In Praise of the Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell, receiving an early call about a prospective intern

Law school reform discussions tend to focus on two mantras: first, “it’s the debt, [stupid]” – high debt loads preclude certain jobs and create long-term problems for many who don’t land the most lucrative positions. Second, “if you build it, the firms will come” – more practice-ready JDs will mean more jobs. Rather than rehash this debate, I’d like to explore an oft-overlooked and underused tool we all have to help our students find employment:

The telephone.

There is a generational divide over telephone etiquette. To paint with an overbroad brush, many professors over fifty prefer not to “cold call” – that is, reach out to individuals whom they don’t already know. More younger faculty feel comfortable picking up the phone and calling a potential employer (summer, internship, externship, or post-graduate) to talk up their student, even if they have no preexisting relationship with the individual on the other end of the line.

Cold calling is the right thing to do.

Simply put, I’ve never heard of someone being turned down for a job because a professor called to support them. Of course, a call to someone you know is better than one to someone you don’t, but a cold call is better than no call at all. And professors do need to keep some of their powder dry – no one wants a reputation for being overly exuberant about any person who has ever darkened your office door – but my feeling is that, regardless of age, we don’t call enough.

Sterling recommendations letters aren’t the end of our work. Telephone calls,  even those that go unreturned, convey a personal interest from the professor and may help the student get out of the massive “applications” pile into the “seriously consider” group. And a call is different from an email; phoning sends a stronger signal and is viewed more seriously by potential employers. Spending a few more minutes making cold calls won’t solve the larger problems facing legal education, but might just help individual students get jobs.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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9 Responses

  1. Not sure why you age-ify this. I’m well under 50 (though rapidly approaching it seems), and I’ve never felt comfortable cold calling anyone, for anything. I imagine many my age would stay the same. Not that I’m saying it’s a good thing – I often feel out of the loop on a number of matters that my friends at other schools seem to know about/participate in. I’m just not sure it has to do with age.

  2. Aaron Zelinsky says:

    Michael, the truth is that the age-thing is largely secondary — more my own anecdotal observations when I discussed this with people than anything else. The key issue is that regardless of age, I think we all don’t cold-call enough. The truth is it probably has more to do with underlying personality traits than age. But I think calling should be more accepted as a part of the job.

  3. AP says:

    Of course, your post assumes there are potential employers available for such a cold call. See for yourself how few jobs are on your school’s Symplicity page, and you’ll realize why telephone etiquette is overlooked in the law school reform discussion.

  4. Tom says:

    I can only base this on my own life experience, but i tend to think that with age and i am fifty, I am more capable in dealing with people and certainly with cold calling than i would have when i was twenty five.
    So yes age is a factor.

  5. Mina says:

    Calling can, theoretically, move one student to the top of the pile. But, there is still only one job for everyone in that pile. And, if it’s an entry level position that a new grad is qualified for, then unless that new grad just moved out of state, that new grad is competing against many classmates. It’s a loosing game – there are still more applicants than jobs. Changing who gets a single job does not create more jobs.

  6. Ray Campbell says:

    I have both given and checked references in a variety of settings, and I think something is missing here. Live recommendations, whether by phone or in person, are potentially more dicey than the post seems to recognize. There’s no problem making a call on behalf of superstar students, and if you are in a setting where your superstar students are not getting jobs it’s a great idea. In most cases, the superstars are not going to be the ones needing help. The problem arises with the students where you can, and will, give a qualified recommendation, but might wilt under cross examination if someone presses on the student’s weaknesses. These are exactly the students who will most resent you if, after you have shown yourself willing to make calls for those not really needing help, you won’t call to help them. When it’s a written recommendation, it’s pretty easy to control – you turn down the students you cannot recommend in good faith, and for those you can give a measured recommendation you say the positive things you can, and take care to present a picture overall you will stand behind without going into the possible negatives. For those many settings where the recommendation is just a formality to see that someone, somewhere will provide a reference, you’ve helped. Once you expose yourself to live responsive questioning, however, you need to know what you will say if the hiring attorney (perhaps a skilled cross examiner) asks the questions you would just as soon not address. Suppose a student made decent grades in your classes, came to every class prepared, tried hard, and was bright enough, but in one class or another proved to be a poor writer – what do you say if asked whether the student writes well? If you tell the truth, “No,” you’ve probably gone from helping to killing their chances. If you say, “Yes,” aside from compromising your integrity, you blow your credibility and by extension the credibility of all at your school if they turn in poorly written work once hired. If, as is most likely, you waffle (“This is overall a good student with room to improve in that area”) you may be left wondering whether engaging in a way that allows cross examination was such a great idea. I think the age factor may be that more senior faculty have previously experienced the downsides of engaging in live recommendations.

  7. Aaron Zelinsky says:


    I think you raise good points (and ones which I glossed over too-quickly in the “keep your powder dry” sentence). But I think that even within “superstar” students, we still tend to under-call. For those in the middle, I think extolling the relative positives over the phone outweighs the potential downside of questioning in most circumstances, as I think we can still extoll the positives while being honest. And I agree that it doesn’t help to call in those settings where the recommendation is merely box-checking, but I also think we tend to over-estimate how often that occurs.

  8. Ray Campbell says:

    Based on the decades I’ve spent writing and checking recommendations, I think that with few exceptions (mainly high end jobs, such as elite clerkships) box checking is the norm. While I include my phone and email and an offer to expand on my comments in every recommendation, there have only been two people who ever have followed up, across a range of industries. In those cases it was a government job at issue where, apparently, checking the box required a live conversation with someone. On the other side, when I’ve called to check references, I’ve often encountered a bit of amazement that anyone was bothering to check – although it was my experience as an employer that the surest route to a hiring mistake was not to check references carefully. My own references have only been checked a few times in my varied career, and not at the entry level for law firms – again, it was the more irrevocable settings like clerkships, getting venture capital funding or being hired into a tenure track job that seemed to justify that investment of time. Of course, that’s anecdotal, not statistically significant, but I think it reflects the broader reality.

    I think it’s a grand idea for faculty to take an active role in seeking employment for their students, and making phone calls is one potentially effective way. My comments were more explanatory than prescriptive, and I think you should call away – especially for those students you taught here at STL in China.

  9. Aaron Zelinsky says:


    Of course — I shall call away. I hope everyone at STL is doing well!