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What Legal Employers Want

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If you are, as I was, one of those law students "in the middle of your class", naturally and understandably, you are going to be concerned about your law school grades. Are they good enough? Is this particular employer concerned about grades to the extent that an applicant will not be considered unless he or she is in the top whatever percent of a given law school class? Virtually all Legal employers see law school grades as one, perhaps the only, objective criterion by which law students can be evaluated. Consequently, grades are important to legal employers; you do yourself a disservice if you do not recognize that fact early in the interviewing process.

What Legal Employers Want



Nonetheless, everyone knows intuitively that law school grades are not the only factor legal employers evaluate, and one can therefore rightly conclude that there are other things to which Legal employers look to answer the two important questions posed above.

Legal employers also look at undergraduate records to determine both intellectual capacity and probability of success. People who did well in college but not quite so well in law school, a category that includes almost all of us, still have an opportunity to find exciting, rewarding legal careers.

It would be helpful if each of us had records that looked like Whizzer White's or Sandra Day O'Connor's, but we do not and cannot expect to. More to the point, sophisticated employers do not expect (even though they may hope and pray for) such records. They do, however, search resumes carefully and ask questions during the interviewing process to see not only whether the interviewee has attempted a wide range of activities but also whether he or she has succeeded in that at what legal employers look for tempt.

See Also: How to Answer the “Tell Me about Yourself” Interview Question

Almost every law student in school today has succeeded at something, and indeed many of you have succeeded in a broad range of projects or endeavors and are continuing to do so while in school. Legal employers like people who have been successful in the past, and assume that successful people will continue to be successful.

Consequently, you should be encouraged to show on your resume and discuss in the interviewing process those things that you have accomplished in college and in law school which might set you apart from other potential applicants. Honors that you have received should be specifically but discreetly mentioned and described. Avoid being sensitive about success in activities which you think may be less important than other similar activities. For example, all ivy-league in badminton may not have the same ring to it as having been starting quarterback at Notre Dame for four years or point guard for UCLA's basketball team, but it is quite important to an inter viewer. It shows you are a successful, competitive person in another environment. That is the kind of information an employer needs in order to evaluate fully your possibility for success in a particular legal environment. Moreover, it helps distinguish you from all other fellow students in "the middle of the class".

Most applicants list honors that they have received. Many people do not list projects or entrepreneurial endeavors or hobbies or interests that may also demonstrate a record of success. If, for example, you have participated, either alone or with some other individual or organization, in an activity that might demonstrate your ability for initiative, organization, and the exercise of judgment, even in a non-legal environment, list that activity on your resume.

No doubt many of you have worked on political campaigns, perhaps even in very responsible positions. Others of you may have business or professional experience that shows your ability to succeed in the "real world". Still others may have participated in some particular academic pursuit similar to the study or practice of law; those pursuits could range from scientific research at the graduate level to an undergraduate degree in drama and the performing arts. These examples are meant to illustrate that grades are not the only factor considered by Legal employers; however, do not be misled into believing that taking on a whole range of activities is the answer to a dismal start in law school. Legal employers will be wary of students who are professional activists to the detriment of their intellectual development.

There are also items of special interest to interviewers recruiting for positions on corporate legal staffs. These inter viewers are particularly interested in business experience or education, and people seeking such positions should mention and discuss prior work for a corporation or business organization, particularly at management levels. If you graduated from college with a business degree or completed a project with a business emphasis, that should be noted as well. Obviously, if you are a joint degree MBA-JD candidate, that should be discussed fully and effectively.

One thing many law students either never learn or forget is that the practice of law is not only a profession that one can enjoy immensely, but is also a business that is intended to be profitable. Consequently, interviewing for a legal position can and should be compared to interviewing for a position in a business. An interviewee's demonstrated awareness of that fact may be the single most important thing for an interviewer to see. This point is easiest to illustrate in connection with inter viewing for corporate legal staff positions, but it is important in every interviewing context. For example, an applicant would be well advised to study the advertising of a prospective employer and to read that company's Annual Reports and any other publications that might help in understanding the company and its products. You may even want to secure a brokerage report on the company and the industry in which it competes.

Finally, if there is major controversy or litigation involving the company either in progress or recently concluded, you should be able to discuss it intelligently. An interviewer for International Business Machines Corp. or American Telephone & Telegraph who encountered an interviewee who was unaware of the civil antitrust cases involving those two companies might well assume that the applicant had no interest in working for them. Unless the interviewers' record was otherwise compelling, they would not invite you to participate in the next phase of the interviewing process.

You should develop a habit of reading either the Wall Street Journal, Barron's or the financial pages of one of the major urban daily newspapers, particularly during the interviewing season. You are almost certain to find stories about the corporations or governmental agencies in which you are interested. Those stories in themselves may give you the opportunity to demonstrate your interest and enthusiasm for a given employer. If, for example, you were interviewing with Apple during the summer of 2012, you would most assuredly have had something with which to break any conversational ice. You should also read the various journals which cater to the law student and young lawyer, such as JD Journal, the American Lawyer, the New York Law Journal, and the Legal Times of Washington. These newspapers provide a lot of information about various law firms, their trials and foibles, and even features about their recruiting styles and successes. Indeed, the American Lawyer has published a compendium of various law firms which should be used as a re source, particularly in comparison with the resumes and brochures prepared by firms about themselves. I would suspect that before long Lexis or some similar source will have periodicals of this sort in their system which would allow you to retrieve all articles about a given corporation, law firm, or governmental agency, or about particular lawyers in those institutions.

Governmental agency legal employers look for the same thing for which private industry legal employers look: interest in that agency. To that end you should emphasize any previous employment or internship programs with legislative bodies and agency staffs and be prepared to demonstrate your interest in and commitment to public service. If you have any work experience in large organizations, school, or volunteer efforts, be sure the interviewer knows of your experiences.

What They Don’t Want

From the interviewer's standpoint (perhaps the interviewee's as well) interviewing, particularly out of the office or, in the case of the student, away from the law school, can be an exceptionally tedious process. Both of you may be in an environment other than the one to which you are most accustomed and in many instances in genuinely uncomfortable surroundings. Interviewers face several days of seeing a new face every twenty or thirty minutes and in that process hope to make enough of an evaluation and an impression to find the people most likely to succeed at their institutions. Moreover, some may have to repeat the process at several law schools in a relatively short time. Consequently, it may not take much to create a negative impression.

A sure way for you to end the interview before it begins is to be late, rude or discourteous. Almost equally as bad is a perceived lack of interest in the firm, corporation, or agency with which you are interviewing. If an interviewer senses a lack of interest or of motivation and direction, you are going to find yourself having to make an extraordinarily good impression in other ways or have a compelling academic record.

Most interviewers will not recruit people who appear to have no interest in practicing law or who appear to be aimless.
In short, they want to find people who look and act like lawyers. In the interviewer's mind that means someone who is interested in working at his or her institution and someone who has made an attempt to understand what it does.

Ultimate Evaluations

Of course the ultimate determination as to whether or not someone looks and acts like a lawyer is subjective. After understanding or at least digesting the available objective data, all interviewers try to make subjective evaluations of each applicant by considering several factors. Everyone is concerned about character, a trait that is almost impossible to define. Webster's aside, character seems to include not only basic honesty but also an understanding of the need to relate to others and the recognition of the presence of an intellectual process as a key to the profession.

Aside from character, judgment is the most important subjective trait for which interviewers search. People often say you get paid for judgment. Perhaps judgment is nothing more than the ability to make the best decision in a given situation.

No one makes the correct decision every time, but the finest lawyers tend to make the appropriate decision in an astonishing number of cases and situations. Good judgment becomes even more important as the exercise of it is complicated by the flood of legislation, the huge number of precedents, ever increasingly complex factual situations, political overtones, and excruciating time pressures. An interviewer's sense of how you will perform in those kinds of situations is at the heart of the interviewing process, thus in the search for successful people: people who have done well in a variety of things over time, people who look and act like lawyers. The only assumptions an interviewer can make are that people who have been successful will continue to be successful, and people who are seemingly aimless present an employment risk.

Legal employers are also very interested in an applicant's potential to assume responsibility.

Practicing Law is Business

People who work hard can be successful not only for themselves but also for their employer. In the interviewing process have you conveyed an impression that you are willing to spend the time to do a first-class job? Have you convinced the inter viewer that you are willing to assume responsibility, that you have the maturity and self-assurance to make that assumption, and that you will be successful in doing it?

Interviewers for law firms, particularly the larger ones, corporate law departments, and governmental agencies also want to determine whether or not the potential applicant appears to have the ability to get along with other people. Relationships among people are especially important to the fiscal and social well being of any institution. The ability to relate well to people is important not only in terms of client relations and retention, but also with respect to the interrelationships among lawyers and administrative personnel at a given institution and those from other firms or law departments working on the same transaction or litigation. If an interviewer senses that you may be disruptive or lack a sensitivity to other people, there is a strong probability that you will not be invited for further inter views. The practice of law is difficult enough without having to deal with personal strife in the office or on a case or transaction.

Repeating a theme, the practice of law is a business. Thus it should not surprise you to learn that each interviewer to some extent looks for someone who has the potential to develop the practice.

In a sense, that is true not only for private law firms but also for corporate legal departments and governmental agencies. Corporate general counsels and chief counsels of governmental agencies are no less interested in expanding their practices with interesting and rewarding work than are the senior partners of major law firms. Aside from any economic consideration, an interesting practice tends to help attract and retain good lawyers. Interviewers want to find people who have what may be called an extra dimension. Again, everyone looks for the law student who not only has demonstrated his or her intellectual abilities, but who also has a record of success in a broad range of projects.

Why Do Legal Employers Interview?

Interviews are necessary because interviewers look for substantially more than law school grades and the kind of information that can be put in a resume. As most firms, corporations, and students know, the interviewing process has become very sophisticated and quite expensive. The out-of-pocket costs are significant but pale by comparison to the time lost by lawyers interviewing applicants. Yet the effort remains worthwhile because virtually every prominent institution is successful as a result of the people it has hired. Consequently, the interviewing process is and will remain especially important.


About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

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