Preparing for a Successful Post-Law School Interview

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More and more schools are interviewing a significant number of the applicants they seriously consider admitting. One reason for this is that a person's interviewing ability is a very good indicator of how attractive he or she will be to employers during and after law school. An applicant with good "paper" credentials will be unattractive to a school to the extent that he or she is likely to be regarded negatively by employers later on. Another reason for interviewing is that schools can market themselves better by meeting individually with applicants.

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This is particularly relevant for the elite schools, which tend to feel that they are all chasing the same few thousand absolutely outstanding candidates. These schools welcome the chance to get a jump on their rivals by better assessing candidates and by promoting themselves to their top choices.

Interviews offer schools the chance to learn much more about applicants. Some things are not readily determinable without a face-to-face meeting. These include your appearance, charm, persuasiveness, presence, and potential as an attorney. Interviews also provide an opportunity to probe areas insufficiently explained in the application.

Some schools use only admissions officers to conduct their interviews, whereas others use alumni extensively, and still others use third-year students. The schools that rely on admissions officers alone are obviously unable to do in-person interviews with all the applicants they might otherwise wish, due to the time and logistical constraints. For example, there is the problem of interviewing the candidate who is immersed in a round-the-clock project at a remote site in Alaska. Some get around this by doing telephone interviews; others simply evaluate the candidate on the basis of the file alone.

Should You Interview If Given The Choice?

Most people feel they interview quite well, but the reality is that most do not. To become a good interviewee, you need to understand in advance what points you want to put across, what questions you are likely to be asked, and how to maximize your presentation to satisfy your needs and those of your interviewer. The keys to doing this are to analyze what you will confront and then to practice performing under realistic conditions. Doing this will help you to avoid going blank, letting slip things you intended to avoid, forgetting to mention important points, or being unable to keep the interview flowing in a comfortable fashion.

If a school permits you to request an interview, it is generally to your advantage to do so: You demonstrate initiative and show yourself to be a serious, conscientious applicant. Obviously, you go the extra mile and have nothing to hide in your background.

Should You Interview If Requested To?

If a school requests that you interview with it, it is in almost all cases a mistake not to do so. Failing to interview may be taken as an indication of a lack of interest in the school or a tacit acknowledgment of the weak points in your application. It is also an indication that you do poorly in one-on-one situations due to shyness or nervousness (or worse). There are often logistical considerations, of course, and schools are aware that it may not be realistic to expect you to travel 3,000 miles for a Wednesday morning interview, since it might necessitate your missing several days of work or class. The logistical barrier is not as great as it once was, however, now that schools have their representatives travel to most major cities and regions on a regular basis, or occasionally use alumni representatives on their behalf.

Although it is generally appropriate to interview, if you are sure to make a poor impression, either improve your interviewing abilities or maneuver to avoid an interview. The people who should avoid an interview are those who are pathologically shy, whose language abilities will crack under the strain, or who are so contentious that they will inevitably get into a verbal battle with their interviewers.

Establishing Your Objectives for the Interview

The interview is important for all-too-obvious reasons. The fact that the school emphasizes the interview means that you have the opportunity to market yourself in a format in which most people do very little good for themselves. Some candidates are afraid of the interview and set themselves hopelessly limited objectives for it. They hope to get through it without embarrassing themselves. Or they hope that the interviewer likes them. You have the chance to make a very positive impression that will further your marketing efforts, so it is up to you to seize it. Do not simply hope to survive the interview; be determined to achieve positive results. Use it to reinforce all of your other positioning efforts.

You already have a marketing strategy in place, so go back to it when you are considering what you hope to accomplish in the interview. If you have positioned yourself as a civil rights crusader, for example, this positioning strategy will help you think through the interview and how to prepare for it.

Ask yourself the following questions at the start of your preparations:
  • How do you want the interviewer to think of you? What specific impressions, and information, do you want her to carry away from the interview?
  • How can you reinforce your strengths and address your key weaknesses?
  • How can you convey any important pieces of information that may not receive full attention (or any attention at all) in the written application?
  • How can you show that you know a great deal about the school—that you are well prepared for the interview?
  • How can you learn whatever you need to know to decide which school to attend?
Preparing For the Interview

You should be mentally prepared to deal with four aspects of any interview. The first is understanding the format of a typical meeting as well as what to expect of your interviewer. You also must know what your objectives are, what the school offers, and what questions your interviewer is likely to ask.

Typical Format

No matter what type of interview is involved, the format is likely to include:
  • Welcome
  • A few easy "ice-breaker" questions, perhaps about how you are, whether it was easy to find the location, and so forth
  • Some comments about the school
  • Detailed questions, tracking your educational and then work history, or your responses on the school's application form
  • The chance to ask questions
  • Conclusion
A typical interview will last between 30 and 60 minutes, although if it is with an alum it may be even longer. The first few minutes of an interview may not involve substantive discussion, but they are still important in forming the interviewer's general impression of you. Therefore, do your best to appear confident and relaxed when answering these questions, before reaching the heart of the interview. Doing so will give you confidence and momentum to carry you through the following parts of the interview.

The Interview Questions

In general, two types of approaches are common. In the first, you are asked more or less directly about the trait or competence in which the interviewer is interested. For example, when trying to get a handle on your degree of independence, the direct interviewer might ask simply, "How much supervision and direction do you prefer?" The second approach tries to elicit information that will also allow the interviewer to determine whether, for example, you "strive for leadership positions," but in a much less direct fashion. In this case, the interviewer is likely to focus on various aspects of your past and current experience—in terms of your education, career, and personal life—to see how much supervision and direction you have had in various projects and whether that amount suited you. The questions that generate this information are likely to be more general, along the lines of, "Regarding that thesis project, what sort of relationship did you have with your advisor? What did you like and dislike about this relationship?"

These more open-ended questions, in which the focus is not made so obvious, are by now standard interviewing procedure. The more experienced the interviewer, and the more time she has available, the more likely she is to use the indirect approach.

You can prepare for both approaches by examining the following list, which covers the most common questions asked on each major topic—education, career, goals, and personal life. Of course, other questions may be asked, but if you are prepared to respond coherently and consistently to each of the following, you will be ready for just about anything else you will encounter as well. Preparing for the following will force you to think through the main issues that are of interest to law schools.

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Legal Issues
  • Is the expense of trial by jury sensible for civil trials?
  • Should the U.S. switch to an English system of civil litigation (where the losing party must pay the attorneys' fees and court costs of the winner)?
  • When is jury nullification appropriate?
  • Is capital punishment ever warranted?
  • What is the relationship between law and morality?
  • Do you favor euthanasia?
  • Should criminals be forbidden to sell their stories?
  • Do you agree with the right to silence? Should it ever be restricted?
  • Should Britain have extradited General Pinochet to Spain?
  • Should drugs be legalized?
  • Under what circumstances should abortion be permitted? Is this a legislative or judicial matter?
  • What type of affirmative action, if any, should the U.S. adopt? Should this be limited to governmental organs or extended to private concerns as well?
  • Do you support the recent series of Supreme Court decisions giving more power to the states? To what extent do you believe the federal government has usurped power within what is supposed to be a federal, not centralized, system?
  • Should Congress or the courts determine gun-control policy for the country? What should that policy be?
  • At what age should minors be tried as adults for serious crimes? For what crimes?
  • Should tobacco companies be liable for damages to those who smoke (or once smoked) cigarettes? Does your answer change if the plaintiff began smoking after health warnings were put on cigarette packages?
  • Or if the plaintiff knew smoking to be dangerous? Should meat packers be liable for obesity?
  • Should Clinton have been impeached?
  • Should gays be allowed to marry? To adopt children?
  • Should internet service providers (ISPs) be held liable for whatever they disseminate over the net?
  • Should large political donations to candidates be prohibited? To politically active organizations?
  • Under what circumstances is Congress justified in turning down a Presidential appointee?
  • How would you define justice?
  • What is (should be) a lawyer's role in society?
  • Do you feel a lawyer is obligated to be "moral" or to be impartial?
General Tips Regarding Legal Issues
  1. The most likely questions regarding legal issues are either the old standbys, such as abortion or capital punishment, or whatever is in the headlines at the moment.
  2. To prepare to discuss whatever issues are in the headlines, read The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The (London) Sunday Times, or other major publications on a regular basis—but particularly for the two months before interviews.
  3. When discussing a legal issue, try to support your point of view while also acknowledging the merits of the opposing viewpoint. This is particularly true regarding the most emotional issues, such as abortion, to demonstrate that you are capable of analyzing any issue dispassionately. You should sound like a reasonable person able to engage in spirited but civilized discussion. In other words, do not just spout your personal beliefs. Instead, discuss the issues in a legal framework.
  4. Be ready to discuss the top dozen legal issues in the news; know the main arguments on each side, and be prepared to choose a side.
  5. If any of this proposed preparation strikes you as too much trouble, you should forget about law school.
College Education
  • Which school did you attend?
  • Why did you choose that one?
  • (If you attended a lesser quality school) Don't you worry that you will be overwhelmed by the quality of students attending our program?
  • What factors most influenced your choice?
  • In hindsight, are you glad you chose that school? What would you change now if you could? Why?
  • What was your major? Why?
  • In hindsight, are you glad you chose that major? What would you choose instead if you could do it over again?
  • How many hours each week did you study?
  • In which courses were you most successful? Why?
  • In which courses were you least successful? Why?
  • Do your grades reflect your abilities? If not, why did you not do better?
  • In what ways did your education prepare you, or fail to prepare you, for your career to date?
  • What did you most enjoy about college?
  • What did you least enjoy about college?
  • What extracurricular activities did you participate in? What was your role and contribution in each?
  • How did you pay for your education?
  • How would you describe yourself as a college student? Is this still true about you?
General Tips Regarding College Education
  1. Avoid portraying your college days as a social experience rather than an intellectual one if at all possible.
  2. If your record is poor, show that you have since gotten serious. If there is any acceptable way to explain a poor record without sounding whiny or childish, be prepared to explain briefly.
  3. Show that you were committed to learning, whether for its own sake or for the sake of your career.
  4. If you changed your goals or interests several times, show that you have been serious about at least one of them while pursuing it.
  5. Portray both your academic interests and your extracurricular activities in terms of their contribution to your current (or then current) career interests.
  6. Discuss your leadership experiences.
  7. If you are interviewing for admission to a part-time program, do not try to excuse a mediocre undergraduate performance by explaining that you were unable to focus well due to the need to work part time as well as study. This combination of work and study will be your fate once again in the part time program, so you will appear unable to handle the responsibilities.
Work Experience
  • Why did you choose this profession?
  • What is your job title? To whom do you report?
  • What are your key responsibilities?
  • What have been your major successes?
  • What resources and whom do you manage directly?
  • What are the skills required of you in your job?
  • What are the key challenges of your job?
  • What do you do best/worst in your job? Why?
  • How could you have improved your performance?
  • What have been your major successes?
  • What have you done that best shows your willingness to work hard/take initiative/innovate/exceed expectations?
  • Describe a failure on the job.
  • What are you doing to address your failings?
  • What do you like most/least about your position? Why?
  • How do you see this work experience preparing you for the study and practice of law?
General Tips Regarding Work Experience
  1. When discussing your boss, your description of what was good and bad about him will probably make it clear what you need, and also what you cannot tolerate, in a boss. This also says a lot about your own strengths and weaknesses, so be careful here.
  2. Even when describing what you did not particularly like about your job, try to focus on the positive aspects; otherwise, you risk sounding like a malcontent.
  3. Any job change should have been motivated by a desire for more challenges, more responsibility, the chance to grow, and so on. In other words, emphasize the positive, forward-looking reasons for making the change.
  4. Avoid the negative, backward-looking reasons for the change, such as being unappreciated, underpaid, or disliked by your boss.
  5. If you were fired, confess to this fact if necessary, but be sure to note what you learned from the experience.
  6. Working less than 50 hours per week may suggest that you are insufficiently motivated. A good answer will establish that you work as hard as necessary to achieve your objective.
  7. Try to bring out the ways in which you demonstrate the key skills and aptitudes valued by law schools: analytical, communication (written and oral), and leadership.
Interest in Law/Your Goals
  • What inspired you to apply to law school? How long have you had this in your plans?
  • What in your experience (educational and professional) has prepared you for legal study?
  • What interests you about the legal system?
  • Which undergraduate courses gave you grounding in legal theory?
  • What research have you done regarding law school?
  • What do you expect to be the largest challenges you will face in law school?
  • What type of law do you want to be practicing in five years? Ten years? Twenty years?
  • (If you profess an interest in public interest law) How will you reconcile your desire to practice public interest law with your debt repayments and desire to earn a good living when you graduate?
  • What do you want to accomplish in life?
  • How have your goals changed in recent years?
  • What do you expect to learn in law school?
  • Which other schools are you applying to?
  • How did you choose these schools?
  • What will you do if you are not accepted at a top school?
General Tips Regarding Your Interest in Law and Your Goals
  1. Showing that you have thought long and hard about your future career demonstrates your seriousness of purpose.
  2. Regarding your long-term goals, do not say that you want to retire as early as possible and lie on a beach in Cancun. Saying this would show you to be lazy or overly stressed, hardly ideal attributes for someone trying to get into a challenging law school. Discuss instead how you arrived at your chosen goal in light of a consideration of your relative strengths and weaknesses, what you most enjoy, your backgrounds and desires, etc.
  3. You want to show that you are committed to career success, however you define it.
  4. Be sure not to sound as if law school is a default choice rather than something you have actively sought out.
  5. If you claim that you will go into public interest law, you will need to do everything possible to sound credible, (A large majority of those who profess this interest do not actually enter the field; this is especially true of those who have not worked for an extended period after college.) If you can support this position with examples of personal sacrifice and work in a relevant field, do so. If you cannot, reconsider your goals—and what you pitch to the law schools.
  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Who most influenced you when you were growing up? How?
  • What publications do you read regularly? Why?
  • What books have you read recently? What impressed you about them?
  • What have you done to keep yourself current, or to develop your skills, in your particular area of interest?
  • How do you feel about:
  1. —China's advent upon the world stage?
  2. —African internecine warfare?
  3. —(Anything else on the front pages, especially if it relates to your home region or that of the school?)
  • How do you spend your time outside of work?
  • Is your current balance among career, family, friends, and interests the right one for you over the long term?
  • What would you do with the extra time if days were 28 hours long?
  • What activity do you enjoy the most? Why?
  • Who are your heroes? Why?
General Tips Regarding Personal Questions
  1. When describing yourself, or what your long-term goals are, be sure a large part of your response focuses upon your career. You want to appear career-oriented, albeit not lacking in personality or other interests.
  2. Take every opportunity to show you are highly achievement oriented, and do what you can to develop both personally and professionally.
  3. At the same time, show yourself to be a sensible and well-balanced person with compelling outside interests, including (but not limited to) family and friends.
  4. When talking about your reading interests, it does not much matter whether you read science fiction, monographs about the Napoleonic wars, or locked-room mysteries, as long as you show that you are knowledgeable and enthusiastic regarding whatever you pursue.
  5. These questions provide a natural opportunity to subtly strengthen your chosen positioning.
Ending the Interview

Be sure to smile at the interviewer, shake hands and thank her for seeing you, and leave with an energetic, confident demeanor. (Do not ask your interviewer how you did at the end of the interview. This will put him on the spot and make you seem immature, lacking tact, or unable to wait for a decision to be made in due course. It will not do anything to improve your chances of success.)

Be careful not to be taken in by an old trick. Once you feel the interview is over, you may be asked a potentially revealing question as you are being shown out, on the assumption that you may have let down your guard at this point. Or the office assistant may be instructed to ask a question such as, "How do you think you did?" in hopes of eliciting a telling comment. Assume that the interview is really over only after you have left the premises.

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