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Law Firm Interview Horror Stories

published January 24, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 154 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.
When interviewing, use your common sense. During interviewing season many smart and talented people get very anxious and make mistakes that could have been easily avoided. Eventually, many may have to face "no offer" situations.

Don't be scared, not all interview stories are nightmares. Take for example the case of a student with weak grades from a less-competitive law school found her way to a top firm. For instance the story of a student, Jennifer, illustrates how one can get into a firm where one cannot.

Law Firm Interview Horror Stories

Jennifer was driven and studied hard, but after her first semester at a third-tier law school she found, much to her dismay, that she was a totally average student. When she did her research, she was not surprised to find that she did not make the cutoff at any of the top-ten firms in the city of her choice.

In fact, her grades were well below what the firms listed as their minimum grade requirement. She set her sights on one of these firms anyway. Rather than being discouraged by the unforgiving grade cutoff (which she did not meet), Jennifer came up with a plan to make the firm notice her.

Let's call this top-ten firm of Jennifer's dreams Smith & Smith. During her first year of law school, Jennifer did rigorous research on Smith & Smith. She chose to ignore the indisputable fact that, according to their statistics, she was not a candidate Smith & Smith would consider. Instead, she called their recruiting department for a firm resume and a representative client list (these can also be found on firm websites). She visited all the clients' websites to learn about what type of work these companies did. She sent a resume and cover letter to every single client on Smith & Smith's roster looking for work for the summer after her first year. She even found managers at some of these companies who shared her alma mater. She added them to her mailing list and modified her cover letter so it pointed out their common bond.

Sure enough, a client of Smith & Smith, let's call the company Jones Insurance, was looking for help that summer and took interest in the ambitious law student, Jennifer. She got a job as an administrative assistant at Jones Insurance for the summer after her first year of law school. Jennifer worked hard. During her summer at Jones Insurance, her diligence caught the attention of one of the managers. The company asked her to stay through the fall on a part-time basis.

She was now in her second year of law school and it was time to sign up for interviews. Jennifer put Smith & Smith as her first choice, but, as expected, Smith & Smith did not grant Jennifer an on-campus interview because of her transcript full of Cs.Jennifer went to speak to her new friend and colleague, the manager at Jones, to explain her predicament, "Isn't Jones a client of Smith & Smith? Can you call them for me? I want to interview with them." There is a familiar saying in business that "the customer is always right." Well, at Smith &. Smith, Jones Insurance was the customer. When the manager at Jones called the partner at Smith & Smith about interviewing Jennifer, she naturally obliged.

Impressive and ambitious as Jennifer was in person, she sailed through her on-campus and callback interviews. She received an offer from Smith & Smith two nights after her callback with them.

Jennifer is now a star junior associate at Smith & Smith. Every once in a while her former manager shoots her an email just to make sure that she is still happy there.

The moral here is that Jennifer was not discouraged by a potentially negative scenario. Instead, she chose to capitalize on her positive attributes -- resourcefulness and diligence --and made them work to her advantage.

If your transcript is not great, follow the steps Jennifer took to slip through the cracks:
  • Choose some firms where you would like to work. Aim high.
  • Use firm literature to find a list of representative clients.
  • Hound the clients for any type of job, either during the school year or during the summer.
  • Perform your job well and be sure to flaunt this to your supervisors.
  • When the time comes to interview with the firms you prefer, ask your supervisors to call and put in a good word for you.

Know Your Audience

Larry had just finished a morning interview with a partner and was beginning his lunch interview with two associates, Susan and Bill. To break the ice, Bill asked, "Which partner did you meet this morning?"

"I met with Ken Maher. It was great, he went to the Arizona State and so did I; we're both huge baseball fans. I was pretty surprised, actually, because interviews are usually not that fun." Having worked for Ken on a few deals, Susan jumped into the conversation, "Oh, yeah, he is such a nice guy, and really smart, too. I worked on two deals with him and I learned a lot. Ken's great." The group ordered. What followed were a few of minutes of uncomfortable silence.

Larry had read lots of books on interviewing. Taking their advice, he decided rather than get a little anxious and view the pause as awkward (which it was), that he would instead use it as an opportunity. Larry aimed to highlight his initiative and self-confidence by getting the conversation going again. He jumped in with more about the interview with Ken Maher,"I saw some pictures in Ken's office; are all those girls his daughters?"

Bill began to wonder what this had to do with anything, but told Larry, "Yes, he has four young daughters."

"I thought that might be true. I have three older sisters and no brothers, that's why I felt kind of bad for Ken Maher."

Susan and Bill looked at one another as that sort of hung in the air. Larry wasn't stupid. He immediately recognized that he had said something so.

He explained a little, "No, no, I don't mean that there's anything wrong with having girls! It's just that he's such a big base ball fan and it must be weird not to have a kid to share your enthusiasm, you know, go to games with and stuff." Susan just went for the jugular, "so all those women in the stands at baseball games, they're probably only there to appease their husbands or better yet, to get dates or something. Poor Ken! What a total nightmare, having four daughters."

The moral here is: Use your common sense. Larry's flub could have easily been avoided. Larry is not a big misogynist; it was an honest mistake, one that he will never make again, because he did not get an offer. He did not realize that his comment was sexist.

Susan later admitted that maybe she was a little too hard on him, but she was a softball star. She had been following baseball since she was a little girl and had played softball since junior high. Her talent and enthusiasm won her full scholarship to college.

The Robot with Straight As

While Jennifer's story proves that students with weak grades can get jobs at very competitive firms, the following story (of a woman named Michelle) proves the exact opposite. Michelle was at a top-ten law school, and her transcript was excellent. She had straight As and one A. She was set up with two partners on the firm’s executive committee and associates who were so well regarded at the firm they would probably end up as partners on the executive committee one day. Her transcript was really outstanding but it was unbelievable to expect such negative comments from the interviewers.

One partner’s comments: "Talking to this woman was tough. She answered with one-word responses and asked me just one question about the firm. Someone with academic ability like this can probably do the work here, but my concern is that she comes across as boring. I was disappointed with our meeting, but reserve making any final decisions until the comments from the other people who meet her come in."

The other partner’s comments: "For someone with such impressive grades, her presence is extraordinarily weak. I like my associates to be smart and to have a personality. No offer."

The associate’s comments: "Did I get the right transcript for this woman? She didn't seem stupid or anything, but she didn't really seem smart, either. I decided to press her on how she finds school because it's obviously a place she's found success. Well, she was pretty inarticulate. I have a feeling she spends too much time with her head in a book and doesn't get out much. I would not want to work with her. No offer."

The other associate’s comments: "It was extremely difficult to get a conversation going with this woman. I even tried to steer it away from school and the law to liven things up a bit. She doesn't seem to have any interests outside of school, and I don't suspect she will play well with others. No offer."

Many times firms will value your ability to interact over your straight As. As an associate at a firm, you need to be pleasant and easy to get along with. Michelle had neither of these qualities and did not get an offer.

The Liar

It started out very innocently. Claudia and her friends were working on their resumes together one night. She was concerned that her resume was looking a little thin. A friend suggested that she add an "Interests" or "Personal" section.

Now Claudia was even more concerned that she must be a complete bore because she had nothing to put there. The friend suggested that Claudia "put something neutral, like cooking." It sounded like a good idea. So, in between some other very general personal information "spent a semester in London," "avid reader," etc., Claudia typed in "enjoy cooking" and forgot all about it by the time she went to sleep that night.

Fast-forward to Claudia's callback lunch interview with two associates. She had already met with two of the firm's partners that morning and was feeling pretty good about how everything was going. To make matters even better, she got a good feeling when the two associates who were to interview her over lunch introduced themselves. She felt at ease with them immediately. The associates were so pleasant and easy to talk to. Claudia already felt that this was definitely a firm where she would like to work. As they perused the menu, one of the associates, a male in the Corporate department, turned to Claudia and asked, "So what is it that you like to cook?"

She started laughing. "Why? Do all the junior associates cook for the upper classes?" Sensing that her sarcasm was not going over well, she nervously filled the air, "I was kidding. You see, that would be a complete disaster. I am a terrible cook. I burn microwave popcorn!" The associates looked at one another uncomfortably. Claudia could tell that something was wrong. The associates acted strange for the remainder of the lunch. Claudia was now acting very anxious as the lunch continued on treacherously.

When they finally paid, Claudia still could not figure out what could possibly have gone wrong. It was not until she had said her good-byes and was on the street outside the firm that Claudia remembered "enjoy cooking." It was a lie, plain and simple. No offer.

The Coffee Mistake

Jason is a practicing attorney in the public sector. During his second year of law school, his long-term goal "was not" to end up at a law firm. Despite his public interest leanings, he knew it would benefit him to get some experience at a firm, both during his summer and as a junior associate. Like most of the other students, he signed up for on-campus interviews for thefall of his second year.

Jason was in the top 10 percent at one of the best law schools in the country. With his credentials, he should get offers every firm he met. But a firm, that is less competitive than most of the firms he met, rejected him. He received offers from the other firms he had met. What went wrong in the meeting with that less competitive firm. He said he was rejected because he took the coffee offered to him by the firm’s partner. It looks incredulous. But if you hear the whole story, you would know that he was right.

Jason's first interview with a major firm went swimmingly and he was given an offer that same evening. Because he already had this offer from an excellent firm, he was feeling pretty confident when he arrived for his callback interview at the next firm, which was less competitive than the first.

Oftentimes, as a courtesy, the partner or associate with whom you are meeting will offer you a cup of coffee at the beginning of your interview. Jason took the partner up on his offer for coffee, and it seems to have led to his undoing. After Jason said yes, the partner disappeared from the office. Jason immediately felt a little uncomfortable; he thinks he may have reversed some sort of power differential: here was this older man in a position of authority running around to get him a cup of coffee. Imagine Jason's horror as the minutes crept by. When the partner emerged twenty long minutes later, he handed the cold cup of coffee to Jason with such force that it nearly spilled. To make matters worse, the partner grumbled," My secretary is not around and I couldn't figure out how to work the damn machine! I gave the stuff up years ago myself."

Jason remembered feeling like an idiot for making the partner fiddle around with the coffee machine and like an immature, irresponsible heathen for being addicted to coffee. To add insult to injury, the coffee was some of the worst he had ever tasted.

The moral of Jason's story is this: use your common sense. Accepting a coffee in most cases will not spell disaster for you, but why risk a potentially damaging situation when it can be easily avoided? Have coffee at home or leave enough time to get yourself a cup before your interview.

A similar point to Jason's story on beverages from the firm's end is that you should not bring a drink with you into your interview. You are not going to class. Taking a drink into an interview is no different from bringing a snack. Imagine tearing open a bag of Fritos in a partner's office; it's a bad move.

Here is a story about a student having brought a drink into an interview. For example, one partner was absolutely appalled when, as he put it, "She reached into her knapsack, took out a Snapple Iced Tea, removed the lid, tore open a straw, and started drinking. I guess she was good, but I was distracted by how comfortable she felt in my office; she seemed too casual for someone who was applying for a job. To make matters worse, she left the straw wrapper on my desk at the end of the interview." You are an adult. Use your common sense. Take care of your thirst before your meetings.

The Picky Eater

If you are a picky eater, consider skipping a lunch interview. Samantha might have had a chance if the associates who took her to lunch had just given her a standard interview in their offices.

It was unclear from the lunch interview whether Samantha was allergic to dairy products or if she was vegan. By the time the interview was over, no explanation for her behavior in the restaurant would have sufficed.

Samantha made Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets look like the most laid-back person in the world. Her interaction with the waiter wasted the first ten minutes of the lunch. After a litany of questions about how the food was prepared, Samantha went for a small salad (very finely chopped) with a low-cholesterol dressing on the side and a piece of tuna (not rare, sushi rare) with the sauce and vegetables (in separate dishes) on the side (if you please).

Just when the associates finally had a chance to ask some questions, the appetizers came. Samantha took one look down at her plate and interrupted the interview by summoning thewaiter. You see, she had asked for the salad "finely" chopped. Another interruption came with the main courses, for, much to Samantha's (and the interviewers') dismay, the staff obviously did not know how to prepare something sushi rare.

You can guess how this interview ended up. The associates were so exhausted by Samantha's shenanigans that they never wanted to see her again, let alone work in the same office with her.

Zip Your Pants

Aaron had spent the day interviewing at what he considered to be his "safe firm." He met all the firm's criteria and considered himself a shoo-in. On reflection, he does remember getting some funny looks from people during his interview.

When he got back to his dorm, Aaron ran into a friend who immediately burst out laughing at the sight of him. "What, do I look that bad in a suit?" Aaron asked.

His friend was laughing so hard that he could not answer: he just pointed in the direction of Aaron's crotch.

Aaron looked down, and to his complete horror, the bottom of his dress shirt was hanging generously out of the OPEN fly of his pants. He had no idea for how long he had been in this unfortunate position.

To this day, Aaron cannot be sure if the fly is the reason he did not receive an offer from his "safe firm," but he has a feeling that that was it. Aaron's advice: go to the restroom and take a good long look at yourself; you never know when you may be violating some basic standard of dress.

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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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