Nailing the Entry-Level Firm Interview

My 2L summer occurred right before the economic crash, and on-campus interviewing consisted of chatting with law firm representatives for days on end. After finishing my clerkship, I got a refresher course because my firm asks candidates to interview with every attorney (about 20ish conversations). All this interviewing left me with some strong opinions on successful interviewing techniques (as well as some disastrous stories).

Do your homework

This part is obvious. You should know something about the firm and something about the person interviewing you (assuming you know who that person will be in advance). But, you need not go crazy. In fact, it looks kind of creepy when you’ve memorized the interviewer’s Linked in profile. You need enough information so that you can craft a sentence about why you’re excited to work for the firm and so that you don’t put your foot in your mouth. As for personal bios, I recommend mentioning an interviewer’s biography only if you have something specific to say about it. If you both attended the same undergrad, for example, it’s always nice to point that out. 15 minutes on the firm’s website should give you the right amount of background.

Separate Job-Obtaining Phase from Information-Gathering Phase

I recommend completely separating (1) getting an offer from (2) deciding whether you want that job. How does this work? Do not ask any questions that directly go to work-life balance, pay, vacation time, etc. If you think you might want the job, display full enthusiasm in your interviews. Of course, while you’re talking about the interviewer’s work, you can get a sense of these issues, but do not ask directly. Only after you have the job offer should you circle back (perhaps with someone you connected with during the interviews) and ask these questions.

Work on your small talk

Lawyers are notoriously terrible at conducting interviews. Several of my big firm interviews started with the attorney asking “do you have any questions?” and resulted in me racking my brain to fill 20 minutes after that opening gambit. If you can take the pressure off a busy associate and relieve the need for them to feel awkward, however, the associate will be grateful. How do you fill 20 minutes?

  • An interviewer’s interesting piece of artwork, a great view, beautiful turn of the century map, or a balance ball, can all provide a jumping off point for a conversation, as well as a way to personally relate to someone from the get go. I try to avoid asking about family photos, however, because that can seem overly personal.
  • Start by asking the interviewer about their story—how did she find the firm and her current practice? During the answer, feel free to jump in with questions that naturally follow. If interviewer starts by talking about a professor at Duke, feel free to segue into a conversation about Duke Basketball.
  • Have a standard list of fall-back questions in the event you need reinforcement. Asking people about their work, their favorite experiences, how work is assigned, and what skills make for a successful associate at the firm, are all good fall backs.

If you’ve past a screening interview and are undertaking a callback interview, small talk is especially important. The firm has already decided that you have the qualifications; the callback issue is whether you have the right work ethic and personality to succeed at the firm. The firm wants to ensure they are not bringing in a crazy person or even a person that will be miserable and grumpy when racing for amidnightfiling deadline.

Don’t lose your sense of humor

In one screening interview, a fly buzzed around the room for the first few minutes. The interviewer was clearly being driven crazy by the fly, so when it paused in front of me, I clapped my hands and killed it. This was not optimal interview behavior, but I made a Karate Kid joke, and promised that I would not shake hands at the interview’s conclusion. I got a call back.

Watch others at lunch

Are you supposed to order an appetizer? A drink? Who knows! But, you can make this issue part of the conversation with a simple “what are people thinking?” Also, you can always pretend that you have not yet made up your mind when the waiter arrives and simply gesture to your companion with a sheepish “oh, you go first.” If you know where you are eating ahead of time, check out the menu on-line and think about food that leaves little room for error. Sushi, for example, leaves too much room for error—do I put the whole piece in my mouth? Chop it in half? Pastas can be troublesome as well.

End each interview by asking for what you want

At the end of each interview, let the interviewer know that you have enjoyed speaking with them and (if true) you would be delighted to receive an offer from the firm. If the firm is your first choice place to work, tell them that. People appreciate enthusiasm—it is more fun to hire someone who accepts on the spot than someone who has to ruminate about the offer for months.

(photo: Group of happy business people sitting from Shutterstock)