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The Correct Approach to On-Campus Interviews as a Law Student

published January 09, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 152 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
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Study groups are forming. Moot court is gearing up. And all the while, in a quiet, behind-the-scenes manner, countless closed-door interviews of law students are taking place. These interviews are your chance, in twenty minutes or less, to distinguish yourself from thirty-nine of your classmates and convince a law firm to give you a second look.

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This type of screening is just one step in the interview process for a law student seeking a job with a law firm. These interviews usually last less than a half hour and are conducted by one or two lawyers from the firm. It used to be that a partner and an associate would do the interviewing. But don't be surprised if you see two partners or two associates. Be prepared for an interview by lawyers on any experience level.

These screenings serve an important function for both you and the law firm. From the firm's perspective, recruiting on campus is a traditional method of acquiring new lawyers. From the student's perspective, not only is the interview a chance to clinch the second, or fly-back interview, but also it provides a first live look at a prospective employer.

To make the maximum impression in the screening interview, it is helpful to have a better understanding of its purpose from the law firm's perspective. Lawyers take recruiting seriously. Recruiting is vital to the continued growth of the firm, particularly on the first-and second-year levels. Ideally, a law firm is structured with partners bringing in business and supervising attorneys, senior associates developing that business arid handling the work, and mid- and lower-level associates assisting in that work. These are business-driven realities that require a constant influx of young (experience-wise) talent.

Recruiting on campus also helps shape law students' perceptions about the firm, which, of course, impacts the reputation of a firm in the cities where those students ultimately practice. Lawyers call this the image effect. For this reason, law firms take notice when a disgruntled summer associate returns to school and dissuades others from interviewing with the firm. Their reputation is important and is impacted by law students' perceptions.

Recruiting on campus is also important because it screens out applicants who look good on paper, but do not possess the intangible factors lawyers perceive as necessary for success. Your level of maturity will not be readily discernible from your resume, but a skilled interviewer can make some initial judgments in less than twenty minutes.

Lawyers conducting the on-campus interview usually have some interest in interviewing at the particular school. Many are graduates, either of law school or at the undergraduate level. Naturally, these lawyers want to bring top candidates to the firm; when a candidate performs well, it improves the school's reputation for producing prepared lawyers. These lawyers have taken time out of their schedule to travel to the school to interview what may come to over forty candidates a day. Usually, the interviews are held from early morning either through lunch or at lunch as well. One after another, throughout the day, law students walk in, shake hands, answer questions, ask questions, and leave. Given the significant decisions made in a short period of time, your goal at the screening interview is to convince interviewers that you are a standout candidate worthy of a second look. As an aside, be sure to include your picture in the face book, if your law school does one. It enables the interviewer to later connect your resume with your face.

You have a certain amount of control over the inter-view process. The following are thoughts on steps that you can take to make a favorable impression.

Do Your Homework

Before you interview with a firm, research information about the firm and its history, clients and reputation. You will impress the interviewer because it shows a real interest in getting to know that particular firm. In addition, given the limited time in an interview, you can focus on the areas that warrant discussion. For example, many firms grew by merging with other firms specializing in a particular field. This is important information to know because interview questions can be geared toward specific issues facing that firm, such as whether there is a difference in firm philosophy that allows one group to run more smoothly than another. You may have read in a newspaper article that a firm partner has left to assume the general counsel position at a Fortune 500 company. This information has a direct impact on the firm's financial picture, and consequently constitutes information you need to explore.

Have some knowledge about the firm's geographical location. Many students spend precious interview minutes asking what it is like to live in a particular city. This information is widely available and students should limit time spent talking about the city and focus more on specifics that are not widely available on line or on the firm's Website. Better questions might be those related to a particular aspect of practicing or living in the city. Ask specific questions that provide useful information and also convey to the interviewer that you have done your homework.

In short, a prepared student will gather as much information as possible before the interview and use that information to formulate good questions.

Try Not to Interview First with the Firm at the Top of Your List

Interviewing is all about practice and preparation. Avoid having your first interview with the firm that is your top choice. You will be much more comfortable talking about your skills and aptitudes after having dis-cussed them with twenty people in every possible con-text. Also, you will feel more confident once you have a handle on the logistics of interviewing. Finally, at every interview, you will learn something about the practice of law that will help you ask better questions of your interviewers. For example, you might learn from one interviewer that young employment law attorneys have early and frequent direct contact with clients. That information will provide you with good material to ask about if employment is an area in which you are interested, e.g.: "What are client expectations at your firm with respect to dealing with partners vs. associates?" "What training do new associates get in giving day-today legal advice to employers?"

Your Appearance and Demeanor Should Project Confidence and Competence

Lawyers as a whole are fairly conservative when its comes to appearance. As a result, your appearance should be professional and neat. For men, this means a dark suit, wing-tip shoes and a tie. This is not the time to wear a creative or unusual tie. Nor is it the time for faddish facial hair and earrings. While "creative" or "unusual" might be accepted in some law firms once you are employed as an associate, it is not generally acceptable for the interviewee or summer associate. Attorneys believe that you are putting forward your best, most conservative self during the interview. When you show up to the interview with "creative" or "unusual" their imagination will run away with them about what you will do down the road. You will inter-view with attorneys from all levels of experience. During the course of your interviewing, you will likely be scrutinized by the "old guard" attorneys, as well as by associates fresh out of law school. Your safest bet, unless you will be visibly uncomfortable, is to project a middle of the road image, one that is not too conservative but also, not too trendy.

Women have a bit more leeway. Consider wearing something other than the standard navy-blue suit. Forty navy blue suits make for one boring day as an interviewer. Instead, wear a well-tailored, moderately conservative suit. Colors in the burgundy, gray, and brown families are appropriate. Red is probably too much. Interviewing lawyers understand that law placement departments make strong recommendations about interview dress, but try not be overly concerned about how conservative your appearance should be. If a cookie-cutter appearance is a deciding factor for the attorneys at a firm, then you probably do not want to work there anyway.

Be sure to have good shoes. They should be free of scuffs and appropriate for the occasion. Women should avoid the extra-high heel. You would not wear those shoes to work every day because they are impractical. It creates the impression that the interview is the only time you dress in your suit (which, as a student, it probably is). If you carry a purse, be sure that it too is professional and not worn out. Many people, attorneys included, make initial assessments about people based on the quality and appearance of shoes and purses.

Practice good posture. This will help you project your voice and exude confidence, even when you do not feel that way. When walking into the interview room, make eye contact, smile, and give a firm handshake. Men, do not shake a female interviewer's hand too firmly; many female attorneys brought this up as something they remember about interviewing students on campus.

There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. It is appropriate to discuss your qualifications. After all, that is why you are there. It is also appropriate to point out skills or abilities that are not readily apparent from your resume. What is not appropriate, however, is to attempt to turn the tables on the interviewer and ask why you should consider working at this particular firm. One candidate with stellar credentials adopted this approach with her interviewers. She managed to rile them up to the point where she became the subject of an intense cross-examination.

Convey Enthusiasm

Try to be enthusiastic, engaging and energetic. Interviewers understand that you are juggling moot court competitions, preparing for class and carrying a heavy interview schedule. They also understand that you are suffering from sleep deprivation. (Do not forget that the interviewing attorneys have similar time demands, with the added stress of traveling and being away from our families and work.). All the same, make every effort to muster your energy and make a strong showing. A career in law will only increase the demands on your life, and as with your personal life is probably getting more complicated as the years go by. You must show, even for a brief period, that you have energy and enthusiasm for what you are doing.

Make every attempt to keep the details about your harried life out of the interview. When you are asked, "How are you doing?" avoid saying things like, "Well, you know how it is with moot court, my note due, and I'm behind in my classes." Interviewing attorneys do not want to hear that information. In their minds, they work ten times harder than law students could ever imagine. Nothing you can say about your schedule will be given much credence, so keep it out.

Some lawyers have "tests" for interviewing. For example, lawyers might ask themselves whether they would want to work with you until 2:00 a.m. If you are arrogant, self-absorbed, or devoid of personality, the answer is no and you fail the test. You will not get an offer. Show facets of your personality that have propelled you this far. If you have a sense of humor, let that come through. Attorneys want to work with interesting, motivated people. That is why having varied interests and a resume that reveals a well-rounded back-ground is important.

Another common test is, "Would I leave this person alone with my clients?' Your appearance, confidence and maturity level are some of the important factors here. Attorneys look for people who can relate to business people, whatever the client's job level. In other words, law firms want attorneys who make other people feel comfortable and secure. You will likely fail this test if you come across as too shy or withdrawn, or if you are unable to carry on small talk in the interview setting.

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Know Thyself

Refresh your recollection about facts on your resume and also review your writing sample. An interviewing attorney will have just reviewed one or both of these documents and your experience will be at the forefront of his mind. An interviewer once asked a law student a specific question about her moot court brief. For one agonizing moment, she could not even remember the subject of the brief. When a law student cannot remember important facts about her background, it suggests to the interviewer that the student cannot perform under pressure.

Another attorney asked a candidate about his moot court brief. Even though he had argued both sides of the issues in this brief before a state supreme court, he could not remember the legal issue at all. He then remembered the issue, but changed his mind about the constitutional provision three rimes during the inter-view. This looks bad. If you have to guess, stick with it and hope that a new subject is raised.

You should review and memorize, if necessary, important facts about your background.

Exercise Good Judgment About the Subject Matter of the Interview

This is a bit of dialogue that has happened many times over:

Q: "Why are you interested in a larger firm?"

A: "Because I'm tired of insurance defense work where I have to work with [ambulance-chasing] [insert comment] plaintiff's lawyers on the other side."

Are there some plaintiffs' lawyers who are ambulance chasers? Surely! Is this answer going to offend some attorneys? Yes. You do not know the entire background of the attorney with whom you are talking. You do not know if this attorney is married to a plaintiff's lawyer or formerly practiced as one. Now, if not wanting to work with plaintiff's lawyers really is your reason for wanting to work elsewhere, then state it more diplomatically: "I want to change firms because I'd like to work with attorneys who have training and experience on more complex matters."

Here is where doing your homework and knowing your audience is vital. The bottom line, however, is that you must exercise good judgment in the subjects you bring up.

Ask Thoughtful or Probing Questions; Avoid Confrontational or Offensive Questions

Law students frequently ask, "What is a good interview question?" A good question is one that is designed to elicit relevant information, but when asked, does not put the interviewer on the defensive or reveal you to be uninformed. Before you can formulate good questions, you need to understand what information is relevant and why you need to know it.

Relevant information can be grouped into several categories. The first is the financial stability of the firm. Because you are (hopefully) looking at a firm for the long haul, knowledge about its financial stability, including its client base, should be one of the main factors on which you base your decision. For example, you need to know whether this firm is so dependent on a particular industry, client or group of clients, that a blip on the radar screen could have huge repercussions for the firm. Also, you need to know information about the firm's largest clients: How long have they been with the firm, did they come over with a partner recently joining the firm? Does the firm provide a wide range of services for that client? The economy will not always be strong. When the real estate market bottoms out, for example, firms with litigation or bankruptcy practices will probably do well. This is information you need to know.

A related, but equally important, category of questions concerns where groups within the firm draw their business. For example, does the litigation practice draw its clients from the corporate side of the firm? Is one person (a rainmaker) solely responsible for all of the employment work? (If so, you should make it your business to know how close that person is to retirement, whether that person has a history of moving around, etc.) Relevant information would include the source of the firm's business, as the source of work for the groups within the firm.

You also need to know the areas within the firm that are growing now and what is projected for future growth. All firms attempt to identify future needs by practice area. Many attorneys are able to give a prediction as to how their practice will do in an economic upturn or down cycle and thus plan accordingly. Perhaps the firm has targeted a particular area for growth. For example, many firms find that having an employment practice makes the firm more desirable to large clients. Establishing or expanding an existing employment practice has been identified as a growth area.

Information relating to the management structure of the firm is extremely important, especially when you are looking at a firm for the long term. For example, if the firm is one of several offices throughout the United States or the world, where are the big decisions made and who makes them? How does that impact the day-to-day workings of the attorneys in the satellite offices? What about hiring decisions on the staff and attorney levels? It may take longer to hire attorneys when those attorneys have to pass muster in the home office in Raleigh or Dallas. These factors will impact your practice down the road.

Information relating to the training and review of attorneys is important. You should have a good understanding of how younger lawyers are trained. Do groups within the firm tend to throw people in and watch them sink or swim? Are younger lawyers mentored? Is there a formal mentoring process in place? Do younger lawyers find it difficult to find a mentor and learn from that person? Some of these are group specific questions and the interviewer can compare and contrast groups that do these things well.

Some, but not all, issues relating to partnership are important. For example, it is a bit early for you to worry about tiers within the compensation ranks. It is not too early to ask whether the firm hires its associates with an eye towards making all of them partner.

Information relating to the firm's expectations for its young attorneys is important. For example, is it expected that young attorneys are involved in community organizations, pro bono work, or marketing events? While many firms will give standard issue answers, you will occasionally glean some important information from the interviewer. A busy firm may have low expectations with respect to serious marketing by young associates; they would rather you work and work hard servicing existing firm clients. Another firm might have high expectations about your involvement in marketing and community related efforts; this firm expects every associate and member to be productive from a business generation standpoint.

Information relating to the firm's business culture is important. For example, do the litigation and transactional attorneys work hard in cross-selling their clients? Do partners share the credit when a new, large client is brought in to the firm? How are large matters staffed? Does the firm allow groups to borrow associates freely from one another or are partners somewhat proprietary with associates? Few associates ever ask about the interviewer's daily routine. For example, are most of the interviewer's dealings on the phone? Does she work closely with other attorneys? Does she work closely with attorneys in other practice groups?

Now that you know the type of information that is important, use these guidelines in formulating your questions. First, avoid putting your interviewer on the defensive. A number of interviewees have asked interviewers, "Why aren't there more female partners?" Do not ask this question. If this is information that you need to know, then ask the question more diplomatically: "I noticed that an equal number of men and women start out as first year attorneys with the firm, but at the partnership level there is a large disparity. Are there outside factors that might account for this change?" You will get nowhere if you create an "us" versus "them" atmosphere with the interviewer.

Even if the job you are interviewing for is a summer associate position, formulate your questions as if you were asking them from the standpoint of an attorney with the firm. After all, you are looking at these firms for permanent employment and you need information relating to your position as a permanent associate. Information about the summer program is generally available online or from returning second or third year law students. Attorneys get concerned when an interviewee asks questions relating only to the summer program. It demonstrates a lack of foresight. Also, you will have just joined the ranks of hundreds of other forgettable applicants who ask those same thoughtless questions.

Avoid asking questions for the sake of asking questions. Many attorneys can tell when an interviewee really has no interest in the firm and is simply going through the motions. If that is the case, work hard at asking relevant questions that might help you make decisions about other firms in which you are interested. For example, find out what made the interviewer choose her area of law. You might learn something.

One good approach is to frame your questions as if you were actually employed at the firm. For example, "As a first year associate, would I have the opportunity to attend client meetings or argue motions?" "As a mid-level associate, are cases staffed such that I would have the opportunity to work with new attorneys?"

Strive to avoid canned responses. There are some questions that an interviewer will ask that tend to elicit a canned response: Why this city? Why litigation (or tax, or corporate, etc.)? To avoid giving what amounts to a memorized and insincere response, have a number of ways to convey the thoughts you want to convey. Practice saying something in different ways.

As previously mentioned, avoid asking the same, tired questions that everyone else asks. It is disheartening to hear twenty-five people ask "do you like it?" or "tell me about the summer program." Students who exercise some original thought in this area get high marks.

Be Prepared for Off-the-Wall and Other Unfair Questions

Nobody trains an interviewer on how to interview. As a result, you will get some good interviewers and those who could use some help. Interviewers who ask off-the-wall questions are in the latter category. A law student was once asked, "if you were stranded on a desert island and could have one book, what would it be." She figured out too late that this attorney was looking for a particular answer (the Bible). Her answer ("a long one") did not go over well. So, when you are asked what type of tree, animal, vegetable, etc., most describes you, do not be flippant, but answer the question and move on.

Another favorite question that is patently unfair to ask a law student is, "In what area do you want to practice?" It is perfectly acceptable to say that you do not know; you simply cannot know. Instead, talk about the skills that you have that may incline you towards one area of law over another. For example, if you perform well in an area that has definite answers, you may be inclined towards securities law. On the other hand, if you are comfortable with gray areas, you might do well in commercial litigation.

Occasionally, you will get an interviewer that asks inappropriate questions or makes inappropriate remarks. This is where you must exercise good judgment. Some inappropriate questions or remarks should be handled at the time of the interview. For example, an interviewer may ask one of the "forbidden questions" about your family situation or desire to have children. In that instance, do not answer the question directly. Instead, address the root of the interviewer's concern. An interviewer wanting to know about children and plans for the future is probably concerned about your level of commitment to the firm. Your response might be, "If you are concerned about my level of commitment, I can assure you that my job is a priority." An interviewer who asks these types of questions should raise a red flag in your mind. Consider whether this is indicative of a deeper problem within the firm or with this individual.

There are also situations that you should not attempt to handle at the interview. For example, a male interviewer made reference to the female interviewee's legs, which is plainly inappropriate in any work context, let alone an interview. These types of comments should be handled through the dean of recruiting services or director of that office. Rest assured, the firm will be notified and will take action against the attorney.

Take Full Advantage of Prior Work Experience

Maturity and experience are excellent selling points and you should be prepared to discuss your experience in detail. Think about the skills that will transfer into the legal world. For example, people with a background in sales tend to do well with clients. Both law and sales are service industries. You may be able to point to specific projects in your former work life that involved organization and planning. These, too, are important aspects of your job as a lawyer. Be prepared to give specific examples of your experience; these examples provide the maximum impact.

Finally, it is important for lawyers to have good business sense. To the extent you can capitalize on your prior experience in this regard, whether that be management, strategizing or analytical skills, it will be worthwhile.

Look For Areas of Common Ground with Your Interviewer

A law student spent an entire on-campus interview talking about Italy, drawing maps of the country and discussing Italian food with the interviewer. She was not surprised that she received a fly-back to the firm. Years later, as an associate at that firm, the former student and interviewer were still talking about Italy. They connected on some level and enjoyed the interview.

Now, there are instances where the interview becomes a single-subject discussion, which can leave you at a disadvantage when it comes time for the interviewer to review your credentials. If you find that the interview is heading that way, attempt to bring in other information within the context of the discussion. In the previous example, the law student might have mentioned that she not only enjoyed traveling, but also writing. That would provide a natural segue into a discussion about her writing experience.


Try not to be so eager to talk about yourself that you miss the opportunity to learn important information about the interviewer or the firm. This information will help you ask better, more focused questions. It will also communicate to the interviewer that you are listening. One partner was irked that after telling the interviewee that she (the partner) had a child, and after looking at pictures of the interviewee's children and talking about them, the interviewee did not ask any questions about the partner's children. In short, it is important to have give-and-take in any conversation, including the interview. You cannot do that unless you are listening.

Cocktail Parties

Occasionally, a firm will sponsor a cocktail hour at a place near the school and invite a number of candidates. The purpose, of course, is to have more exposure to the candidates in a less formal setting. Make no mistake, this is still an interview and you should conduct yourself accordingly. If you drink, do so moderately. Do not dominate conversations with the firm representatives; they want to talk with as many candidates as possible. Also, be discreet when discussing these parties with other law students. You may have been selected randomly or because of your credentials. You do not want to fuel bad feelings among members of your class who may feel left out. Be sure to thank your hosts for the free food and drinks.

If Disaster Strikes?

If a complete and utter disaster happens, like you fall off a chair, throw up on the desk, have to run to the bathroom mid-question, ask the interviewer if she is pregnant and she's not (these are all true stories, as you may have guessed) then do not panic. Your reaction to difficult circumstances will often determine whether the disaster is fatal. Maintain your poise and carry on as normally as you can. If the situation is just so bad that you cannot carry on, politely excuse yourself and leave. There is nothing more than you can do at that point.

Are thank you notes necessary after the screening interview? Thank you notes cannot hurt, but must be done promptly if they are to have any value. Often, decisions about whether to bring a candidate back are made within days of the initial interview. Thus, as a gesture, it will have no impact unless it is received in advance of any offer decisions. The notes should be handwritten and legible, of course. Moreover, it is appropriate to send the thank you to one attorney and ask that she extend your gratitude to the other attorneys that may have been present. Thank you notes have more impact if you reference something discussed in an interview. Remember, without specific references, your face will likely get mixed in with the crowd.

The firm will likely ask one or more students back for a second set of interviews at the firm offices. This is known as a fly-back or drive-back interview. If the firm is within driving distance of your law school, more students will be invited for a second interview, partly because the cost is low. Another reason, however, is that local students may be more likely to stay local once they begin practicing.

Always be a gracious loser and refrain from talking negatively about firms. These comments, no matter how innocuous, have a way of getting back to the firm. Also, you never know where you might find yourself interviewing in the future. Statistically, you will change jobs nearly seven times over the course of your career. You do not want firms to rule you out before you even begin practicing.

At the screening interview stage, law firms are looking at both tangible and intangible factors. Interviewers want to see a mature, poised and confident student who is able to articulate solid reasons for interviewing with the firm. Your appearance is important, as is your ability to obtain relevant information about the firm or city where it is located. These factors will also be important as you progress to the next level: the fly-back interview.

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Common Questions Asked By Lawyers in Interviews
  • Ask me a hard question.
  • Are you geographically flexible? [This is a legal way of eliciting inappropriate information. For example, "Will your husband move with you?]
  • In what size firm do you think you will be a good fit? Why?
  • Why are you interested in this particular firm?
  • Tell me what you know about our firm.
  • We do [insurance defense] [products liability], tell me why you would be interested in that area of law.
  • What are you looking for in a firm?
  • Why did you decide to go to law school?
  • Do you have any early ideas about the area of law in which you want to practice?
  • Tell me some things about you that would incline you more towards litigation or transactional work.
  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Why should I take you back to the firm for more interviews?
  • Tell me about your moot court brief. What were the contentions on the other side?
  • Tell me about your law review note. What was the most difficult part about writing this note?
  • What connection do you have with this geographic area?
  • What are the main factors on which you will base your decision?
  • Tell me something about your experience that is not on your resume.
  • What is your favorite/least favorite law school class? Why?
  • Why did you choose your major in your undergraduate work?
  • Did you work as an undergraduate?
  • Are you working while attending law school?
  • Where do you see yourself in ten years?
  • What are some of your weaknesses and how have you tried to address them?

See the following articles for more information:

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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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LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit www.LawCrossing.com.