Julie Brush, Solutus founding partner

When assessing whether to apply for a job, legal professionals tend to view their submission of interest as a commitment they are locked into until the bitter end. This mentality affects how a candidate feels and behaves—and influences the opportunities s/he chooses to pursue … or not. I work with scores of lawyers who find themselves in the anxiety red zone because either they don’t know exactly what they want when they look for greener pastures or they believe that going through an interview process means foregoing an escape hatch. Consequently, fear sets in and they don’t pursue opportunities they should. Or, they go all the way to the end of a process only to reject an offer presented.

Sound familiar? These results are a detriment to everyone involved. So a paradigm shift in thinking about “The Process” is required.

Whether you’ve jumped in with both feet or have one toe in the water, the purpose of the job application and interview process is one of education and exploration. Designed to provide you with an increasing amount of information so that you can make the most informed decisions about your career. You don’t have to know exactly what you want. You don’t have to know exactly what you need. And you don’t have to know whether you’d accept a job offer at the beginning of an application process. You do not need to commit to anything except entering a process in good faith. And if you do that, the rest is pretty straightforward.

When job hunting, it’s prudent to cast a fairly wide net with regard to the types of opportunities to consider. Pursuing those that pique your interest … and leaving the nonstarters behind. The goal is to learn as much about an opportunity as you can. And in that process, you will learn more about yourself. Inevitably, there will be surprises as you continue to explore different employers, roles, cultures, leadership and geographies. And as the process advances, you will have more insight and precision with which to choose the role that’s right for you—and move the needle closer to career satisfaction.

And if you reach a point in an interview process where you know the role isn’t The One, it’s OK to opt out and move on. I repeat: it’s OKk to opt out. In fact, it’s the professionally responsible thing to do. But this can be much easier said than done. Fearing the conflict and its consequences, legal professionals are unsure how to handle such situations. If you find yourself at this point, below are a couple of examples of how to effectively pull the plug:

“Jane, I wanted to reach out directly to let you know that I am withdrawing my name from consideration for the Director, Legal position. I sincerely appreciate the time and effort of your entire team. But as I’ve learned more about the opportunity, I don’t think there is a fit. The company is at a stage that is a bit too early for what I am seeking and I’d like to be part of a larger legal department with a more defined infrastructure. This is a wonderful opportunity and I wish you the best of luck with your search. I look forward to our paths crossing again. Best, Alex”

“Robert, thank you for taking the time to meet with me this week. I appreciated learning more about the firm/company as well as the position. After careful consideration, I’ve decided not to remain in the process. I’m seeking a bit more responsibility than this role will offer—and combined with the compensation and long commute; I don’t think it’s the right career move at this time. All the best, Alice”

Withdrawal Message to a Recruiter:

Note: An unprofessional withdrawal or improper job rejection for a job represented by a recruiter can quickly get you blackballed in the recruiting world. So communicating the right message to this constituency is just as important as it is directly to an employer. Here’s a good example:

“Julie, I had a good interview with Joe at Company XYZ. He was a nice guy and I think the interview went well. But after learning more about the role, I don’t think it’s right for me. Through the process, I’ve determined that I would like to stick to B to C companies. I wanted to let you know now before everyone put more time and effort into my candidacy. Thank you for thinking of me and I appreciate the opportunity to interview with your client. I’d like to reach out directly to Joe if you think that would be appropriate. If anyone comes to mind for this role that could work, I’ll send them your way. In the interim, don’t hesitate to reach out if there are other Solutus opportunities that you think might be a fit. Best Regards, Laura”

The pressure legal professionals place on themselves to be “perfect” in a job search can be downright paralyzing. From the resume to the network building to the interviews to saying no …and to committing to a path before they know where it leads. It’s an unrealistic bar that serves as a set-up for a suboptimal experience—and results. So as you begin your next career journey … breathe. Cut yourself some slack. And heed the advice above to leverage The Process for the gift that it is meant to be.

Julie Brush is the founder and author of The Lawyer Whisperer (www.thelawyerwhisperer.com), a career advice column for legal professionals, also found on LinkedIn. She is co-founder of Solutus Legal Search, a legal search/consulting boutique firm, serving as a strategic adviser to lawyers, law firms and corporations.