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Legal Job Interview: Homework You Should Do

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Success in a legal job interview, as in any other professional endeavor, requires preparation and thought. There should be no surprises during the interview itself: you should know what you want, you should anticipate what the lawyer-interviewer wants, you should have ready answers to the standard interview questions, you should have in your mind a list of questions to fill awkward silences, and (most important of all) you should want the job.
 
Legal Job Interview: Homework You Should Do

No one should ever waste time interviewing for a job they know they will not like; even if they are successful in getting an offer, they will be in a double bind. If they reject the offer, they demonstrate bad faith to the prospective employer, which can only hurt them in the long run (legal employers have long memories and the legal community, while large is still small enough that you are certain to encounter some of these people in your practice later on). If they accept the offer, they are committed to a job in which the odds for success are remote, and the odds of failure high. Why? Because in the long run no one can succeed doing work that they don't like doing, or being in a job that they know is a dead end for them. I repeat: you should never walk into an interview situation without knowing in advance that the position, if offered to you, is one you would accept. You will not have this knowledge without doing your homework, sizing up the potential employer, and sizing up the people who are most likely to be your lawyer-interviewers. This chapter discusses the things you should do before you walk into the interview room.



Doing Your Homework

It is elementary that before interviewing with a particular employer, you must know something about that employer. If the prospective employer is a law firm, you must know how large (or small) the firm, the backgrounds of the key partners, who the key clients are (and how strongly they are attached to the firm), the areas of practice in which the firm specializes, which of these specialties are strong, which are weak, and so forth.

If the prospective employer is a corporation, you must know each of its lines of business, the industry (or industries) in which it competes, the outlook and prospects for each line of business, the financial health of the company as reflected in annual reports and filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (if its stock is publicly traded), its brands and trademarks, and so forth.

If the prospective employer is a government agency, you must know its mission as set forth in federal or state statutes, the programs which it administers, the tasks lawyers are called upon to play within the agency (in the Department of Justice or a prosecutor's office, it is likely to be litigation, in the Securities and Exchange Commission or a state "blue sky" office it is likely to be document review), the agency's reputation, and so forth.

Traditional Ways of Researching Employers

What are the traditional ways of finding out this information? In days gone by, the untutored would (1) look up the employer in the Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory or the Prentice-Hall Directory of Corporate Counsel; (2) read the firm resume in his law school's placement office (or obtain a copy from the firm's legal recruitment coordinator), keeping in mind that it is intended as a marketing tool, not an objective statistical description of the firm; and (3) if the employer is a corporation, look at the annual report and the latest annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (if the company's stock is publicly traded).

While I do not belittle the necessity of doing this type of exhaustive "library research" (indeed there is a wealth of information in these volumes, if you are thorough and patient), I do feel it necessary to point out some major limitations of this method of preparing for a legal job interview.

The Problem of Time Management

First, doing this sort of research takes time, and lawyers (including law students) have little if any time for nonessential activities. If you are a law student, there are classes to attend, examinations to study for, papers to write, and Law Review work to be done. If you are a practicing lawyer, there are hours to bill, briefs and memoranda to write, documents to draft, and meetings to attend. I have learned that the more things you plan to do to prepare adequately for a job interview the less likely you are to do any of them, with predictable results. Indeed, I doubt that most candidates for legal jobs manage to spend more than a few minutes looking at the employer's Martindale Hubbell entry before walking into the interview room.

Weaknesses of the Traditional Research Materials

Second, even if you do find the time for careful research, I question the value of the information you are likely to get from the traditional sources. Your research is wasted activity unless it is focused on helping you do two things: determine whether you would want to work for a particular employer, and help you formulate intelligent questions to ask the lawyer-interviewer for that employer. The statistical information you will be able to glean from Martindale-Hubbell, the firm resume or the corporation's annual report is not designed to disclose the "inside info" you need to be able to answer these two questions satisfactorily.

Sometimes the traditional sources, aside from being merely useless, can be grossly misleading and lead you down a disastrous career path. Anyone reading the 1986 Martindale-Hubbell entry for the New York law firm of Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey would think it one of the most solid, reputable, indestructible firms in America. The entry contains page after page of impressive biographies, seemingly without end. As is well known, the firm filed for bankruptcy protection in early 1990 and subsequently dissolved amid charges that partners grossly mismanaged the firm; the courts are still trying to clean up the mess.

Even if the information you obtain from these traditional sources is reliable, statistical-type information is just not very helpful when you are trying to sell yourself to an interviewer. Few lawyer-interviewers are likely to be impressed by your knowing that the firm has 150 lawyers with offices in five states (including Washington D.C.), specializes in commodities litigation, and just recently won a major case before the United States Supreme Court on the rights of commodities brokers to require arbitration of customer claims. Either they assume you already know this (a lawyer-interviewer will never quiz you on your knowledge of the employer's business), or they will think you are trying to "show off. In any event, by spouting off this type of information you are not telling them anything that they don't already know; after all, they wrote the firm resume and told Martindale-Hubbell what to say about them.

The type of information you will need to know in order to determine whether you are interested in a particular employer, and impress a lawyer-interviewer from that employer, is likely to come from sources other than the traditional ones. You should take the time to explore these nontraditional routes. Fortunately, access to this information is not expensive or time-consuming, and requires only that you make a couple of telephone calls, keep your eyes open at a couple of critical moments, and spend not more than a few minutes per interview doing some basic research in the law library.

Sizing Up the Potential Employer

Happiness Is a Good "Fit": We have established that statistical information can sometimes be misleading, and will almost never give you a living, breathing portrait of your prospective employer in action. Ultimately, whether or not you will be happy in a given work environment will depend not on the size of the firm, or the net earnings of the company over the last five years, or the fact that a majority of the firm's partners graduated from the same law school as you did, but rather will depend on how closely you fit with the employer's style and culture, and how well you like working with the people you will find there. Without belittling Martindale-Hubbell or Fortune magazine's listing of the top 500 corporations in America, there is no way for you to learn this important yet intangible information from a directory or other traditional research source.

The Two Cardinal Rules of Job Research: There are two cardinal rules when researching a potential employer: (1) gossip or "soft" information is much more important than statistical or "hard" information; and (2) what you see or hear leaves a more lasting impression in your mind, and is therefore more easily remembered, than what you read or write. Let's look at each of these rules and see how they apply to researching legal job opportunities.

The Importance of "Gossip": Why is gossip so important? Because unfortunately, there is not yet published a definitive "guide to corporate cultures" that can help you determine how political or "cutthroat" a work environment is, the rate of employee turnover, the number of reductions in force or "downsizings" that have occurred over the past couple of years, whether the hours are naturally or artificially long (in the legal profession they will almost never be short, unless you seek a part-time position), whether there is an emphasis on a particular ethnic group or practice area within the employer, the extent to which junior lawyers are given responsibility for handling matters and dealing with clients, and so forth.

Sadly, as in many other areas of life, there is a tradeoff in researching a potential employer: obtaining the more intangible or "touchy feely" information about an employer involves accepting a lower standard of reliability than will be the case with "hard", statistical information about that employer. This is because much of this intangible information is subjective; one person's sweatshop is another's paradise, and one person's "cutthroat" environment is another's "dynamic, aggressive" culture. More importantly, much intangible information about an employer will tend to come from people who are at some remove from the employer: former employees whose information may not be up-to-date; people who know the employer only by reputation or by casual contact (for example, the attorney at another firm who has argued or negotiated against attorneys at the firm you want to know about); journalists who have written magazine articles about the employer, often without having any formal training in business or law or experience in the employer's industry; information compiled by trade associations or journals; and the like.

The best, and most reliable source of intangible information about an employer are, of course, people like yourself who work there in the position for which you are interviewing. These sources must be handled with care, and the information they provide "weighted" to account for their position within the organization. A senior associate at a large law firm who is up for partnership this year, for example, is "walking on egg-shells" and is not likely to say anything bad about his employer for fear it will get back to the powers on the Legal Personnel Committee. A first-year associate at the same firm may not be as committed to the firm but also does not have the experience to see the "big picture". Because you do not know who talks to whom within the employer, you would not want to ask any question you would not ask an interviewer from that employer; this will further reduce the value of the information you obtain.

This is not to say that you should not contact people at the target employer (although of course you should do so as discreetly as possible), only that you will seldom be able to get the best information out of them in a way that will not increase the risk of your being "screened out" of the interview process. For one should not read the biography of a politician who is still in office (he's not about to write about the "good stuff because he still needs to remain on good terms with a lot of people), but only a politician who has retired (and is therefore free to "tell all" within the limits of the libel laws). The best source of intangible information about an employer (although certainly not the most unbiased) is someone who has recently left that employer under generally favorable conditions.

Don't Read; Watch and Listen

The second cardinal rule of researching a potential employer is that "what you see or hear leaves a more lasting impression in your mind, and therefore is more easily remembered, that what you read or write." I do not have a background in cognitive psychology, but I find I have an easier time remembering "war stories" and cases, especially if they were particularly vivid or funny, than I do Law Review articles, hornbook chapters, or legal outlines. I believe the same is true in researching a potential employer.

Once I was looking at a career opportunity at a smaller law firm (let's call it "Firm Y"). I met with Firm Y's "name partner", and found him an awfully sweet and likable person; some of the other attorneys looked a bit haggard around the edges, but I attributed this to the nature of the practice. Several days later I met with another lawyer in the same community, who without any prodding from me volunteered that Firm Y was a notorious sweatshop whose name partner "while he always comes across as a sweet and likable person, has a reputation for taking you for everything you're worth once your foot is in the door; unless you get an employment agreement in writing with him, you'll end up working 90 hours a week for a salary that won't even pay your rent." Without suggesting that I was talking to Firm Y, I called up three other lawyers in the same community, all of whom confirmed Firm Y's reputation as a sweatshop and the name partner's trickiness in dealing with new hires. While this of course was only circumstantial evidence, there is an old saying that "if one person calls me a horse, I laugh; if three people call me a horse, I go out and buy a saddle." I did not pursue the opportunity at Firm Y any further.

So How SHOULD You Research An Employer?

How should you research a potential employer? Keeping in mind the two cardinal rules of researching a potential employer, I would suggest that you focus first on magazine and journal articles about the employer, and then try to network through to someone who can give you the inside information you really need, either in person or over the telephone. Moreover, you should spend about 25% of your available research time on the first task, and 75% on the second: a good personal contact will always be ten times more useful than a written source.

Magazine Articles: The More Gossip, the Better

You should begin with articles about the employer that have appeared in business magazines and trade journals. You can look these up in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature and the Index to Business Periodicals available at any library. With respect to law firms, which often are not written about in the business press, you should go to a law library (usually there will be one in or near your county courthouse or at a local law school which will give nonstudents limited access) and look up the employer's name in the index to the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer or any other regional or local publication that focuses on the legal profession, not developments in the law itself (a state bar journal or the American Bar Association's magazines, for example, will not have the type of information you need). When reading magazine articles, especially those in general business magazines such as Fortune, Forbes and Business Week, try to stay clear of articles on a specific new development (for example, the employer's introduction of a new product, or the appointment of a new chief executive officer). Try instead to find articles describing general trends in the employer's industry, business lines or financial condition. Usually you can tell from the headline, which is usually reprinted in the standard indices, whether the article is specific or general in nature.

Keep in mind that magazine articles are fine, but they represent the view of an outsider looking in, not an insider (as you want to be) looking out. Reporters after all are only as good as their sources, and lawyers are notoriously reticent to tell outsiders what really goes on at their shops (something to do with preserving client confidentiality and all that). Moreover, journalists value their sources, and usually will not divulge information if the risk of losing a valued source outweighs the newsworthiness of the information.

Generally, given the choice, I play down articles in general business magazines, and focus my attention instead on articles in industry trade journals. While these are subject to some of the same restrictions as general business magazines (the need to avoid offending sources, for example), they tend to be written by people who are more experienced with the industry and the key "players" in that industry, and so tend to ask the right questions more frequently. If you are lucky enough that your prospective employer is in an industry with a highly respected newsletter which also publishes industry gossip (such as Asset Sales Report, a biweekly publication that reports on developments in the structured finance industry on Wall Street), you should know what that newsletter has written about your target employer, and may even want to call one of the editors for some "behind the scenes" information (if the publication is small enough, the editors may be extremely flattered that you thought enough of them to call, and will usually be co-operative if they think you will eventually become a subscriber or better yet a source of industry information once you find employment).

How to Read the Employer's Own Literature

While magazine and trade journal articles are good sources of the "right" information about an employer, they are only the starting points of your research. If you are interviewing with a law firm or corporation, you should at least glance at the firm resume or the corporation's annual report, but not for any hard, statistical information that may be printed there. Look instead for clues to the organization's structure and future plans. In an annual report, for example, I would read the president's message to shareholders. How optimistic or pessimistic is senior management about the company's future? Which lines of business have performed, and which have not (you don't want to be hired by a poorly performing unit - they are the first to downsize)?

You should read also the brief descriptions of the corporation's business lines. Which are the core businesses, and which lie at the periphery (the latter will be the first to be sold off or shut down)? In the corporation's proxy statement and annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, read the biographies of senior management. Which functional disciplines (such as marketing or finance) or business groups did they come from? Is there one unit or discipline that has contributed a disproportionately large share of senior managers (if so, that's where you want to be).

In a firm resume, don't read about the lawyers: read instead about the clients. Who are they, how healthy are they, and how long have they been a client? Is the firm overly dependent on a single client? If so, how strong is the firm's attachment to that client (are firm partners on the client's board of directors, for example)? If you are looking at a firm that is heavily dependent on one client for its business, you should research the client as if you were seeking employment there (for you are, in a way). As that client goes, so goes the firm. If the firm has many clients, is that because they are specialists in a particular area of practice? Patent and trademark firms will usually list many clients, but may not do anything for those clients outside the intellectual property field.

Similarly, investment banking clients normally spread their work among many law firms depending on their specialties. Firm M will do the investment bank's real estate transactions, Firm N will do the public offerings, while Firm P will do the maritime and admiralty work. If you sense that the firm's reputation rests on a particular specialty, you had better want to specialize in that area of practice. Any specialty that is heavily dependent upon tax benefits from the federal or state governments should be scrutinized especially closely, as such a specialty can disappear overnight if there is a change in the tax laws.

Talk to People Who Know the Employer from the Inside Out

Your best information about a prospective employer will not come from the written word, but rather from people. It is never too early or too late to begin building up a personal network of contacts that can be sources of information not available to the general public. After all, this is where reporters and other journalists get their "scoops": why not you? Let's say you are interested in Firm X; how do you go about finding out what really goes on there? Who are you going to call?

I. Alumni/ae

First, you should visit or call your law school's placement office (even if it has been some time since you graduated). They will usually have their alumni/ae listed on a computerized data base, and can (for a small charge, or for free) give you the names, addresses and telephone numbers of any law school alumni/ae who work at Firm X and other similar firms in the same city. You probably have already figured out that your college placement office can furnish you with similar information about graduates of that college.

If there are no alumni/ae working at Firm X, what about one of Firm X's key clients? If you really want to see someone at a law firm jump to attention, call and indicate to his secretary that an executive of one of his important clients suggested you call. here are no alumni/ae working at Firm X or one of Firm X's clients, how about one of Firm X's rival firms in that city (I would define a "rival firm" as a firm of comparable size, doing the same sort of work for the same sort of clientele). Who knows? If you succeed in impressing a lawyer at a rival firm, the latter may think to himself "gee, why should Firm X get all the hot prospects?", and you may find yourself interviewing at the rival firm!

II. Bar Association Contacts Take a look at Martindale-Hubbell and see if there is a local or regional bar association in which most of Firm X's lawyers participate. If there is (and there usually will be), call the bar association, find out which committees are most likely to have lawyers from Firm X in your desired area of specialty (for example, if you are interesting in representing banks, you will probably want to talk to lawyers on the business/commercial law committee), and then find out if there are any college or law school alumni/ae participating in those committees.

III. Friends and Relatives: Finally, let's not overlook the obvious: Personal friends, relatives of personal friends, family members and their friends may also be useful sources of contacts at Firm X, one of its clients, or one of its rivals.

IV. Legal Recruiters or Headhunters: You should find out which legal recruiters or headhunters as they are commonly known work in the city where Firm X is located, and ask them about Firm X's reputation in the marketplace. You will be surprised how much these people know; lawyers at firms throughout the city are daily telling them their tales of joy or woe. You will also be surprised how much the recruiters will tell you; since lawyers change jobs fairly frequently these days, you are a potential source of business to them. They may even be able to intro-duce you to someone who just recently left Firm X for greener pastures, who will be only too willing to tell you more than you ever wanted to know about Firm X and how they treat their people (you should keep in mind, of course, that such a person is not likely to be very objective about Firm X, especially if he left under less-than-ideal circumstances). You are not asking the recruiters to help you find a job at Firm X; you are merely asking for help in networking through to someone who can answer some specific questions about Firm X, its practice and reputation in the legal community.

V. Other Job Candidates: Finally, you should ask others who are looking for jobs in the same area what they have heard about Firm X. Of course, these people have no incentive to help you in your networking; they may even view you as a competitor and steer you away from opportunities which they may be pursuing. Nonetheless, I think it is worth a try, especially if you latch onto someone who is willing to swap information about Firm X for information about an employer you have researched in which he is interested.

When You Find a Good Contact, What Do You Say?

What should you say when asking a total stranger about Firm X? You should be very careful what you say, because you don't know this person, and if you don't know a person, you don't know who that person knows. This person you are talking to may be the golfing buddy of the chairperson of the Legal Hiring Committee at Firm X!

First, you should identify yourself and the reason for your call. Nothing is more frustrating to a busy attorney, no matter how senior or junior, than to receive a telephone call from a total stranger in a far-off city asking for information about a firm on the other side of town. Most people will take the time to be helpful, but only if you are straightforward with them. You should say "this will only take five (or ten) minutes", and then stick to your deadline unless the other person takes you over the limit. You should say that you are merely looking to learn something about Firm X and its local reputation, and that you are not calling with any ulterior motive (such as obtaining a job at the contact's employer).

Second, this is an "information interview", not a job interview, so you can be somewhat more demanding of the contact than you would a lawyer-interviewer from the target employer. Ask the questions whose answers you really want to know, and don't be afraid to ask for "gossip". Show that you know something about the target employer and its practice or business, so as to discourage the contact from merely reciting the "party line". If the contact is not very helpful, ask (in a polite and nice way) if he would be willing to introduce you to someone else in his organization who has had more direct contact with your target employer than perhaps he has had; you could suggest that perhaps there is someone in his organization who has worked at Firm X in the past, or has recently negotiated a transaction on the other side of Firm X's attorneys.

Be sure to express vigorously your thanks for any scrap of information he may deign to throw you, and follow up with a "thank you" letter even if he has not been very helpful. Once you have found employment, be sure to send him your business card and a short note letting him know how helpful he was in helping you "sort out your thinking".

Networking as a Way of Life

Difficult as it is to call total strangers and ask for information, it is something you must become accustomed to. The process known as "networking" is probably the most productive way to obtain (legally) nonpublic information about any person or organization you are interested in contacting for any reason. Keep in mind that the shoe may be on the other foot someday; your contact may be calling you for assistance, and you will be obligated to do whatever you can. Also keep in mind that even if your "networking" proves to be unproductive, whether you know it or not you are polishing your interviewing skills with these faceless "contacts" in a non-threatening way: nothing is at stake, and the worst they can do is hang up on you (few will). Even if you do not get what you want out of them, they will be flattered that you called, and if you stay in touch with them you may find there will come a time in your career when they are in the best possible position to help you.

One final rule of "networking" etiquette: While you should (indeed must) use the information you have obtained through networking in the job interview itself (to show your enthusiasm for the position and the thoroughness of your research), you must never disclose the name of the person who furnished you with that information. Attorneys are known for their discretion; while the lawyer-interviewer may be dying to know how you found out about the firm's growing municipal bond practice in State X and close ties to gubernatorial candidate Smith, like a good investigative reporter you must protect your sources. A good way to handle this is to say something like "well, good news gets around fast," and then follow up with a question of your own to get off the subject.

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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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