, etc.  (This is the topic of another blog post, see here.)  
This applies here too.  If you are a second-year associate and applying for a job posting asking for 3+ years of experience, you will want to preempt the questions from the firm as to why you are applying.  A strong one-page cover letter can go a long way.  Explain your current role and how you have had hands-on experience and substantive responsibility, allowing you to “punch above your weight” even as a junior associate.  Provide a couple of specific examples of matters you worked on and how you “owned” a specific piece of the deal or case.  Explain how the skills you have gained thus far can transfer well to the new role and what you can add to the firm.  
(One common mistake to avoid: don’t just focus on what the firm can do for your career, such as the quality work or learning opportunities.  Show the firm what you can add to them – the firm is hiring you based on whether they see you as an asset, not the other way around!)
Sure, cover letters take a little bit more time than just throwing out your resume, but if you are looking to lateral as a junior associate, you owe it to yourself to put your best foot forward in every application.  And it shows the firm that you are interested enough to put together a nice cover letter.
3/ Focus Your Resume on Your Experience, Not Your Education
Although you may have only be an associate for 18 months or so, you are not in law school anymore.  You are applying as a lateral associate and the firm is interested to know what experience you’ve gained so far and how you can apply that to their firm.
Your resume should speak to that.  The first section on your resume should be your Experience section.  Start with your current experience and include concrete examples of what you’ve done (for example, managed due diligence process and drafted ancillary documents for several matters, including acquisitions of leading consumer brand, large fitness company, and others).  Then, include your other prior experience, such as your 1L summer job and anything else that is relevant and appropriate from before law school.
Your law school template might have had Education first.  Flip it.  Move the Education section to the bottom, right before Skills & Interests.  You are not in school anymore and your resume shouldn’t look like it either.
4/ Add a Plus-Factor Through Networking
Many associates ask how they can integrate networking into this process.  It can be awkward to set up a time with a partner to “learn about their practice” when your agenda is clearly to find a job.
One thing I recommend is doing it transparently.  If a job is interesting to you, apply to the job first.  Then, if there is an attorney in the group who you are interested in meeting, reach out.  Using your alumni network here can be a good idea as a point of connection.  Mention that you recently applied to a job in the group and curious to hear more about the practice.  Being up-front helps and often times attorneys are happy to chat.
Come to the conversation prepared with informed questions after some research about the firm (try not to ask about basic things you can find out yourself).  Discover some interesting trends in that practice and perhaps ask about that and how it has impacted their work.  It shows you are interested and informed.
Then, if you have a nice conversation, that attorney (can be an associate too, you don’t need to shoot for the moon to the partner practice group leader) may mention to the recruiting team that they enjoyed speaking with you and help move your application along.
Employee referrals can also go a long way.  If you are a junior associate, you are still not that far from law school.  Leverage your law school network – if a former classmate or fellow student group member is at a firm you are interested in, reach out (especially if there is an active opening).  Set up a time to catch up and hear more about the firm/posting.  Your classmate will likely be happy to submit you and put in a good word – most firms offer generous referral bonuses and your classmate has nice incentive to send it along.   Firms love employee referrals and have told us outright that they are often happy to pay the referral fee to their own associates rather than pay a recruiter fee.  (Inside info: the associate referral bonus is also a retention tool, since the referral bonus is often staggered, requiring the referring associate to stay for one more year to collect the full amount.)
Through a combination of initiative, applying yourself, and putting together a strong resume and cover letter, you can position yourself as an attractive applicant, even if you are more junior than what is requested in the job posting.  This is not a guarantee for every application, but many firms are flexible and there is only way to find out.
I’ve seen juniors have success with this approach, even in the current lateral market, and hope you can too.

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