A colleague who has been on her own job-hunt recently has asked me a few questions about my interview experiences and I figured that maybe there are others who are curious about law firm interviews as well.
For starters, I have interviewed with many law firms since I started law school. During my first year, I interviewed with a huge firm for one of those illustrious summer clerkships that are known to drive the careers of high-powered attorneys. I didn’t get that job, and I didn’t get a lot more jobs along the way.
I know that part of the reason for this is a cyclical combination of not being sure of what I want to do in my career and not feeling confident about the jobs that I was applying for. For most of my life I have struggled with the idea that I did not know what I wanted to do with it; why would that change once I started pursuing a legal career?
People often underestimate how many fields of practice there are for lawyers. The sexy legal TV shows often show criminal defense attorneys and/or prosecutors. Once in awhile you might find a weird corporate counsel (I’m thinking of Scrubs) in a TV show, or see government lawyers on the news. There are also the commercials for Keller & Keller or the Bernstein law firm, but I’m not sure how many people really even know what they do. I’m sure I don’t even know all of the different practice areas: criminal defense and prosecution; civil litigation which can include property disputes, medical malpractice (either representing injured people or the medical personnel accused of malpractice), slip and fall representation for plaintiffs, no-fault injury (either representing injured people or insurance companies), corporate and business law (which can include creation of businesses, disputes between people involved in businesses, businesses that are sued in the aforementioned slip-and-fall incidents, and much more), employment law (either representing employees attempting to sue employers or employers who are being sued or ensuring that they are complying with laws so that they are not sued), taxation (ensuring that individuals and businesses are complying with tax laws or helping them resolve noncompliance), and so many more that I’m just plain tired of listing everyone; and family law; probate law; patent law, etc. When I started to realize all of the different ways an attorney can practice law, I think my eyes kind of glazed over (just like yours probably did when you looked at that list).
So I just kept focusing on each class as it came with the belief that something would stand out as I went. When I went to that first interview with a law firm, I remember them asking me what I wanted to do with my career. I remember telling them that I wanted to become an expert on some field of law but that I wasn’t sure what that was. And I think in some way I still have that goal. I had originally pursued a joint degree in Taxation with the intention of getting my LLM, but then some things changed at the school and I realized that I had neither the time nor the money to pursue that without having a really good idea of why. I just knew that I was good at math which is almost unheard of for lawyers; lawyers constantly joke about not being good at math and that being the reason many of them became lawyers. I’ll never be able to make that joke.
But anyway, I’ve interviewed for jobs that ranged from working in tiny, small-town firms doing general practice to working for the Attorney General’s office on the Flint water crisis case (there are days when I wish I had accepted that job instead of taking my current clerkship, only because it would be an unforgettable experience) to a medical malpractice firm to jobs that turned out not to be the job I applied for.
One of the first things that I learned was that you have to prepare for interviews with law firms. You absolutely have to know what the firm practices. It’s a good idea to read everything on the firm’s website and check to see whether there has been any news about the firm. This is for your own benefit as well as for the interview. If they make a comment about something during the interview or ask you a question, you need to understand what they’re saying or asking and be able to intelligently respond.
It is also a good idea to reach out to your network to see who might know anyone at any firm. This can be accomplished by looking at LinkedIn, to see who might have worked where in the past or just asking friends and mentors whether they know anything about the firm. A human can give you a perspective that carefully manicured information on the internet cannot. For example, one of my professors once gave me a heads-up about the attorneys at a firm he had formerly been a partner in, telling me who was staying and who was going as retirements happened, and also informing me of personal topics that I could touch upon with my interviewer to try to make a connection. Unfortunately, those things did not help me get the job, but in hindsight I don’t think it was a job I wanted anyway.
Part of looking into the firm is to help you perform the lawyer’s primary task of analysis. However, instead of analyzing the law, you are analyzing how you would fit into the firm. What are they looking for from you and how can you provide it? What are you looking for from them, and can they provide it? Is this a place that you would LIKE to work, or is this a place that you’re intending to use as a stepping stone to get somewhere else in your career?
This is particularly important to consider when you don’t have a ton of experience as a lawyer. For those of us who start our careers as clerks, there are (I think) two main ways to get a job: you either meet an attorney who offers you a job (or at least an interview) based on your performance for the judge or a position becomes available in the courthouse that you can move into, or you play up the experience you’ve gained as a clerk to show that you are ready to begin practice. Unfortunately for me, no good job opportunities arose for me while I was a clerk either in the courthouse or in the nearby practices. This is one of the downsides of clerking in a small town; opportunities are limited. (But don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great upsides too). So, I had to send out approximately 1 million cover letters that said things like, “I have seen many hearings of X type, read memos and researched X type of law, and have a good understanding of the current trends in X type of law” or something to that effect. During interviews I have turned these concepts into offers of experience with my specific judge/county/local attorneys, knowing what good lawyering and bad lawyering look like, and being ready to talk to clients about their cases.
The other thing that I found interesting during my most recent set of interviews is that the attorneys were not particularly curious about my substantive knowledge of the law and were more interested in my personality and how it would fit with their practice. I was asked questions about how I handle stress, whether I like the town that the practice was based in, whether I would be comfortable making a losing argument, and how I would feel about contacting clients about paying their bills. None of those questions were answered by anything I learned in law school, and were minimally answered by my experience as a law clerk. Specifically, about making a losing argument, I talked about how I have seen attorneys make arguments that I knew were losers as they were coming out of the attorney’s mouth, but I knew that they had to stand up and put on the show for their client because that was what the client had asked them to do and what they were paying them to do. Sometimes it isn’t ideal, but I know that sometimes you just have to give it what you’ve got, because sometimes the opposing counsel isn’t prepared to counter your argument and you just might win.
The last thing I want to say is the same thing you’ve probably heard a million times but that I don’t think I fully understood until I started to make my decision about which job I wanted. You really do have to know yourself and what you want. Sometimes it seems like you really just want experience and that you’d take anything that was presented to you. But when you have more than one option presented, you can really learn something about yourself. For example, one of the jobs that I was offered was going to require me to essentially be in an office by myself all the time. As a person who has a fair amount of social anxiety, I am now really grateful that I didn’t take that job, because I would have ended up alienating myself from the office in the other city and it had never even occurred to me that that would happen. But now that I’ve stepped back, I’m so glad I didn’t accept that job, because I would have become very unhappy in the long run. If you are an outgoing person, it might actually be better for you to work in a satellite office, because your energy and desire for human contact may be what ties the offices together instead of allowing the satellite to drift out of orbit. It may allow you to use downtime to go out and meet new people who could become future clients instead of just sitting back and hiding at your computer. But without knowing who you are and how your energy melds with that of the office and the job responsibilities, you can’t know if something is the right fit for you.
As I said above, there are a lot of jobs that I haven’t gotten, so I’m obviously no expert. But I have learned some things from my failures, and I hope they can help you in your job search.