I have told this story a few times to several people over the last twenty years, but with 2021 being the twentieth anniversary of my law firm, it seemed that now would be a good time to share this with a broader audience – perhaps most importantly with law students or young professionals early in their careers.
Beginning in my second year of law school, I began the process of informational interviews at different larger law firms around the Seattle area and the Eastside. It was the height of what would become the “dot-com bubble” and Seattle was a hotbed of start-up companies that were pursuing the dream that the expanding Internet seemed to offer. I would send out my résumé and schedule one-on-one meetings with partners and various senior associates, trying to learn all that I could about the firm, while also seeking employment opportunities. Competition for any available positions was fierce, and I was not your typical law student, failing to meet many of the implicit “requirements” for working in one of these firms: Going to a big-name school, being in the top 5% – 10% of the class, or being on Moot Court and Law Review – the list could go on. Even though I eventually graduated with honors from law school, I lacked these expected minimum credentials to even be given the opportunity to interview at one of these firms. The process was as much discouraging as it was exhausting, despite my unflagging ambitiousness. I wanted to work in a firm doing business transactions, and in my mind at the time, this was the only way that I could meet that goal, by working at one of Seattle’s larger law firms.
During one of these occasions with a large and well-known firm (whose name I will not disclose), I met with a junior partner (another name that I will not reveal) who worked in mergers and acquisitions. During the interview, we discussed the firm, his area of practice, my aspirations in the field, as well as my experience and work history. As he looked over my résumé, he commented that I was not on Law Review, as well as not being in the top 10% of my class. It didn’t matter that I demonstrated a strong work ethic, that I had overcome a number of significant obstacles, or that I possessed numerous relatable skills and experiences for the role. Lacking the “requirements”, it seemed clear that I stood no chance at getting a real interview, much less a job offer. Undaunted by this, I asked about other ways to demonstrate my value to a firm like this, or to take steps to be laterally hired. In response, he said to me: “You know, it’s really the case that a guy like you could never work for a firm like ours.” A long and uncomfortable silence followed, as his statement hung in the air. Stunned, I didn’t know what to say. Either realizing the harshness of his delivery, or reading the expression on my face, the silence was finally broken by his attempts to walk back the statement a little and to provide some well-meaning career advice. And yet, he had been speaking truthfully. The interview quickly wrapped up, and I left the Seattle high rise building, clinging tightly to my cheap attaché case along with the last shreds of my dignity.
Only a few months after that interview, the dot-com bubble burst. During the period between when I graduated from law school, took the bar exam, and received the notification that I had passed, the entire industry that I had intended to enter and be a part of had imploded. In the six months before I took my bar exam, if you had a pulse, you had a job. Six months afterwards, people who had been with law firms for a decade were scrambling for work, and most were willing to take almost any available positions. That economic tumult was the business environment in which I founded my own law firm – entirely out of necessity. There was huge risk in doing this, but statistically, continuing on the path I had been on (looking for work in one of the larger law firms) was not turning out to be a safe bet either. Almost symbolically, I burned the nearly 2-inch stack of “form-filled” rejection letters I had received from one law firm after the other and set out on my own. Friends and family were some of my first clients, and I took on all sorts of crazy cases just to keep the lights on, nothing I had expected when I had started down the path to a legal career.
That was 20 years ago, and a lot has happened since then. Since that time, that conversation with the junior partner has all but been forgotten. Yet, there was a moment just a few years ago that brought that conversation back from the recesses of my memory. I was in the process of finishing closing letter on behalf of a client for a business deal with a publicly traded business partner. We had been working on this transaction for nearly 18 months at this point, having had crazy meetings around the United States, countless late-night calls, and months of difficult and complex negotiations. After all the hard work and uncertainty, we were finally ready for signatures from the respective executives. As I finalized the letter, excited about the part that my firm and I had played in making this deal a reality, I looked at my law firm letterhead and suddenly remembered what I had been told years before: “You know, it’s really the case that a guy like you could never work for a firm like ours.” I paused for a moment and had a response to that statement that I didn’t have sitting in that office two decades before: “You know, you’re right – I could never work for a firm like yours – because I will work for mine.” And with that, I hit “send”.
So, for anyone reading this, who is trying to figure out how to pursue their dream job or profession, or who finds themselves discouraged because they don’t check all the boxes for their “dream job”, just know that there are many ways to reach what you are striving for, even if you are told that you’re not the right “fit.” More times than not, you’re not meant to fit someone else’s mold; break that mold – and make your own.
Jeffrey Possinger is the founder and managing member of Possinger Law Group, PLLC.