Diary of a Public Interest Law Job Seeker, Entry #1: The First Rejection Letter

by Ashley Matthews, PSJD Fellow

This is the first blog post in a series about my job-hunting adventures (and misadventures). You all may know me as the 2012-2014 PSJD Fellow, in which position I manage PSJD’s website and social media accounts.

I love this job, but unfortunately my Fellowship is almost halfway over. Aside from the regular stress of looking for a job, I – like many other public interest law grads who scour PSJD for job vacancies – have to combat a dearth of available positions, an abundance of unpaid postgraduate opportunities, student loans, the bar exam, and a majorly competitive job market.

I’m writing this public diary so other recent law graduates know they are not alone. Looking for a job, facing rejection, and dealing with stress and anxiety can be disconcerting and isolating. So if I touch on something that has happened to you or someone you know, feel free to leave a comment! We’ll get through this together.

So, without further ado…

Entry #1: The First Rejection Letter

We’ve all been there.

You’re looking on a website (more than likely PSJD.org) and we see what looks like the perfect job. You read the job description, and each bulletpoint seems to describe you more and more. You’re already formulating your cover letter before you get to the application instructions.

But two weeks later, you still haven’t heard anything back. You twiddle your thumbs, you feverishly check your email. You tell yourself, “It’s okay – they were probably flooded with applications. I’ll hear from them soon.”

One month later, and the dread has numbed itself into a little ball of anxiety in the pit of your stomach. You sluggishly start looking at other jobs, but still hold out hope. And then, it happens. One morning, the potential dream employer’s email pops up in your inbox. Based on the non-descript subject line, you already know it contains bad news. You open up the email, and there it is: a cold, hard rejection letter staring you right in the face.

It happens to the best of us. No one is exempt from a rejection letter or two during their job-hunting career, but for some reason this doesn’t really take much of the sting away.

Earlier this month, I stared into my laptop at my very own little slice of reality. I had to take a couple of deep calming breaths. I needed to get myself together instead of replying with a snarky “It’s your loss!” e-mail before slinking off into the desert of legal unemployment and licking my wounds.

“Thank you for the opportunity,” I type. “If there’s anything I can ever help out with in terms of volunteering, let me know.”

A special note about public interest employers: It’s incredibly difficult to stay grumpy about rejection. The work that these organizations do is so important, I feel awful and selfish being angry about not getting hired. This is why I always offer to volunteer, even if not accepted for a certain position. It’s really about the clients, and  they are the ones who suffer by new attorneys swearing off public interest work just because of a rejection letter (or two… or three…). You gotta keep your eyes on the prize.

Anyway, after a couple of deep breaths, I wrote down a few principles I promised to stick by during my job-hunting adventures:

  1. If it was easy, everyone would do it. And very rarely are things worth it when they’re easy. When we work harder for something (and in some cases, for a longer time), it will mean that much more when we finally get it – and we will. It’s only a matter of time.
  2. Focus on the why and how. After a rejection letter, it’s very easy to sweep the entire ordeal under the rug and just pretend it never happened. Ignoring the rejection is a natural coping mechanism, but this was the best time to look at my cover letter or writing sample again – I may have missed something very important the first go round that, when fixed, could be helpful in landing the next job.
  3. Don’t mope. This is the easiest thing to do after a rejection letter. Go grab some ice cream (or a glass of wine), talk to a good friend (or another glass of wine) and keep it moving (but no more wine!). After my first rejection letter, I just kept looking for more jobs – preferably more jobs just like the one I applied for but didn’t get. Job-hunting is a marathon, and we can’t get tired after rejection.

And with that, I say goodbye (for now) to that old rejected application and am now pointing my resume towards greener pastures.

The Diary of a Public Interest Law Job Seeker will be a weekly blog series. Check back next Tuesday for the next installment!

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