Cold Offers: What They’re Like and How to Avoid Them

Key Terms

  • Biglaw summer associates can usually expect to get a full-time return offer barring exceptional circumstances or national financial collapse.
  • While rare, “cold offers” are sometimes used by law firms to artificially boost return offer rates and keep it close to 100%.
  • Summer associates who receive cold offers are, in reality, not invited back and must begin the job search process again.

Biglaw is generally considered to be an elite post-graduate employment outcome. Firms will fill the majority of their first-year associate positions by using on-campus interviews and turning summer associates into full-time associates at the end of the summer. When law students pursue a summer position in Biglaw, it is usually in hopes of returning with a post-graduate job offer.

Biglaw firms summer associate positions normally have close to a 100% return offer rate. Summer associates can virtually expect a return offer at the end of their summer program barring exceptional circumstances. When law firms have reasons to slow their hiring, often due to financial woes, those return offer rates can temporarily drop industry wide. Some examples include the early 1990s recession, the Great Recession, and initial hiring panics due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most recently, some law firms appear to be sporadically correcting a potential over-hiring of this year’s summer associate class.

What is a cold offer?

Cold offers (sometimes called a soft offer) are when a summer associate is not given a return offer but is allowed to tell other potential employers that they did receive one. When you get tot the last week of the summer with no offer or phone call indicating you’ll get one soon, it’s natural that you might panic. Officially, the summer associate might be counted as someone with a return offer but there will be a mutual understanding that there is no real invitation to come back the following year. These are often used when personnel cuts need to be made, but firms still want to maintain their return offer rates and public image.

The difference between a “cold offer” and “no offer”

Statistics of return offer rates are constantly under scrutiny by the legal industry. If summer classes get rolled over into full-time associates classes at or near a 100% rate, then the firm can keep up with its competitors as a desirable place to work with a healthy and fully functional hiring pipeline from law school to practice.

If the return offer rate falters, then students will hesitate to pursue summer positions at that firm because the certainty of a job after graduation is very important to job-seeking law students. Current law students want to see more data from the last year to make their own informed decisions; firms not extending tons of offers to their summer associates in clerkship is seen as a big red flag. This can be an indication of the firm’s culture that leads people to look elsewhere for summer clerkships.

Although no offers do happen even in healthy economies, they are usually because of truly exceptional circumstances. Although a firm is under no obligation to give return offers to its summer associates, at least in Biglaw, a summer position tends to be non-competitive with an environment akin to “it’s yours to lose” and “you already have the job.”

Summer programs in Biglaw are not like tryouts where the weaker performers are at risk of getting cut. Rather no offers are more like actually getting fired or laid off from the job. Thus, a no offer (absent financial woes) tends to indicate individual issues with the summer associate that the firm is unwilling to overlook.

However, cold offers can be utilized if a firm wants to protect its reputation as a 99% or 100% return offer employer. While it is technically possible for a summer associate to accept a cold offer (it is an official offer after all), the firm’s stance is that returning will not lead to gainful employment. Accepting a cold offer may lead to receiving little work, missing billable requirements, and quickly being let go. Cold offers work to avoid mutual destruction so that the firm can protect its reputation while the recipient is not harmed by having to explain a no offer to other potential employers.

When do cold offers occur?

Cold offers are generally handed out for one of few reasons. Typically, multiple reasons will be present at once. Some of the reasons are because of the summer associate, while others are from the firm’s end and entirely out of the summer associate’s control.

Unproductive summer. While summer associates are expected to be of next to no productive value for a firm during the summer program, it is in fact possible to be so worthless to a firm to not be wanted back. Blowing deadlines, excessive absences, or sloppy work (to the point it shows you don’t care at all) can all contribute to an excessively questionable work ethic. Biglaw does not expect profit or even high-quality substantive work out of their summer associates, but there should be genuine effort, some light in the eyes, and an actual presence felt.

Poor social skills or lack of professionalism. The interview process can occasionally fail to screen for those utterly lacking in social skills. Most lawyers provide a service that requires interacting with people both inside and outside the firm, so if you are unable to put together a decent conversation, the firm may see you as a mistaken hire.

Related are those who exhibit an utter lack of professionalism. Often, the cause involves alcohol or offensive remarks/behavior. A lack of self-control, racism, sexual harassment, homophobia, stealing, poor ethics, or insulting others can fall into this category of behavior.

Financial woes. Because law firms are a professional service, attorneys are the most expensive asset. Everybody knows that Biglaw pays fantastic salaries, but sometimes a firm, an office, or even a specific practice group might not have the budget to take on more attorneys. Some firms hire summer associates with a specific practice in mind, and financial woes could end up being the luck of the draw for who needs to be cut from which practice groups.

Other firms give out return offers without planning for who will end up where, sometimes placing junior associates in rotational programs for one or two years before declaring a practice group. In those firms, summer associates may need to compete with their own class for limited return offers. In any event, if firm economics are hurting, summer associates may find themselves needing to exhibit higher levels of productivity and likability to secure a return offer.

The firm made a mistake. Financial woes aside, it’s entirely possible that the firm simply hired too many summer associates or has changed their recruiting strategy moving forward. It’s also possible that either the firm or the summer associate’s goals have changed and there is an understanding that the postgraduate opportunity is no longer mutually beneficial. The Biglaw talent acquisition model is not foolproof, and if it becomes clear early on that a return offer would be declined or less than optimal, a cold offer could save the headaches of managing an acceptance window or other administrative tasks attached to handing out return offers.

So you got a cold offer…

Receiving a cold offer at the end of a summer program can be frustrating, disappointing, and confusing. If you’re wondering as to why you received a cold offer, the answers may not always be clear. Some of the reasons listed above might be present, but it’s not an objective threshold test, and discretion had to be employed somewhere by someone in arriving at a cold offer. There will usually have been some bad luck as well.

Understandably, you may feel angry or defrauded. But don’t take to social media to lament your woes. Wait to update your LinkedIn, too, since all hope is not yet lost. The National Association for Law Placement even calls the practice of cold offers “unethical,” “fraudulent,” and “unprofessional.” If you hear about cold offers happening in multiple firms, there is probably an economic influence on Biglaw as a whole.

If you hear about other summer associates from your firm’s summer class getting cold offers, your firm may be struggling in its own way. It’s always totally possible it has something to do with you as an individual or your fit with the office.

While it’s never fun to jump back into job searching, that’s what you’ll have to do. You can tell potential employers that your previous firm wasn’t a good fit and that you decided to scope out other opportunities instead. You will still have the brand name and work experience of the firm on your resume. A cold offer is a setback but does not extinguish your prospects of working in Biglaw.

Originally posted on Cold Offers: What They’re Like and How to Avoid Them

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