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There’s more to interviewing than wearing a suit and popping a few breath mints. Learn how to breeze past the screening interviews and turn callbacks into offers.
Landing a plum position at a law firm generally entails undergoing a rigorous series of interviews. The downturn in the market and shrinking summer-program class sizes mean that decent grades, a few extracurriculars, and even a great school pedigree may not be enough to secure the position of your choice. Enter: the interview. This is your chance to make an impression above and beyond your glowing resumé. Here’s how to make the most of this golden opportunity in both rounds of the process.
Round One: The Screening Interview
If they hire 1Ls at all, firms generally skip on-campus interviews in the first year, preferring to see resumés and evaluate you in person when you’re in town. But when you’re a 2L, the interview process heats up—and moves to campus.
Depending on your school, there might be a lottery process to sign up for screening interviews, the first round of evaluation that’s used primarily to confirm initial expectations about you based on your credentials. Generally, you can rank firms in order of preference when you sign up. In the lottery system, you can’t be rejected outright based on your resumé, so even mediocre students might get their 15 minutes with a recruiter from a top-ranked law firm. Tip: Even if you don’t win a scheduled audience with your firm of choice, persistence (even a simple phone call to the recruiting contact) can get you a spot. The number of firms you interview with depends on you and your school; at some, students routinely meet with a dozen or more.
Before the big day, do your homework. Sunny Chu, a recent law school grad and current Federal Court clerk who accepted an offer at a prominent Silicon Valley law firm, offers the following advice: “Know the firm, the practice, and if possible, the attorney you’re talking to—bios are often offered in the hospitality rooms [waiting areas, often stocked with refreshments] or on the firm’s Web site.”
Learn as much as possible about the kind of work the firm does. Interviewers are impressed when you show them that you know what their firm has to offer. They won’t be thrilled if you gush about your interest in a practice area that they don’t have.
Check out the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) form on the particular office of the firm at which you are interviewing. Many firms’ branch offices have stats different from the headquarters, especially when it comes to practice areas and attorney demographics. Your career services office should also have some useful material, such as employer evaluations from years past.
Classmates and alumni are also an invaluable resource—talk to people who have worked at your target firm. They will usually give you the real lowdown on what it’s like to work there. Sometimes this is the only way to find out about a firm’s less desirable aspects.
Dress the Part
A professional appearance alone will not land you the job, but a slovenly one will certainly hurt your chances. Some employers state that students may attend interviews in business-casual attire. Many interviewers, however, would still prefer to see you in a suit. Because firms often send multiple interviewers of varying ages and degrees of conservatism to on-campus recruiting events, your best bet is to stick with the suit.
Carry a leather portfolio, and bring extra copies of your resumé and transcript. Even if they have everything, interviewers may ask you for an additional copy just to see if you’re prepared.
Sell Your Strengths
The screening interviewer generally has only about 20 minutes per candidate and has already decided—based on your resumé, transcript, and sometimes a legal-writing sample with case citations—whether to invite you to the firm for a callback. In general, if the interviewer has already decided that you’ve got the right stuff and should be called back, you have to do something really over the top to lose the chance. On the flip side, if you’re not up to muster on paper, there’s usually little you can do to change the interviewer’s mind. If you’re on the borderline, though, let your dazzling interview skills shine.
Enoch Chang, a first-year associate and member of the recruiting committee at McCutchen, Doyle, says, “Be yourself. When you try to create an image that’s not really you or to fit into a preconceived image of what the firm wants, the interviewer will see right through it.” Try to read your interviewers, and go with the flow.
Don’t feel pressured to discuss law-related topics. One 3L at Georgetown was surprised when her screening interviewers seemed more taken with her oboe playing than her law journal work or favorite courses. Following their lead, however, she discussed wind instruments as long as they seemed interested. She got a callback—and an offer. The bottom line: If you and your interviewer have a common passion for opera, you’ll score far more points—and make a more lasting impression—discussing the finer points of La Traviata than Rule 23.
What if your interviewer begins with a vague question such as: “So, what can I tell you about the firm?” Rather than jumping into a question-and-answer session right away, be prepared with a three- to five-minute narrative that neatly presents both who you are and where your interests in the firm lie. Begin with a statement that addresses the question, and then tie that into your story.
John Kuehn, hiring chairman at Kirkland & Ellis in New York, adds that you can highlight “an issue about which you are writing a paper or journal article, something from moot court, or a legal question you wrestled with during your 1L summer internship. You can use the same story or two over and over again from interview to interview, but if you do, present it a bit differently each time—this will force you to concentrate and help you avoid sounding ‘scripted.'”
Location, Location, Location
If you grew up in Seattle, you’ll have no difficulty proving your intention to return there. But if you spent your entire life in L.A., interviewers may be skeptical about your sudden desire to work in, say, Boston. Mark Weber, director of career services at Harvard Law School and former assistant dean for career services at the University of Illinois School of Law, suggests the following strategy if you don’t have any ties to the target city at all: “Put your money where your mouth is. Visit the city, and if possible, try to arrange brief meetings with the firms that you are interested in. Even a casual vacation can turn into an interview offer if you seem truly bent on going to that city. Firms are making an investment in you when they train you in the first year. If you can’t prove that you’re serious about staying, the firm isn’t going to gamble all that time and money.”
Kuehn warns, however, that “you don’t want it to look as if you merely signed up to interview with every firm in the relevant city that comes to your campus.” Make sure you have an arsenal of firm-specific comments —that go beyond geography—to use in response to the inevitable question: “Why did you sign up to interview here?”
Put on a Happy Face
Did you hate your civil procedure course? They’d never know it from your answer. This isn’t the time for brutal honesty; it’s far wiser to talk about the insightful professor, the interesting subject matter, and your intelligent classmates. Interviewers eschew any hint of a negative attitude. Demonstrate that you can find silver linings in the stormiest of legal clouds: “Try to describe what was positive about the experience, even if you disliked it. If you didn’t get along with your 1L summer employer, don’t bash them in future interviews. As far as the firm is concerned, you’ll probably be saying the same things about them next year,” says Weber.
Round Two: The Callback Interview
Congratulations if you’ve made it to this stage. Firms will generally let you know via telephone if you’ve made callbacks, and by mail if the answer’s no.
The primary purpose of the callback—usually held at the firm’s office location—is to confirm the screening interviewer’s impression of you and to determine whether your personality is a good match. According to Kuehn, the difference between the screening and callback interviews can be summed up as follows: “On campus, the question is, ‘Does this candidate merit a more in-depth examination?’ During the callback, it’s ‘Would I really want to work with this candidate?'”
The usual method of testing your “fit” is to have you interview with four to six attorneys, half of whom will usually be partners, and then send you off to lunch with two junior associates. Chu warns, “During the callback, you have to sustain your energy, edge, and enthusiasm for a half—or a whole—day. That’s the biggest challenge.”
A note on attire: Kirkland & Ellis’s Kuehn says, “Many law offices are now business casual all the time. It often seems to me that during callback interviews, candidates wearing traditional business attire seem uncomfortable and stiff.” He suggests confirming ahead of time with the recruiting coordinator and dressing according to that particular firm’s dress code. If the firm is of the hip, young Silicon Valley variety, sporting formal business attire might actually count against you.
Give … and Take
While the screening interview is more about selling yourself to the firm, the callback round is a forum in which you can not only hype yourself but also satisfy your curiosities about your potential employer. Since each interview in the callback phase is generally about 30 minutes long, you should have time to both talk about yourself and ask questions about the firm.
Avoid sounding canned in your inquiries, though. When the interviewer hears, “Tell me about your summer program,” for the 100th time, her response is likely to be uninspired. Instead, consider asking questions designed to elicit the information you want in a less obvious manner. Weber suggests the following: “Instead of asking how much responsibility young associates are given (the stock response will be ‘a lot’), ask the interviewer about a current project she is working on, and then ask how she assigns or is assigned work, and if it is substantive.”
Express your interest in that particular firm. If you want to take part in their pro bono activities during the summer, tell them. If they have a special litigation training camp you’re interested in attending, let them know. Interviewers are always impressed when you demonstrate genuine interest and at least an inkling of what practice areas or unique firm feature you would like to explore as a summer associate.
Do Some Digging
As you go through the day, ask relevant questions about training, mentoring, partner contact, and feedback on assignments. The truly hard core might inquire about the partnership track—what’s the process and timeline for making partner at the firm? Are there different partner tracks (junior vs. senior partners, nonequity vs. equity partners)? How many people make partner each year? Also ask (in a diplomatic way) about the attorneys’ lifestyle: number of hours worked, billing requirements, workload, level of responsibility, variety of work, compensation, and morale. “If the lawyer is a lateral [hire] at the firm,” Kuehn adds, “ask him or her to compare the experience at this firm with the other.”
Size up the senior associates and partners. After meeting them, ask yourself if they typify the kind of lawyer you’d like to be in a few years. Also ask the younger associates why they chose this firm over others like it. Ideally, they will give you the lowdown on many of the same places you are also interviewing at. Note: If they engage in bashing other firms, chances are that their firm isn’t up to par; those who work for superior institutions generally don’t put down their competitors.
If there’s something controversial about the firm that you want to know about, there are two things to keep in mind. First, if it’s really important to you, you should probably ask about it—you’ll lose sleep if you don’t. Second, if it’s not that important to you but you still want to know, hold off until you have the offer in hand. Still, when asking the question (e.g., “Why is there such a low percentage of minority partners?” or “Will I have to defend tobacco corporations?”), Weber notes that the issue is not “what is asked, but how it is asked. Ask the interviewers for their take on the subject, but don’t be hostile or defensive.” Focus on learning about the issue, not on airing your grievances.
Never ask about benefits. “‘What’s in it for me?’ questions are premature at this stage and are irrelevant until an offer is on the table. It will look … like you are focused on all the wrong things, and you might come across as greedy,” warns Weber.
Honesty is the Best Policy
Never pretend to know something—or someone—that you really don’t. Kuehn illustrates this with a particularly amusing anecdote: “Some time ago, during a callback interview with a 2L interested in bankruptcy work, one of my partners mentioned a publication that our bankruptcy department writes and sends to clients and law schools. The candidate enthusiastically reported that he was familiar with the publication and had been reading it for ‘years.’ In fact, the bankruptcy group had just recently put out the second quarterly edition ever. No offer, of course.”
If you’re interviewing in your 3L year because you didn’t get an offer from your 2L employer, don’t be afraid. “You shouldn’t dodge the question,” says Weber. “Relate what happened in a positive light. Explain what you learned over the summer, and if the reason you didn’t get an offer was because you didn’t ‘fit’ with the firm, reassure the interviewer that you have the ability to do the work, and consider getting a reference from your former employer who can at least attest to your work product.”
Don’t Forget Your Manners
While you may feel more comfortable asking certain questions of the younger associates, treat all the attorneys with the same level of respect. While recruiters often present the lunch hour—usually spent with more junior attorneys—as separate from the rest of the day, don’t let your guard down. You are still being evaluated and should treat the meal just as you would another office interview. Although “you don’t have to spend the entire lunch period talking about the firm,” advises Kuehn, “spending no time doing so suggests that you aren’t really interested after all. Your lunchmates will convey this to the more senior attorneys. Don’t assume that the lawyers making offer decisions will ignore the impressions of the younger attorneys. These are your prospective peers; if they don’t like you, that hurts your chances.”
The lunch might also be used as a measure of your fit in an egalitarian culture. “Exercise good table manners and be polite to the waitstaff. Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ will go a long way in furthering your cause,” says Chang. “Moreover, general politeness will reflect on how you will interact with other people in the firm, particularly the support staff. At McCutchen, Doyle everyone who works for the firm is treated with the same level of respect.”
Case the Joint
As you are being escorted around the firm, observe the atmosphere. Do people seem happy there? Are people outside of their offices and chatting at the coffee maker? Does the support staff seem content? Do you like the look of the office? When you’re being taken from office to office for interviews, do the attorneys know where they’re going? Are they acquainted with the lawyer with whom you’re interviewing next? Ask yourself if you’d be comfortable spending your days—and possibly quite a few nights— in that space.
With several excellent offers in hand, one associate made his decision not only on the quality of the people that he met, but also on some of the intangibles that had struck him during his office visits. At one particular firm, the secretaries, who were mostly of his parents’ generation, all had Limp Bizkit playing on their radios. This quirk distinguished that firm enough to lead him to accept the offer.
Tie Up Loose Ends
After all is said and done, write thank-you notes to the firms you interviewed with. For your top-choice firms, a handwritten note is a nice gesture that demonstrates your sincere interest in this age of mass e-mail. Since you may meet several people at each firm, at least send a note to your recruiting partner, asking him or her to convey your regards to the others. A thoughtful message to a partner you clicked with can go a long way in furthering your case.
Once you have offers in hand, don’t vanish! Keep in touch with your contact person at each firm, and check in every now and then to let them know where you stand with your decision. Remember that there are a lot of people who would love to take one of the offers you are holding. If you are certain you are not going to take an offer, decline it immediately.
Kuehn offers two tips: “First, remember that recruiting is a two-way process. The firm is as much a candidate that you are interviewing as the other way around. The firm only makes the preliminary decisions—whether to extend a callback and make an offer. You decide which offer to take. You need to elicit what information you can from your ‘candidates’ so you can make that decision. Too many students get to the last step in the process (i.e., deciding between offers) and can’t distinguish between firms. Ask questions about the things that matter to you, even if you’re afraid they may be ‘sensitive.’ (If an issue that is important to you is too ‘sensitive’ for a lawyer at the firm to discuss, then you don’t want to work there, and you’d best figure that out before you accept the offer.) If need be, after you’ve received an offer, ask to make a return visit to the office, or to talk to more lawyers on the phone.
“Second, relax. Although a few 2Ls end up accepting offers with firms with whom they spend many years after law school, I think that’s the exception, not the rule. The recruiting process is highly subjective, and the information exchanged is usually selective, for both the firm and the student. The only way for you and a firm to really determine whether you are right for each other is for you to work there for a couple of years after law school. Take the selection process seriously, but don’t add pressure by thinking that a wrong step will cause irreparable, career-long damage.”