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Thinking (And Thanking) Strategically: Making The Most Of The Thank You Note
I can still hear my mom’s words years ago, “Go upstairs and write Aunt Alice a thank you note!” The quickest way to ruin a beloved birthday present for a ten-year old kid is being assigned the Herculean task of writing a thank you note reciting why you like the gift.
These days, as a recruiter for a large law firm, I get a lot of inquiries from job-seekers asking for tips on navigating the market. A lot of my suggestions are met with appreciative murmurs. Then I utter my standard parting words: “And don’t forget to write a thank you note to your interviewers!” Suddenly I am treated to grumbles on the other end of the line. Clearly, I am not the only one scarred from childhood thank you notes.
Yet a thank you note serves a variety of purposes. For Aunt Alice, it is an opportunity for her to know how much you loved the sweater she knitted by hand and make her feel as though her time was well-spent. In the business context, a thank you note shares the same function, but extends far beyond that. Like Aunt Alice, after an interview or a meeting, it allows the recipient to feel as though their time with you was both well-spent and appreciated. But to simply view it as that alone is short-sighted. And to simply recite the words “thank you” with neither strategic nor thoughtful input is to waste a crucial opportunity. A professional thank you note can be both an effective job-seeking and networking tool.
Worth the Time
Taking the time to write anything thoughtfully is time-consuming. Thus the question is raised: beyond making the interviewer feel good and demonstrating “good manners” (as mom probably nudged), does a thank you note have any impact after a job interview?
The answer is yes. A well-written thank you note can change the mind of an interviewer slightly inclined one way on a decision or a hiring committee which simply cannot decide which way it is leaning at all. Will it save a weak interview? Probably not. But if there are two candidates who both performed well during their interviews and are similarly qualified, a well-written thank you note can absolutely give the edge to one over the other.
Like a cover letter, a thank you note is an opportunity to show off your non-legal writing skills. You can also apply what you learned about the job during your interview to persuade the employer why you are the right candidate. And perhaps most importantly, it reinforces your image as a whole (i.e., that you are a polished and professional attorney).
But don’t stop there. A thank you note can do more than get you the job. Get in the habit of writing a thank you note – or call it a “follow-up note” if you prefer – every time you meet a potential contact for your network (which includes clients, colleagues, friends, referral sources, etc.). If you meet someone in the same practice area on a plane or if you bump into a member of your law school alumni group at a conference, make sure you get his or her business card. Then, consider following up with a personal note. The impact in these situations is the same as the job interview thank you note: it allows people to feel good about the time spent with you. But if written correctly, it can pay dividends. In a networking context, it can give you the chance to let the recipient know more about you and it can provide relationship momentum, which is often the key to turning a quick chat with someone into a referral source, a client, or even a mentor.
Just Press “Send”
I am frequently asked whether a thank you note should be sent via email or handwritten. I think the situation dictates the medium. But no matter what form the note takes, the most important point is that the content is both substantive and thoughtful. And of course it should be free of grammatical errors, typos, and yes, taglines like “Sent from my iPhone.”
For a job interview, I strongly recommend an email thank you note if you want your letter to have any impact. Hiring decisions are made so quickly in today’s bustling work environment that by the time a handwritten card arrives via postal mail (and then is sorted in the mailroom and delivered to the right person), the decision ship has already sailed. I often open a beautifully handwritten note, read it, and then sigh when I realize that we made a decision the day before about the application. A great handwritten note may still lead to a long-term relationship, but the goal in this instance is to have an impact on the hiring process.
In this context, send a note to every person with whom you met. Trying to guess who is the “decision-maker” and focusing your efforts on him/her is a poor strategy. If you are going to take time to write the notes, then do it correctly.
Along those lines, though it may seem obvious, don’t write the same note to everyone. When you recite the same words verbatim, you undercut the impact of the letter. In many offices, colleagues discuss candidates and compare letters. While they may be initially impressed by a nicely-worded note, this will quickly give way to an unfavorable view (of laziness) when they realize you cut and pasted the same letter five times.
On the other hand, if you are writing a thank you note in a situation other than a job interview, the medium is less important and a handwritten note is always a nice touch (if it’s legible). Feel free to choose your preferred method of communication. Just make sure to send the note within a few days of the meeting.
Make it Personal
Of course, this begs the question – what content should you include in your note?
Certainly you should thank the recipient for their time, but beyond that, it depends on to whom the note is directed. When writing a thank you note for a job interview, you have a wonderful opportunity to use the information you gathered at the interview about the position, office, or company to reiterate why you are a great fit. For example, you can let an employer know that “During our discussion I was pleased to learn that all of your work is done on ‘client teams’ because that is the same model we followed in my previous position. Ranked the #1 supervisor by my peers in that job, I am now even more certain that my experience would be an asset to your group.” Or, “I loved the opportunity to see the division’s attorneys gathered around the coffee pot during my office tour, sharing strategies for their morning’s cases. That type of camaraderie is exactly what I am seeking in a position.”
No matter the type of note, include details personalized to your individual conversations. Thank you notes are not “one size fits all.” But if you pay careful attention to what is being said, you will find that you have plenty to write about. Did you discuss an upcoming case with a district attorney? Do some research about his or her case and offer congratulations where appropriate. Or did you have a more lighthearted conversation about the Ravens with a company’s assistant general counsel? Send a follow up note discussing the heartbreaking defeat with a team bumper sticker inside. Always use your good judgment about what is appropriate; and when in doubt, err on the side of conservative.
Think strategically. When networking, consider whether this is a relationship you want to keep moving forward. If so, a thank you or follow up note might be geared toward another meeting. If your conversation was about your shared love of Starbucks, propose grabbing a coffee before the start of the next bar section meeting to discuss recent business developments.
The iterations are endless, but the common thread remains the same: listen during your conversation to what is being said. Use the content of the conversation to strategically guide the next steps which are best tailored to your goal.
Finally, remember that with all writing, if you write from a place of sincerity, you will have the greatest impact. After all, “Thank you for the sweater. It’s nice,” doesn’t hold a candle to “Thank you for the sweater, Aunt Alice. I love how soft it is and that you thought to knit it in my favorite color. Most of all, when I wear it, I always think of you.”
Happy writing. And no need to write me a thank you note for this article.
Meri J. Kahan is the Manager of Attorney Recruitment at Saul Ewing LLP in Baltimore. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-332-8904.