What It’s Like to Get a Cold Offer

icePerhaps you’ve heard rumors that some BigLaw firms make “cold offers” at the end of the summer. Instead of getting a pat on the back and an offer to return, certain summer associates get a “Thanks, but no thanks.”

But, somehow, these firms still report a 100% offer rate. What’s going on?

Welcome to the land of the cold offer.

What is a Cold Offer?

A cold offer is a little white lie, a gentleman’s agreement of sorts.

We, the Firm, agree to pretend that we offered to hire you, so we can report that we made offers to all of our summer associates. You, the summer associate, agree to pretend that you carefully considered the theoretical offer beforehand, but opted to turn it down on the spot.

Conveniently, if potential employers later ask if you received an offer, you can say: “Yes, but Firm X wasn’t a great fit so I decided to look at other opportunities that are more closely aligned with my career interests.”

Act One: How Does This Happen?

My guess is that unhappy Firm/summer associate matches are like unhappy families — each is unhappy in its own way.

For me, the issue was that two partners each thought I was assigned to work for them full time. With “full time” being well north of 40 hours/week, clearly this was impossible.

Recognizing a problem, I asked one of the assigning partners in the summer program what I should do, and he told me he was too busy to deal with it, but that I should just explain to one of them that I didn’t have time to help him. Um, okay.

Needless to say, that conversation didn’t go well.

Act Two: Am I a Complete Failure?

For the rest of the summer, life was pretty surreal. Most of the summers were frolicking about, going on long lunches every day and doing no work, while I was desperately trying to finish the amicus brief I’d been assigned for a Second Circuit case while doing enough work for pissed off partner number two to keep him from coming down and personally strangling me. Yeah, it was great.

Being an overachiever type, I naturally assumed all of this was my fault. I didn’t have a ton of time to think things over, but, in the snippets of thought I could devote to the subject, it was pretty clear this wasn’t going to end well. I was not going to be invited back, everyone else was, and it was because I was a complete idiot. Or very mean. Or ugly. Or a bad dresser. Or…who knows, but clearly it was my fault.

Act Three: Wait — You, Too?

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only person having this sort of experience. I accidentally ended up in Queens one night, having missed a stop on the subway because I was so deep in conversation with another summer, who had a remarkably similar story to tell.

Hum, maybe it’s not just me?

Act Four: The Big Day Arrives

Time marched on, amicus briefs got filed, and the end of the summer finally (blessedly) arrived. One more hurdle for our heroine, however, the Final Review.

Call me crazy, but my sense was this wasn’t going to be a lot of fun. But, since we’re all putting on a good show, I dutifully showed up at the appointed time in the appointed office, shook hands, and sat down. I was sitting across from the very same person who’d given me such fantastic advice a month before. Awesome.

We chat for a few minutes. He asks what my plans are, I tell him I’m applying for clerkships. He looks relieved.

He rustles papers for a while, then says my reviews were “mixed.” I smile expectantly.

Looking uncomfortable, he starts reading a rave review from a very senior partner I’d worked for. This guy was no idiot, and he knew what was going to happen. His review contained something along the lines of “Alison is applying for clerkships, and I have no doubt she’ll be hired by a great judge, but we should do everything we can to convince her to return after she’s clerked.” I smile and say, “How nice.” I knew he’d already decided to leave the firm, and had no real pull.

We sit awkwardly for a few more seconds, until he tells me that “other people” weren’t so happy with my performance. “Oh?” I smile expectantly.

He starts to read, then decides not to. “Well,” he says, “the details don’t really matter.”

“I disagree. I’d like to get some constructive feedback so I can improve my work in the future.”

He looks really uncomfortable, then starts muttering, reading to himself. “Oh, here’s something! ‘Alison turned in a five page memo and it had eight footnotes.'”

I look at him incredulously. That’s it?

Act Five: Where Nothing Gets Resolved

By this point, the ridiculousness of the charade was obvious, so he announced that they were going to have to think it over and decide what to do, and someone would call me with a decision in a few weeks.

Act Six: The Denouement

I pack up my office and go home early. As I’m walking out of the lobby for what I knew was the last time, the thought occurred to me: You couldn’t pay me enough to ever set foot in this building again. A weight lifted, and I moved on with my life.

A few weeks later, on a Friday afternoon, the call arrived. I waited until I was on the train to Boston for the weekend to return it.

“How are things back at school?”

“Really good. It’s great being a student again. In fact, I’m going out of town for the weekend right now, it’s a beautiful fall day — things are fantastic!”

“Oh, they are?” He sounds surprised. “Well, we’ve had a lot of meetings about what to do, and there are certain people who are afraid you might try to accept an offer, if we officially make one.”

I can’t help it. I burst out laughing. “You know what,” I respond, “they don’t need to worry. You can just go ahead and put me down as a definite no.”

And that was that.

— – —

Image by sawa_mac via stock.xchng.


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  1. Hey – this is great. And if you like this…you’ll love my new book.


  2. Thanks for sharing your experience, Alison. I love your response at the end of the phone call! I just wish I could have seen the guy’s face when you laughed at him.

  3. Hi Alison,

    I’m late to comment here but I’m really glad you shared this.

    I was in your class in law school and I went on several callbacks which resulted in only 1 offer, which wasn’t even in the city I wanted to practice in. The whole thing was pretty devastating (although I actually knew a couple of other people with a similar story). My first semester 2L year was probably the worst time in my life and it took months (and in some respects, years) to get over it.

    At elite schools we are all told that everyone gets callbacks, which leads to tons of offers, which leads to a permanent offer, and if that doesn’t happen to you, you must be a moron or have no social skills. But, the truth is, there are a lot of things that can go awry in the process which unfortunately are never acknowledged by anyone. Being constantly surrounded by smug law students talking about their multiple offers was excruciating. By the way, I received zero support from the law school. I wound up summering at the one firm that gave me an offer and after the summer I emailed someone in career services, explaining my situation and asking for advice on how to get a job in the city where it felt like every firm had already rejected me and I NEVER HEARD BACK!!!!

    It all turned out okay, though. I managed to get a clerkship which bought me more time to strategize about next steps and now I’m lucky enough to have an amazing public interest career. Had I gotten a job at one of those firms that I thought I was dying to go to, I probably would have taken it, been too lazy to apply for clerkships my 3L year, and slaved away for a few years after graduation until I inevitably got laid off or burnt out.

    So great that you posted this!

    • Wow, crazy! I had no idea, and am very surprised to hear this happened to you (since I can personally attest you’re very nice and personable, as well as highly accomplished). It’s all so random, and there’s so little useful information out there. I think I talked to career services once, and they told me just to go to OCI and I’d probably get a job. Thanks, not.


  1. […] post I was most reluctant to publish, and held on to for weeks before I put it out there, was about getting a cold offer from a law firm. Some variant of this story happens all the time at law firms, but it’s something no one ever […]

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