When You Don’t Want the Job: How to Tactfully Decline a Legal Job Offer

Published: Feb 25, 2020

Topics: Job Search       Law       

At some point during your legal job search for either a summer or post-graduate position, you may find yourself having to reject a job offer. Perhaps you accepted an offer elsewhere or simply realized the job isn’t a fit for you. The prospect of telling an employer that you don’t want to work for its organization, especially after multiple interview rounds and face-to-face meetings, can feel awkward and intimidating. But don’t worry—this is not a unique occurrence in the legal industry. Employers realize that not all offers will be accepted (in fact, many law firms extend more offers than positions available for this very reason). It’s okay to turn down an offer—just make sure you don’t burn a professional bridge along the way.

Let the Employer Know ASAP

You should alert the employer as soon as you know you won’t be accepting the job offer. Yes, it might be nerve-racking, but it’s best to rip the band-aid off sooner rather than later. Not only does this end the agony of anticipation for you, but it shows respect by allowing the employer to move on with another candidate. And think of it this way: You’re performing a good deed by allowing someone else—perhaps one of your classmates—to benefit from the opportunity.

Keep the Message Positive, and Express Gratitude

Maybe you decided not to accept the position because you didn’t like your interviewer, the office environment, or a company policy. But when you turn down the job, don’t blame it on these factors or suggest that you left the interview with a negative impression of the employer. Instead, keep your explanation concise and positive. If you need to provide a reason for turning down the offer, make it about you, not the employer. Though you might want to say something like “I think your billable-hours requirement is ridiculous,” take the high road with something like “I realized my career goals are more aligned with a firm that has a large private equity practice group.”

Once you’ve given a polite explanation, don’t forget a “thank you.” You want to convey your gratefulness to the employer for the time its lawyers and staff spent getting to know you during the interview process. Not to mention, you may find yourself crossing paths with the employer in the future. You might end up reconsidering a career with the organization in years to come, or perhaps you’ll find yourself working on a deal or case with the lawyers who interviewed you. It’s in your best interest to preserve a positive relationship—your future self might thank you.

Mirror the Offer Format

How should you convey your rejection: phone call, email, or some other method? Like most things in law, it depends. Though it may be intimidating, a phone call will always be well-received as a professional means of making personal contact. Another valid rule of thumb is to mimic the form of the offer—so if the offer was sent via email, it’s fine to respond with a respectful email. If you’re unsure, however, a phone call should be your default method of communication. If you get voicemail, leave a message and follow up with an email. Hopefully this goes without saying, but you should never use text messaging to communicate your employment decision.

Finally, be sure to contact all relevant parties when you express your declination. For example, you may need to inform the recruiting manager in addition to an attorney who reached out with the offer. After speaking to the proper person, you can follow up separately with an email to anyone else you had meaningful contact with.

Other Considerations

Before you consider turning down the job offer, you should also think about the following points. First, if you’re applying for summer positions and struggling to decide between two offers, see if a split summer is possible. Working at both places could provide you with the best of both worlds: You won’t need to turn down an offer you’re interested in, and you will gain more experience at multiple places of employment. This option isn’t always available, but it doesn’t hurt to ask—many times, the decision to allow split summers is made on a case-by-case basis.

Second, unless there are highly unusual or exigent circumstances, do not rescind a job offer after you have already accepted it. This is unprofessional and may leave the employer scrambling to restart the hiring process. Before you accept any offer, be sure you won’t be disappointed if a different one comes along later. Once you’ve accepted an offer, you should stick with it.