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Nail the Job, Part 1: How to Answer Interview Questions

published December 01, 2011

By Harrison Barnes, CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 277 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.
Scared to open your mouth at a recruiting interview? Don't be. We'll show you how to talk smart no matter what comes your way. On the list of things people do not generally look forward to, the job interview ranks right up there with root canals, strip searches, and John Tesh boxed sets. But with the proper preparation, it doesn't have to be that way. The central skill is to know how to answer the damn questions. This sounds simple. It is not. Don't believe us? We have proof.

Recently, we asked a panel of top legal experts (see sidebar: The Panel) to share with us their favorite interview questions. Then we had real law students give their answers. When you see how perfection-challenged many of the replies were, you'll realize that answering interview questions isn't as easy as it seems (you may also understand why the participants asked not to be named).


Fortunately, our recruiting pros graciously evaluated the students' answers and offered their expert advice on how they-and you-could do better. Here, everything you need to know to impress the best.

What got you interested in the law?

I've been exposed to the law my whole life. A lot of my family members are lawyers.
New York University 1L

The intellectual stimulation and wanting to help people. Also, the reputation.
Boston University 2L

My parents said I'd make a good lawyer because I like to argue and debate. But it wasn't until I was a paralegal—I worked on real estate transactions and foreclosures—that I realized I truly liked the profession.
Rutgers-Camden 1L

Bad
Playing the family card ("A lot of family members are lawyers") or the natural aptitudes card ("I like to argue and debate") may be logical enough from a student's point of view, but recruiters hate both tactics. They're overused, and interviewers are sick of hearing them. Plus, family stories show "intellectual laziness," says Gail Flesher, chair of the recruiting committee at New York's Davis Polk & Wardwell. Talking about your parents marks you as juvenile, and "Also, the reputation" is flat-out off-putting. "Like it appeals to the girls or the boys in the bar? That wouldn't fly with me," says Michele Jawin, an executive with Mestel & Company, a recruiting firm based in New York and Washington, D.C. In general, the answers aren't nearly specific enough about each student's unique motivation. To succeed at a law firm, says Kim Koopersmith, a hiring partner at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld in New York, "you have to really want to do this. It's not an easy way to make a living, so you had better have thought it through on your own."

Good
The last piece of the Rutgers 1L's answer establishes the kind of personal connection that recruiters are looking for, says Akin, Gump partner and hiring committee member Andrew Rossman. Saying "I was a paralegal [and] I realized I truly liked the profession" may not seem like a home-run answer, but it doesn't have to be. The point is, the student took a firsthand experience and related it to her decision to become a lawyer. "That's real," says Rossman. "That I can accept."

The Bottom Line
Be prepared to talk about a concrete personal experience that led you to the law. If you have something big, great—go with it. JeanMarie Campbell, Akin, Gump's manager of legal recruitment and professional development, recalls one student, for instance, whose parents were killed in an accident; a lawyer helped the student with estate and finance issues, and that inspired her to go into the law. But you don't have to have the slam-dunk reason. Recruiters realize that most law students have had neither much practical legal experience nor a life-altering episode that drew them to the field. Just be sure your reason paints you in a flattering light. Consider the BU 2L's answer about "intellectual stimulation." "If that's true, that's perfect," says Flesher. "If you worked as a paralegal, great. You have to have a reason, though. There's got to be a reason."

Why do you want to work in a law firm?

Working in a firm will expose me to many practice areas and different partners and associates.
NYU 1L

I'll grow and learn the most in a firm environment. I want to learn different areas of law because I feel I'm too young to commit myself to one specialty.
BU 2L

When I worked for a law firm in Florida, I liked the opportunity to help the client. I also liked when the attorneys brought in novel problems and issues. I realize that a corporate environment would offer the same type of problem-solving opportunities, but a law firm will offer more diversity as to the types of problems and the opportunities to help clients.
Rutgers-Camden 1L

Bad
Me, me, me. You're definitely on the wrong track if your answer implies that a firm should cater to your desires (see "Working in a firm will expose me to different practice areas," and "I feel that I'll grow and learn the most in a firm environment"). To an interviewer, this says you're less interested in helping the firm than you are in helping yourself. It may also imply that you're there to get your basic training, then leave. Yes, you need to find out what the firm can do for you, but do it later, after you get an offer. For now, show the interviewer what you can do for the firm. Another problem: "None of these answers says anything about the business," says Flesher. "There's lots about the work that should be interesting to the applicants, and if it's not, they shouldn't be going to a firm." Yet another mistake: the way the Rutgers 1L mentioned "a corporate environment" out of nowhere. The remark sends a signal that she may be as interested in business as she is in law.

Good
The Rutgers 1L tried to connect her answer to a real-world experience that had inspired her to work for a firm. The panelists agree, however, that she should have gone deeper, citing specific cases or matters that she worked on.

The Bottom Line
As with the first question, be prepared to answer this one by citing a personal experience—in this case, one that made you want to work at a law firm (as opposed to, say, a DA's office). Also key to acing this query: Show that you understand the complexity and challenges of practicing law at a firm. After all, why would anyone believe you when you say you'd be good at a job if you don't know what the job entails? Vague answers about "many practice areas" and "different partners" only serve to show how little you know. Instead, talk about a case that the firm has worked on recently, say why you found that matter interesting, and spell out how you could see yourself enjoying—and contributing to—that sort of work. Try something like "The Stumpington case you handled is obviously going to have a major impact on IP law. That sort of matter is something I think I could contribute to, because . . ." No one expects you to be an expert, but don't present yourself as utterly naïve either. Instead of "I'm too young to commit myself to one specialty," at least try something like "I think my skills and interests could be a good match for your litigation department," says Akin, Gump's Rossman.

What drew you specifically to our firm?

I'm attracted to firms that have a bicoastal presence, because I'm from California. I'm also interested in a firm that does all kinds of work, because I'm unsure about what I want to do right now.
NYU 1L

I was attracted to your firm because of its great reputation. And it's in the location I want to settle in.
BU 2L

I want the opportunity to work in New York City and to try different areas of the law before settling down and developing an expertise in one or two areas.
Rutgers-Camden 1L

Bad
A firm with a "bicoastal presence"? One with a "great reputation"? "In New York City"? The students are describing some 50-odd firms, the panelists point out. "One question I ask in our evaluations is "Interest in the firm?" says Rossman. "I have no basis to say that the BU 2L has a particular interest in my firm."

Good
Sorry, thanks for playing.

The Bottom Line
There's no excuse for not knowing what a given firm has to offer—or not being prepared to say what about the firm appeals to you. These days, firm Web sites detail everything from practice groups to starting salaries; stories about firms in legal publications are easily accessible on the Internet; and online forums like Greedy Associates offer all manner of inside scoop. Gathering even a few tidbits from these sources will show an interviewer that you've done some homework. Better yet, use your networking skills to make contact with a lawyer at the firm and ask her questions. Saying "I spoke to one of your associates the other day, and one of the things I learned was . . ." is an excellent way to show that you care enough about a firm to go the extra mile. Next, says Akin, Gump's Koopersmith, "make a presentation that explains why this firm is what you're looking for. Say, 'I like that you have an international practice' or 'I like that you staff the litigation department in a particular way.' With me, that scores points." Another tip: Avoid expressing your interest in one firm by making negative comments about another. Plain and simple, it's unprofessional.

What did you do last summer?

I just temped to make some extra money. It was pretty administrative, but I learned a lot about hedge funds, because my boss was meeting with investors, trying to get them to invest.
NYU 1L

I worked for the Suffolk County district attorney's office in Boston, doing legal research. I used creative skills and also skills I learned as a law student. I approached every situation as a search-and-rescue mission and saw myself as a man my supervisors could depend on.
BU 2L

I was on a study-abroad program in Beijing. Learning about the differences and similarities between our laws and theirs was fascinating. And developing relationships with the students and professors as well as local residents was thrilling.
Rutgers-Camden 1L

Bad
Oh, where to begin? Let's start with, "I just temped"? "That's just dumb," says Flesher. "And lazy." It's not that there's anything wrong with temping, but use the experience to focus on something substantive, she says. The NYU 1L was headed in a better direction, for example, when she mentioned learning about hedge funds. But her answer would have been far stronger if she had gone deeper into the specifics of what she learned and how that knowledge affected her interest in the law. Give a demerit to the BU student for the phrases "search-and-rescue mission" and "a man my supervisors could depend on." Both remarks cross the line between self-confident and cocky, the panelists say. (In general, simply state the facts about anything you've accomplished and let the interviewer draw his or her own conclusions.) The Rutgers 1L, our hero to date, whiffed this question badly. Calling a cross-cultural learning experience "fascinating" comes off as glib and unsophisticated, the panelists say. Interviewers don't care whether you liked your co-workers or bosses. Those answers relate to people skills. And as Flesher says, "We're judging your people skills just by talking to you, so focus on substance."

Good
The BU 2L was smart to bring up his Suffolk County job. You've certainly got a leg up if you spent your summer working in a DA's office or, for that matter, any law-related job (note: do that). The trouble? You guessed it—lack of specifics. Rossman's suggestion: "Say something like 'There was a case that involved kidnapping. There was an interstate jurisdictional issue about whether you could prosecute someone you know who kidnapped a person in Massachusetts and took them to Rhode Island. I researched it and wrote a memo.' " That speaks volumes about a candidate, Rossman says—what she's done, how she explains matters, how involved she got in the work. "Show me that you're thinking."

The Bottom Line
Koopersmith has a tip that applies to the "just temped" answer—and to all answers, in fact. Before you start talking, take a few seconds to organize your response. The "just temped" answer would have been much better, she says, "if the student had paused and started simply with 'I had an opportunity to work in the hedge fund area, and it exposed me to an area of corporate practice I might be interested in.' "

How will law school help you as a lawyer?

I feel that my law school education will be invaluable regardless of what I do.
NYU 1L

My student government experience helped me with my people skills, and my clinic experience taught me how to interview and counsel clients. It also taught me that details should not be overlooked.
BU 2L

My law school education will open doors for me. With a law degree, the possibilities are virtually unlimited as to what avenues I can explore.
Rutgers-Camden 1L

Bad
The NYU student's ship is sinking fast. If by now you don't recognize the gross failings of that answer (vague, impersonal), your boat will likely go down, too. The BU 2L's answer may appear to be good, but at least part of it is flawed, says Koopersmith. If you have to talk about student government, she says, "it shows you don't have enough substance." Once again, the Rutgers student has accidentally revealed that the law may not really be a main interest. Her comment about law school's opening doors translates as a lack of commitment to legal work, says Mestel & Company's Jawin. "That makes me nervous. I want to hear something definite about wanting to be a lawyer."

Good
The clarity with which the BU student delivered his remarks about his student government and clinic work showed that he had come prepared (that said, be careful that your answers don't sound canned, even if you've given them a dozen times already). And the law clinic work that the BU student refers to is a solid response. To a law firm, almost any hands-on real-world experience you get in law school is a big plus. That said—have we mentioned this before?—the student could have been more substantive and specific.

The Bottom Line
In a way, the "How will law school help you?" query is a trick question. If all you have to talk about is what classes and professors you liked or what you did on student government, you're not going to impress anyone. If you don't have practical experience (we repeat: get some), translate what you've learned in a class into something that shows why you're interested in—or why you'll be good at—working for a law firm. Try something like "I had a class in which we talked about telecom deals that involved big firms. The most interesting case was X. What I learned was Y. That's exactly the kind of work I think I'd like to do." Or talk about a professor in terms of how she got you interested in an area of the law. "For instance, 'I had a contracts professor who wrote a book on gender-neutral contracts,' " says Campbell. A student could use something like that as a way of saying what she herself is interested in. Red flag: If you find that all you and the interviewer are talking about is law school, "start paddling for shore," says Rossman.

What do you do in your spare time?

Since starting law school, I've spent most of my spare time tutoring middle-school students, going to the gym, and reading for pleasure.
NYU 1L

I like meeting people outside of law school. It puts life in perspective. I like to read adventure books like The Perfect Storm. And I like to work out—jogging, tennis, soccer, basketball.
BU 2L

Reading, playing puzzle games like Myst or Riven, or watching TV, like Discovery Channel's forensic show.
Rutgers-Camden 1L

Bad
Okay, so no one expects law students to live rock star social lives, but honestly, this is just ugly. Television? Never mention it, ever, no matter how "educational" the shows you claim to watch. Computer games? Never ever ever mention them. Leave aside issues of extreme geekdom. "It says that you're a couch potato," says Jawin. Meeting people outside of law school? God help you if you don't.

Good
Tutoring is an honorable way to spend a few hours of your week. Law firms aren't looking for Mother Teresas, but firms do respect people with an altruistic spirit (that said, don't act like you're "above" law firm work). An interest in an activity like tutoring also indicates that "you can focus on something other than yourself and that you use your time constructively," says Koopersmith—and those are traits a law firm definitely values. Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't point out that the NYU student could have turned her B answer into an A by using . . . yes, specifics. Says Rossman: "She could have tried something like 'I've enjoyed tutoring middle-school students, and for the last year, I've tutored a third-grader, and it's been terrific to watch her development in math.' "

The Bottom Line
You don't have to be healing the sick, winning IQ competitions, or playing on the LPGA tour (though none of that would hurt). Interviewers simply want to see that you have something positive that you're passionate about—something that makes you you. The NYU student's answer was perfectly good; a picture of her personality emerges—someone who can focus outside herself. Fine. Finally, here's something to ease your mind: Flesher says she asks this question in part just to see how articulate people are. "I just want to know that somebody can hold an intelligent conversation. It tells me they're skilled in verbal interaction." In other words, it's a lob—sit back, relax, and show off your intelligent, verbal self.

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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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