Law Firm Interviews & Your Aspirations

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If you are someone who expects to use your early years of law practice to become as technically proficient as possible, you may prefer a law firm where the associates are given assignments which are more technically oriented. If your passion is for client involvement or court room activity, you will prefer firms that provide the maximum practical amount of responsibility at the earliest possible time. If you are one whose inclination is to seek early courtroom experience, client contact, or the like, in preference over a fundamental, technical education, you should be certain that practice opportunities allowing you to grow and progress to more interesting matters are present. A significant number of firms do indeed provide early opportunities but do not, in turn, have the ability to attract and keep the kinds of clients and cases that will result in interesting matters over the course of your practice as an associate and as a partner. If you are interviewing a firm which is touting early court room experience and the like, be sure your interviewing concerns are taken care of.

What do younger partners do?

The answer to this question is important in that it indicates the process of evolution through a particular firm's practice. Generally speaking, younger partners should be carrying a heavy practice and administrative responsibility. Through their efforts much of the business of the firm gets accomplished. The senior associates and younger partners are the true economic backbone of any firm in that they are at experience levels that justify their being responsible for almost any matter and, at least in most instances, they are not compensated at levels to which they hope to become accustomed in the future. Younger partners should also be enthusiastic about the future of the firm and their role in it although there are certain periods immediately or shortly after one is admitted to partnership when a certain feeling of "what's next?" or "now what?" sets in. To understand a partner's attitude toward his or her work, you really need to know how long a given lawyer has been a partner. All you need to do is ask.

How will I be reviewed, how often, how candidly? Are compensation and partnership admission issues treated together?

As noted above, a significant number of law firms make no pretense about the admission process. That is, they reserve the exclusive right in their discretion to make partnership decisions. The review process in institutions of that sort is substantially less important than in institutions that purport to admit all qualified associates regardless of the number in a given class. In the latter instance, that process is critical.

Firms vary in their practice with respect to review, some conducting reviews every six months and others substantially more frequently. Of course, the best review process would be to go over each project as it is finished, although no matter how good any firm or the partners' intentions may be, that frequency of review simply is unrealistic. Semiannual review for firms with a substantial number of associates if done properly is a significant time commitment on the part of the partners. Re view any less frequently probably does not provide an associate with a true indication of his or her progress, particularly if that associate is being reviewed for partnership admission purposes.

How will I be reviewed?

The degree of candor in a review is particularly important with firms that purport to conduct reviews for admission purposes. Most such firms are willing and able to recognize associates on either extreme; they are both willing to admit that a particular person is not advancing at a rate equal to that of his or her classmates and eager to find and applaud the "Whizzer White" in a particular law school class. The review process is important for people who fall into both of those categories, but it is even more important to the vast bulk of us who continue to try and who proceed at varying degrees. In those instances the review process becomes horribly complicated and at times terribly frustrating. You will find yourself asking a series of questions, many of them as seemingly important as any you have ever asked. How to interpret your review is beyond the scope of this manual; the important aspect of this particular issue, though, is to try and determine the degree of candor present in the review process.

Most firms use the review process to indicate compensation changes for the succeeding year. As noted, it is always helpful to know whether or not compensation and partnership admission are tied together. You need to know, in other words, if receiving the highest bonus in your class in a given year means that you might reasonably expect to be on track for partnership or is simply an indication of appreciation for a 4000 billable-hour year. (No bonus may be too much for that effort!)

When will I be considered for partner? If I am passed over in that year or at that period, is that it? In other words, is it up or out?
Every firm has an average number of years after which they consider associates for partnership. Those range from three to five years in smaller firms, to seven and a half years in firms in the western and southwestern United States, to eight, ten or more years in eastern law firms. The answer is important only to the extent that you need to know the rules. In some firms if you are not admitted at the "proper" time, your chances of ad mission are reduced materially. Indeed, in many instances, you are encouraged and helped to find other employment. A number of law firms, however, may not necessarily attach such a magical impact to the passing of a particular month. Oddly enough, in most instances the firms with substantial flexibility in the later associate years tend to be those who make no front end promises with respect to admission.

Two relevant questions along this line are "What happens if I do not make it?" and "Is any effort made to find me a job or help me locate a position?"Even though these are quite responsible and reasonable questions, many interviewers will interpret them as an indication of your lack of self-confidence. Nonetheless, you should devote some attention to finding out how a given firm looks after people who have not been admit ted to partnership. One way to do this is to ask where people go when they leave the firm in the later associate years.

What are you looking for in an associate? What are my chances of being hired?

These perfectly legitimate questions should give you an insight in to how you fit a particular firm's notion of what it wants in an associate and what the percentages of your being hired are. A variant of this question might be "How many law students are invited to visit the firm and how many of them receive offers?

Questions with respect to the nature of an offer:

Bear in mind that an offer given at the law school is likely to be only an offer to participate in further interviews. Nonetheless, you should understand the nature of any offer that may be given at the end of your interview period whenever that is.

You should also try to understand the process by which offers of actual permanent (or summer) employment are given.

Most firms wait until you have returned to law school to make an offer of employment although a few try to decide while you are visiting and make an offer at the end of the interview period. Both of those methods create somewhat different tensions and pressures during the interview process. In order to be able to deal with such tensions and pressures, you ought to understand what will happen in any particular instance.

If you have received an offer of employment, you will want to know how long you have to decide whether or not to accept it and in what form the acceptance must be made. You may also want to know whether or not the offer will remain open through clerkships, internships and the like.

If I accept the offer, will I be allowed to have a voice in choosing the kind of work I do?

Many firms arbitrarily assign new associates to particular practice areas or specialties. Others have elaborate rotation processes through which associates pass in an effort to allow them to see the law firm and pick or have a voice in picking the department or practice specialty they prefer.

Obviously, if you are terribly uncomfortable with a given discipline, you may want to avoid firms which could arbitrarily assign you to that practice area. Very few firms would assign someone to an area that he or she truly disliked; doing so is simply not in the firm's best interest. On the other hand, some firms will allow an associate to pick whatever department he or she wants when such a choice may not be in the firm's best interest. Those firms have decided that lawyers who are happy and comfortable with their work will eventually make the law firm more successful than lawyers who are assigned practice in areas that may be their second and third choices.

Related to the rotation or department selection process is the question of how work is conducted once you are in a department. If you are expected to work for a particular partner or with a team of lawyers for a significant number of years, that expectation poses a different set of considerations than if you are simply expected to work for a representative number of people in a given department. Although most firms will make sincere efforts to alleviate aggravated personal or practice situations, there are risks inherent in the one partner or small group assignments that are not present in a more general practice effort.

If you are interested in a law firm that has a very loose or nonexistent departmental structure, the questions must be varied to accommodate the situation. You will be substantially more interested in how work assignments are made, what the probabilities that you will receive one or more different kinds of work are, and what the practice mix of the firm or group of lawyers within the firm is.

1. What kind of social or community service obligations will I have? Are you expected to entertain to a significant extent, and if so, are those expenses reimbursable? Are you expected to join a particular club or specific civic organizations, and again, are those expenses reimbursable?

Even if there are no stated obligations, a reasonable amount of social and community involvement is likely to be personally rewarding and career enhancing. Partners in law firms and general counsels of corporations and agencies are more likely to see potential in lawyers who have some outside interests or extra dimensions.

2. Am I expected to bring in new business? If I am, am I paid for it and if so, how?

If you are expected to bring in business, you should evaluate your ability and willingness to do so. Many people are more comfortable with the technical aspects of the practice; such people are bound to be disappointed in a situation in which their advancement is directly dependent on their ability to attract, and eventually to hold, new business. Even if you are not expected to help develop the practice in your early associate years, you should try and determine when, if ever, such demands will be made and what the firm's expectations might be. As with many of the questions discussed in this chapter, the purpose of the questions discussed in this section is to help you get a better sense of a particular firm.

See the following articles for more information:

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