The #1 Characteristic of the Best Legal Interviewers and Attorneys Who Get Clients

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A. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes
My early career was in the asphalt business—resurfacing and repairing driveways, parking lots and streets and doing hot-tar related work. I thought the work was a lot of fun. It was not intellectual, the people I was dealing with were straightforward and the work also paid quite well. I loved the work. Conversations with my peers in the asphalt business often went like this:
  • "Did you install a transmission cooler on that truck? You are towing too much, and you could fry your tranny!"
  • "How many bags of sand are you mixing into that?"
  • "Why did you replace the Honda engine on that pump with a Tecumseh?"
  • "Do you think it is going to rain today?
These conversations could last for hours. It was mindless and fun work and paid very well. In contrast to the thinkers and competitive nature of my college classmates, the asphalt business was a breath of fresh air. In fact, I spent my summers all through college doing this work and having the best time I have ever had. The work was physically rewarding, often dangerous and financially worthwhile.



When I was in my fourth year of college, I did not even take the LSATs until March–and got my LSAT results when most of the law school classes were already full. A good deal of the delay was due to the fact that I was applying to construction management schools in hopes of being an asphalt contractor.

I spoke with and interviewed with several of these schools (Northern Arizona University, University of Oklahoma, Louisiana State University, and Milwaukee School of Engineering) and loved everyone I interviewed with. They liked me too. In fact, they were some of the nicer people I had ever met. I had been doing this work for 12+ weeks every summer and had met many people in the construction industry and understood them.

There are all kinds of assumptions, ways of thinking and connecting with people who make their living doing and managing construction-related projects that I understood. Beer, trucks, profitable jobs and so forth would come up in the interviews. The people were great, and I understood them.

I ended up going to law school–mainly, I think, because I did not have the balls to follow my dream at the time because my father, classmates and others at the University of Chicago seemed to think I had lost my mind by wanting a career in the asphalt industry.

When I started interviewing with law firms during my first year of law school, I was not impressed with the people I was meeting. Most of the people I was interviewing with had never worked outside. I would shake their hands and think to myself: "What the hell is wrong with this guy? His hands feel like a girl's!"

The interviewers were all dressed quite well, and it honestly made me a little uncomfortable. They stood and sat up straight. Their shoes were polished. They were a little uptight and seemed overly concerned with grades and various things.

I thought the attorneys I was interviewing with were some of the lamest people I had ever encountered. Moreover, the law students I was going to school with seemed a little bit uptight to boot!

I spent a lot of time wondering what I was doing trying to get a job with people like this. In all honesty, I saw these people the way a contractor who works outside judges people: I was judging and seeing the attorneys and law students from a different vantage point.

Because I was seeing the attorneys in this way, I was not connecting with them. Because I was not connecting with them, in the first few months of doing interviews, I was not doing well at all. I was seeing the world in a completely different way and, because I was unable to connect with them, I was failing.

After the summers of my first and second years, I worked inside a law firm and for the government. It was very difficult for me adjusting to the different personality types, the rigidity and major differences between working in the asphalt business and with attorneys.

However, the more time I spent with attorneys, the more I came to understand them. The more I came to understand the attorney I was interviewing with, the better I did in interviews. Instead of talking about my love of a Bobcat tractor in an interview (like I might have with construction people), I was now talking about cases and legal motions. I started to understand the way that the attorney I interviewed with saw things. The more I came to understand how these attorneys saw things and processed information, the better I did in my interviews with them.

By the time I had been practicing law for a few years, if I was able to get an interview, the odds of me getting a job I wanted were extremely good–in fact, if I wanted the job, I knew exactly what I needed to do.

While it took me a few years to learn it, I eventually came to understand that the most important thing to being a good in interviews is understanding the people you are speaking with better than anyone else. You may think that you understand the attorneys you are speaking with, but the odds are very good that you do not understand them at all. Not well enough anyway.

If you are clueless about someone's emotional pain, the issues they face and who they are as a person, you are going to have a very difficult time connecting with them and getting the job. People need to feel like they are understood.

Let me give you a few examples of how this works in practice:

Over the past 15 years, I have hired various people to work as in house counsel in my company. Because in house counsel jobs are in demand, I have typically received in excess of 500 applications anytime I have had an opening. In truth, in house counsel jobs are so in demand that an employer with a properly promoted position can literally take their pick of attorneys – they will get applications from attorneys at Skadden and other large law firms almost regardless of where the position is located.

I might interview five or six people for each of these positions. The one who ultimately gets the job is usually not the most qualified person—it is the one who connects best with me and others in the office. Incredibly, the most qualified people are often the worst at connecting.
  • Someone who went to Chicago and works at Latham & Watkins, for example, might come in and act standoffish, like they need to be sold on the job—and make no effort to connect. Despite this person’s attitude, they likely do not realize they are competing for the same job with people from even better law firms and far better law schools. They will not try to find others that know you before the interview. This same person may be cynical about their current employer and the work they are doing. They may complain about their hours and work situation. Being around a person like this will generally make the people around them not feel all that great either.
  • In contrast, someone who went to a mid-tier law school might come in and make a real effort to learn about me and the people they are interviewing with. They will also try and understand how they fit in and be very enthusiastic. They will express optimism about what they can do to help–and it will be genuine. They may find others who know you before the interview and bring these people up during the interview—“so and so has really nice things to say about you!” They will position themselves as a confidant who can be trusted, and will be diligent and hard working. They will say positive things about their peers in their current job and be positive. Being around a person like this will likely elevate others and make the people around them feel good.
Who do you think gets hired more often? Moreover, what sort of person do you think would be a better attorney, better at getting clients, working with others inside a company and so forth? The people who are the best interviewees are also the best at getting clients, working inside companies and are the most successful attorneys–it is as simple as that. The ability to connect with and understand others is hugely important in the practice of law and among the most important skills you can develop.

Have you ever watched how a superstar rainmaker operates? It is fascinating. If you are a potential client of theirs, they will always:
  • Give you the impression they are on your side
  • Give you the impression they will get behind you 100%
  • Not act standoffish and like they are better than you
  • Smile and get you to like them
  • Find common interests the two of you have
  • Try and find common people that you each know
  • Be part of various organizations or support organizations that you too may be interested in
It works like this across the entire legal profession–and even in legal recruiting. The best legal recruiters are always the ones who are able to relate to others personally. They can connect with others by talking about whatever they need to and are comfortable wherever the conversation ultimately goes. These people have the ability to connect with and relate to others in a very powerful way.

When you are interviewing for a job, you are interviewing to be part of a group that has come together for a common purpose. Because that group is together for a common purpose, they want to have people who are part of their group that empathize with and will help one another. They want to be around people similar to themselves and that understand them. Feeling you are around like-minded people is very important and something that makes groups successful.

Interestingly enough…something that I have noticed over and over again is that when law firms fail, it is often due to a merger, or having hiring practices that result in people working together without seeing if they are compatible with each other first. Instead of seeing if there are personality matches and testing this out, a group of attorneys with business may be stuck in a new law firm without any of the allegiances and understandings of each other that are necessary to create a successful group. They may open a bunch of branch offices with incompatible attorneys and make many mistakes–when personalities are not taken into account in building teams, there are almost always serious problems. Building teams based on logic–and not emotional connection–is very dangerous.

Over the past decade, some incredible companies have developed in Silicon Valley based on understanding the needs of people. A great deal of cutting-edge thinking in this regard has come out of the Institute of Design at Stanford. Much of their teachings and breakthroughs result from the idea of having empathy for the client and customer and the knowledge that this is the only way to succeed. (As a practical matter, anyone you are interviewing with is a client or customer.)

By creating maps like the one below, their students learn to understand potential clients of a given product or service so they can develop empathy toward them and understand them:

Empathy Map

The same thinking that is used to understand a potential customer can apply to interviewing for legal positions as well—understanding and empathizing with the person you are interviewing with will give you a massive advantage. Here is another example of an empathy map:

An empathy map is designed into four quadrants:
  • Think and Feel: Try to really understand what goes on in this person's mind? What is really important to this person (that they might not acknowledge in an interview)? Imagine their emotions and what moves them. What are their dreams and aspirations?
  • See: What does the person you are speaking to see in their environment? What does it look like? Who surrounds them? What type of people is he exposed to daily? What problems does this person encounter?
  • Say and Do: What is the person's attitude? What are the conflicts in what this person says and does and what they might really think and feel? What does this person say privately to others?
  • Hear: What do this person's friends and acquaintances say? What do this person's co-workers say? Who influences this person and how?
The map also takes into account "pain and gain":
  • Pain: What is this person most frustrated by? What obstacles are standing in their way? What risks does this person fear taking?
  • Gain: What does the person really want or need to achieve? How do they measure success? What strategies does this person use to achieve their goals?
In completing these maps for your interviewers, it is always important to write down as much information as possible.

One reason these maps are so important, and this sort of thinking is so crucial, is because it takes you from being someone concerned with:
  • Your needs,
  • Your background,
  • Your skills,
  • Your presentation,
  • Yourself,
  • YOUR EGO
And you become someone completely focused on the other person. When you begin to gain real insight into the people you are speaking with and understand them deeply, great things happen. This is one of the most important secrets to success in interviewing and the practice of law. If you truly understand this, your entire life–relationships, job, potential–will all change for the better.

Why do I write about attorneys and have businesses to help them? Because I care about them and want to help them–because I understand them (and I would like to think I understand you). I have been where you are, I have had my ups and downs. I have been taken advantage of and worked with both good and difficult people. I have had many of the same experiences you have had, and I want very, very much to help you. I have fallen in love with the people I want to help them and their situations. I hope it shows how seriously I take this.

If I did not feel this way, I would have experienced failure–or only moderate success in this field. I hope that, in this statement, you can see the reasons most attorneys and people never experience the success they are capable of. It is all about this.

How did I become good at interviewing? I threw myself into the legal profession. I gave it everything I had. I went to every event I could. I worked late and fell in love with the work. I thought about it 24/7 and thought about the people I was serving. I made it my number one priority. When I did that, I began to understand the people I was working for and see things from their points of view. I came to realize that none of this was about me. It was about the people I was serving (and I wanted to serve them because I understood them). When you understand and identify the people you work for, you become 10 times more impactful.

An attorney should want to help their clients because he understands them. When someone believes and feels someone understands them, they feel they have an ally and want that person around. You will be successful in your legal career when you empathize with and understand the people you want to work for. This is the most important skill you can learn as both an interviewee and attorney.

See the following articles for more information:





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