I accept: job offer etiquette and professional standards

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You’re probably well aware of job interview etiquette: be on time, dress professionally, make eye contact, ask relevant questions, and follow up post-interview.

But you might not know that etiquette is also involved in the job offer and decision-making process, and it’s important to remember as you search for employment. All ABA-accredited law schools and most of the largest legal employers of lawyers in the United States, including firms, agencies and some corporations, belong to NALP, the National Association for Law Placement. This association has created a set of ethical guidelines for participants in the job recruiting process. Employers who belong to NALP must leave offers open for specified lengths of time, and as a job candidate, you are expected to accept or deny offers (or apply for an extension) by the appropriate deadline.
So what are these deadlines? The chart below provides a quick reference point.

chart of deadlinesSay you’re a 2L who already has one summer of work under your belt. If you get a job offer from a larger company (40 attorneys or more) during the fall semester, NALP requires that they keep this offer open until at least Nov. 1. If the offer is made after Nov. 1, then it should remain open for at least two weeks from the date of the offer letter. After that period of time, the job offer will expire.

If you’ve never worked for an employer before, or you’re applying to a smaller company, it’s a little more straightforward. You will typically have 28 days to respond to the job offer if it’s from a company with over 40 attorneys. And whether you’ve been employed before or not, if the company has less than 40 attorneys you’ll have three weeks to respond to an offer made before Dec. 15, and two weeks if the offer comes after this date.

If you excel in the interview process and receive multiple offers, there’s another guideline to keep in mind. NALP recommends that students should not hold open more than five offers of employment at any one time. So if you’ve got five offers on the table and receive a sixth, it’s ethical to release one of your offers within one week. It may be ethical, but it’s also smart. Holding multiple offers keeps other qualified candidates from having a chance at a position, and it can also be more difficult to accept the right position when you’re overwhelmed with offers.

Job offer etiquette might not seem like a big deal, but employers who belong to NALP take it very seriously out of respect for fairness in the interview process. You’re even encouraged to report an employer who’s violating these guidelines to the Office of Career Services. As Fall 2011 OCI comes to a close, you’ll enhance your professional image by following this protocol during the next stage of the job-hunting process. But more importantly, you’ll also be upholding the ethical standards of the legal profession.

For more information, consult “Student Professionalism During the Interview Season: A Quick Guide to Your Ethical Responsibilities in the Offer and Decision-Making Process” (March 2010).