Job Search Tip of the Week

Preparation is the key to a successful job hunt All law students have heard these two cliches: "Preparation is key" and "The Devil is in the details". These two phrases are so commonplace, they hardly seem worth mentioning. However, what do they mean in the context of a job search or a particular job application? What is there to prepare? After all, you have a job opening, you have a carefully formatted resume and a carefully formatted cover letter. You send in the materials and then you wait. Right? Not always. There are two major approaches to applying for jobs. The first is the "dart board" or "throwing everything including the kitchen sink" approach. And there's the targeted approach. The "dart board" approach is basically having a "cookie cutter" form resume and form cover letter that are sent to virtually any opening, in the hopes that one of the employers will notice the application and grant an interview. The dart board approach usually means the applicant is making some argument, any argument, and hoping it makes an impact on the employer. The targeted approach, on the other hand, means the applicant will make an argument that is relevant to the employer, that is relevant to the position opening and which is the strongest argument possible for why the person should be considered for the position. Given the rather biased terminology I used to describe the two approaches, you already know that I favor the targeted approach. The reason is that the targeted approach provides the best chance of getting noticed and making an impression that results in a job interview and an offer. The key to the targeted approach is proper preparation. This preparation will allow you to craft an effective resume and cover letter that is relevant to the position. And proper preparation will help you interview in a manner that will make you stand out from other applicants. So how does one properly prepare? I will cover WHAT you have to do to prepare in this article. In future ones, I will cover HOW you implement that preparation when writing the cover letter and resume and during the interview. To prepare for a job opening, you need to figure out two things (two prongs in legal-speak): (1) what is the employer looking for? and (2) what qualities do you possess that make you a great fit for what the employer is looking for? The focus here has to be what the employer is looking for. Too many times, applicants provide lots of background information about their past, about their education or about their interests which may be of little consequence to what the employer needs. And if the information you present is not useful, you run the risk that the reviewer will not really bother looking at all of your materials. The approach you use for job applications should be the same as if you were writing a brief or presenting an argument to a judge or jury. You cater the information to the reviewing attorney's specifications or to the likings of the judge or jury. As they say in legal writing, always remember your audience! You can figure out what the employer wants or is looking for in the following ways: 1) Read the job description and make a list of what qualifications the employer is looking for. These will usually be the knowledge, skills, and abilities that the employer thinks are necessary to succeed in the position. The description should also list qualities the employer is looking for such as a strong background in public interest or labor and employment law. 2) Read the job description and make a list of the essential job duties. These will show you the types of activities where those knowledge, skills, abilities and background will be applied. 3) If the job description is vague about what the employer is looking for, try to make an educated guess. For example, a recent job posting with the House of Representatives' Employment Counsel's Office only stated that the applicant needed a strong interest in labor and employment issues and in litigation. This vague description does not provide any context for how you would be using those interests. So take a moment to think about it or do some research. Visit the website for the Employment Counsel's Office. The website should list the types of work the Office does or will provide clues to help you determine what the Office does. My review suggested the Office provides advice on how to implement the many employment policies in the House of Representatives. I also inferred that the Office has to know the various employment laws well enough to know whether a policy is being implemented in a legal manner. Lastly, the Office helps defend against any complaints or lawsuits filed against managers and supervisors within the House of Representatives. Add all of these up, and you basically have an Employment Counsel's Office that serves as an advisor on employment law issues and also as Defense Counsel if something goes wrong. 4) Call the person who is already in the position or call someone who is in a similar position. Find out exactly what is expected in this position. Find out what problems people face as well as potential solutions to those problems. Lastly, ask the person what a candidate needs to show in order to get noticed or in order to interview well. I have used this approach for myself and for alumni. For example, I have called up the hiring attorney on behalf of an applicant and blatantly asked, "Can you tell me what you are looking for in this position and also what you want in an ideal candidate?" After learning the answers, I helped the applicant craft a cover letter and resume that were right on point. While it was the applicant's qualifications that ultimately led to an interview, there was a world of difference between the application's first draft and the final version because of the information we had gathered. 5) Lastly, spend some time trying to figure out what the organization's culture is like and what it's business and industry are all about. You can look at the organization's website, you can talk to someone about it, or you can find articles or books on the topics. Obviously all of these steps take a lot of time. But the preparation will help you craft a very strong application and will also make you feel ready for the interview. If you have any particular questions or issues you want covered, send me an email at

Submitted by Nilesh Patel, Career Advisor on April 24, 2006

This article appears in the categories: Career Services & Student Job Postings

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