Two Hundred Rejection Letters
In the year following law school and bar passage, I continued to live with my parents and work as a microbiologist while applying to different law firms across the country. Several months in, I had a shoebox filled with rejection letters - more than two hundred of them. I compiled extensive lists of every law firm in the country with a practice of interest. It was a staggering compilation of intellectual property, corporate transactions, biotechnology, patents, pharmaceuticals, and medical device specialists. I revised my resume more than one hundred times, highlighting my solid GPA and moot court and writing awards. None of it seemed to matter. I was running out of people to be rejected by!
The best part of life as a microbiologist was Fridays, when a local, nationally distributed beverage chain dropped off samples of its canned and bottled beverages for testing. You can't just pour samples of the carbonated beverages out of the bottle, because the outside of the bottle could have picked up all manner of zoology just hanging out on a shelf. What if some random employee didn't wash his hands before loading it into the shipping container? So, to sterilize the containers, I poured a tiny amount of ethanol over the top of them, lined them up like test tubes on the (fireproof) lab bench, and lit them on fire with a long-stemmed match, one by one. I liked to do this with some flourish and the occasional "OPA!"
The worst part of life as a microbiologist is also on Fridays, when I am reminded that I bring home about $19,000.00 per year after taxes. This is never going to help me buy a house. Thankfully, my parents were letting me live at home while I saved up for a house and law school. Good thing too, because I wasn't going anywhere fast at this salary (even in 2001).
Finding a Mentor
Finally, I scrapped the idea of working for law firms altogether. Instead, I went right back to basics, and simply went searching for someone else in the world that seemed to enjoy both law and science. I no longer cared what they were doing for a living, or whether they could hire me.
One day, I read about Doctor Goldner, a Ph.D/J.D. who was doing FDA regulatory work out of his home in an upscale suburb of Detroit. Instead of sending yet another letter, I picked up the phone. When he answered, I told him briefly that I was a recent law school graduate with experience in biology, and that I just wanted to know more about what he did because it sounded really interesting. The call ended with a job offer.
He worked out of his home office (way before, well, almost everyone did) and I earned a spot at his kitchen table. It was the kind of arrangement that could have ended badly if he were unethical or creepy, but since neither of those statements were true, it was a great arrangement.
The kitchen was well-lit with an omnipresent tabby cat serving as a free lap-warmer. Doctor Goldner woke up at 5:00 AM to swim laps in the private lake behind his house and meditate. He took to filling his house with cats and precious works of art. To this end, I never underestimate the benefits of cats, meditation or lakes. It was 100% NOT how I envisioned a job out of law school looking, but it gave me a front row seat to someone doing interesting things with a background similar to mine (science & law). Sometimes, a step off to the side is a great way to keep moving forward.
Tips for Overcoming Rejection
Beware of Passivity
I came to realize that endlessly revising and mailing application packets was keeping me from taking more powerful (but intimating) actions, such as having face to face conversations, asking mentors for help, or attending networking events. I'm an introvert and very private by nature. I overcame this by reminding myself over and over that reaching out to mentors is an act of love. Giving someone the chance to share their knowledge or give advice is a gift to them! Think of how great you feel when you have mentored someone or helped a friend solve a difficult problem.
Do Some Internal Housekeeping
So many times, we tie our own hands by relying on our specific vision of how things should turn out, especially if we have been led to those visions by those we trust, like our parents, teachers or friends. It can be such an act of bravery and self-determination to realize don't have to do anything just because that is how it has always been done. Just because you majored in English doesn't mean you can't apply to medical school. Just because you've never been viewed as the "smart one" in your family or tribe doesn't mean you can't become the CEO of a thriving business. Take the time to root out beliefs, habits or actions that are keeping you from embracing the future. Ask yourself where they came from and why they deserve real estate in your mind.
The Numbers Game
I have friends who strongly believe that the job application process is a numbers game. If you consistently reach out to enough people, enough times, you will eventually pair with an appropriate partner. I find that belief disillusioning. To me, the application process is less about favorable odds and more about the natural affinity of equivalent entities. Once you've identified a dream employer (or client, or partner, or vendor...), truly consider whether you embody the values, interests and motivations of that person or company. Be honest with yourself. For example, I showed up for the first day of law school wearing a hoodie and board shorts over my bikini; yet applied to some of the most classically formal law firms in the world, in places I had no interest in ever living, just because it seemed like the right thing to do (and maybe also because their associates made more than the GDP of a small county each year.) In the long run, this was a recipe for burnout, disillusionment or worse, and I'm grateful they rejected me.
Consider Return on Investment
Remember that you can obtain value in many ways: connections, networking, travel opportunities, flexibility, benefits, a supportive culture, and creative outlets. Remember that quote about knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing? it is very easy to be romanced by material reward. That is very different than taking an engaged look at "return on investment" in your life. For example, my job with Doctor Goldner paid about the same as my job as a microbiologist, but offered the chance to learn about things I was genuinely interested in and provided a stepping stone to better opportunities. Surely, I might have been able to make a lot more money in the short term if I tried to practice, say, insurance law, but that would have simply sent me down a path I had little interest in pursuing.
Don't Assume Rejection Equals Failure
Sometimes we don't fail to achieve something because we are doing something, but because we are doing something right. In one interview, a famous local attorney asked me point blank, "Why do you think you haven't been picked up by a law firm yet?" OUCH. I mumbled something about how I wanted a chance to join my interests in science and law together, but maybe overestimated the availability of that kind of work. He took in my answer and nodded slowly. I was sure I blew it. Instead, he said, "I think you're right. Frankly, I think you're ahead of your time here." He even offered me a position!
Don't Equate Rejection With Permission
Just because you are going through an opaque application process does not mean that you should just concede other people's role as gatekeeper over your dreams. Beware of thinking thoughts like, "I've been rejected so many times. Maybe I'm just not cut out to be an attorney (or photographer, actor, engineer, entrepreneur?") If you stay with a goal long enough and continually make incremental improvements, you will reach your goal or perhaps even replace it with a better one. You don't need anyone's permission to make your dreams come true. Don't give anyone that power.
I once had a well-known local attorney ask me outright why I thought I had not been picked up by a fantastic law firm right out of school. He then mentioned that he thought I was actually a bit "ahead of my time," and that the local markets hadn't quite caught up to my interest in biotechnology and bioinformatics. It had never occurred to me that I was being rejected not because I wasn't good enough, but just because my timing was a bit off. As my career progressed, I realized that is often the case! Now that I've spent many years involved in hiring decisions, I've come to understand how many rejections are not personal and not indicative at all of shortcomings.
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I've included stories, anecdotes and useful tips I've gained over my career as an Entrepreneur, Board Member, Executive and Senior Counsel. I hope you can find ways to navigate to your own dreams by learning from my experience! Don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or want to share your own stories. Stay inspired!