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Legal Interviewer – Who is He? What Does He Want?

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Before you embark on a legal job interview, you must know something about your "adversary" -- the legal interviewer. The word "adversary" is quite deliberately used; the interviewer is not your friend, no matter how warm or enthusiastic he may be during the interview. His role is not to help you find a job, nor is it really to help his employer find the best possible lawyers. He is a gatekeeper, first and foremost: his job is to examine a host of job applicants clamoring at the gate and let pass only those who in his judgment should be given more serious consideration by the organization. As such, he stands between you and your goal ~ a legal job ~ and if at any time he perceives a conflict between your goal (landing a job with his employer) and his employer's goal (hiring people who are productive and who fit the employer's image), he will always take the side of his employer.
 
Legal Interviewer – Who is He? What Does He Want?

This is not to say you should treat the interviewer in a hostile or adversarial manner - far from it! It does mean that you should recognize the interviewer for what he is, and be sensitive to his needs, not yours, throughout the interviewing process.



The Interviewer Is a Lawyer, Not a Professional Interviewer

This is probably the biggest single difference between and the business job interview. When you interview for a business position, you interview first with a human resources executive - a professional interviewer who has been extensively trained in the arts of interviewing. Interviewing job candidates is not a peripheral aspect of this individual's job; it is the very heart of his job, and he is an expert at it. This person will use his considerable skills to screen out those people who do not have the requisite skills for the job or who do not fit the organization's style or "culture". Only after you pass muster with him will you be allowed (along with others) to interview with the people whose decisions really count - the people in the department or division with whom and for whom you will actually work if you are hired.

By contrast, interviewing process takes place almost exactly in reverse. Your initial interview will almost always be with a lawyer. What is more, most of the interviews you will go through when seeking a job with a law firm, corporate legal department or government agency will be with lawyers. Only at the tail end of the interview process (often after you have been made an offer to come on board) will you interview with a human resources or personnel executive, whose function at that point often has been reduced to explaining the compensation and benefits package and showing you where the restrooms are.

This simple fact - that almost all of the interviewers you will face when seeking a legal job are lawyers, not professional interviewers; this is the single most important thing to keep in mind in a legal job interview. If you forget it, and use the techniques described in most interviewing books to try to impress a legal job interviewer, you are likely not to get past first base because those interviewing books are written with the professional interviewer -- the trained personnel person -- in mind.

Lawyers view the world much differently than personnel people; they look for different traits in people than managers do, and value certain skills higher (and lower) than their counterparts in the business world. For example, most lawyers I know detest sales pitches - anything that smells even remotely of Madison Avenue "hype" will usually turn a lawyer right off.

If you want to sell to a lawyer, your enthusiasm and dynamic presentation skills will not count for much. What will count is your ability to point out to the lawyer the options available to him and assess -- in a calm balanced way -- the pros and cons of each option. While you may (and of course should) advocate the course of action you think he should take, you should not "push" it too hard lest you overlook important facts (which the lawyer knows but you may not know) that may dictate another, quite different, course of action. This is after all how the lawyer himself counsels his clients.

The lawyer who is called upon to conduct a legal interview is only too keenly aware how little he knows about interviewing skills. Because lawyers in general are forever insecure about what they do not know (otherwise how do you explain the immense demand for continuing legal education courses?), the interviewer knows he knows nothing about interviewing, and is likely to be quite uncomfortable being in a situation where he knows he lacks the requisite skills. By putting the lawyer-interviewer in a situation where he can survive only by using technical skills that he senses you know better than he does, you will only make him uncomfortable, to your great disadvantage.

The better course is to alleviate the interviewer's anxiety and discomfort by doing as little as possible to show that you consider your meeting with the interviewer as a formal "interview".

In short, success in requires that you carry yourself in such a way that you do not appear to be "interviewing" at all: the lawyer-interviewer will want to have the sort of interaction with you that he knows he will have with you each and every day you are working with him (or for him) on the job. Doing this is not at all easy.

The Interviewer's Job

Having established that your interviewer is not a professional when it comes to interviewing job candidates, what exactly is the lawyer-interviewer's job? If you are like most people, before reading this article you would answer that question in one of the following ways: "to find the best candidate for the job", "to screen out the dorks and losers", "to make sure people from XYZ Law School can get in the door at Firm A", or "to make sure Firm A enjoys a favorable reputation with XYZ Law School."

Close, but no cigar. You may think I am being some-what cynical, but I think the lawyer-interviewer's primary job is to stay employed with his current employer, and not do anything that will put him at the other end of interviewing process. His secondary job is to advance to the next level within his organization: if he is an associate at a law firm, he wants to make partner; if he is an associate general counsel of a corporation, he wants to become an assistant general counsel; and so forth. The plain, simple truth is that success as a legal job interviewer will not help a lawyer one whit in staying employed or moving up the legal career ladder; what will count are his legal skills and his ability to keep clients satisfied, and the typical lawyer knows that. As a result, there is really no incentive for the lawyer to become an expert interviewer, and most lawyers do not take the time or trouble to excel in interviewing.

Even if he were lawyer so inclined, and were willing to take the time to polish his interviewing skills, he is often too busy to do so. A lawyer does not cease being a lawyer when he takes time out from his busy practice to interview legal job candidates. Often he has to fight to get the time away from his duties at the office, and even if he is successful he is often called away from his interview to put out a fire back at the office. I remember only too well the law firm interviewers who used to come to my law school; after a long day of back-to-back interviews, followed by a lengthy dinner at a fancy restaurant with the most desirable candidates, these poor people would stagger into the law library and work until all hours of the morning just to keep up their billable hours and stay current with their heavy workload.

It should not be too surprising, then, that the lawyer-interviewer is often distracted from the task at hand, or views it as being relatively unimportant. More than any other, the fact that the lawyer-interviewer is a lawyer first and an interviewer second often explains the lawyer-interviewer's behavior during a legal job interview. Because the lawyer does not have the time or the inclination to make in-depth judgments about an individual's talents or qualifications for the job, he is often tempted to "go by the numbers" and pick only those with the most impressive paper credentials, because it is the safest course of action (lawyers always look for the safest course of action) and requires the least risk, analysis and judgment. It also takes the least time, as the lawyer-interviewer cannot bill anyone for his time spent interviewing job candidates (at least ethically he cannot).

His Biggest Concern: Avoiding Mistakes

Because the lawyer-interviewer views interviewing as a peripheral aspect of his work only, he knows that an excellent performance will not get him much recognition by his employer. A poor performance, however, may well make him a laughingstock within his organization. All lawyers wish to avoid the fate of the partner at the prestigious law firm who hired what appeared to be a highly qualified candidate for a midlevel associate's job, only to discover years later that the candidate had falsified all of her credentials (including her admission to the bar!)

Combine this with the lawyer's natural reluctance to take risks (either for himself or for his clients), and the result is a "cover your rear end at all costs" mentality on the part of the lawyer-interviewer. Simply put, the lawyer-interviewer is most attracted by candidates that will require little selling or explanation within his organization; people whose credentials speak for themselves. That way, if the candidate is hired and fouls something up later on, it is not the lawyer-interviewer's judgment that is at fault, only the candidate's on-the-job performance. If he is hiring law students, he wants a top grade point average and (if possible) Law Review membership; if he is hiring a "lateral" associate from another firm, he wants to see lots of experience doing the precise tasks that are called for in the open position, preferably for a major Wall Street law firm; if he is hiring for a corporate position, he wants to see lots of experience doing the same tasks that are called for in the open position, preferably for a leading company in the same industry; and so forth.

In short, interviewer is playing a "percentage game" designed to minimize the risk of error; he will not go out of his way to pursue a candidate that he really likes if the candidate's background or credentials will require explanation or defense within the organization. In dealing with interviewer, you must take pains to appear to fit as closely as possible to the interviewer's mental picture of an ideal candidate for the job, and be realistic in assessing your paper credentials. If you are in the bottom quarter of your law school class and are interviewing for your first legal job, your chances of success are better with the small, local law firms in the area where you grew up than in the large, Wall Street law firm (why? Because your lifelong contacts in the area will help you attract and hold onto clients).

Once you have some experience in private practice and have proven your worth as a lawyer (by winning a big case, let's say, or doing something professionally that attracted lots of local media coverage), you can interview with larger firms with greater confidence, knowing that your law school grades will count for less at that point.

What the Legal Interviewer Wants To Know

We have established that interviewer wants to see candidates that will make his life and his job as easy as possible, and put the hiring decision behind him as quickly as possible so that he may return to his practice and the legal work with which he is more comfortable.

Anticipating what the legal interviewer will want, and giving him what he wants, will depend on the interview situation -- whether you are interviewing for your first job out of law school (or a summer clerkship between the second and third years of law school) or are looking to change jobs or careers after acquiring some experience in the profession.

For an entry-level position you will probably first encounter the lawyer-interviewer in your second year of law school, as you are seeking that all-important summer clerkship between the second and third years. You will certainly encounter him in your third year, as you look for your first permanent position with a law firm, corporate legal department or government agency (this book assumes you are looking for a legal job out of law school; most law students do, although many eventually find their way into non-legal careers).

What is the interviewer looking for in a law student? The answer will depend on the type of position you are looking for, and where the interview is taking place.

Let's say, for example, that you are looking for a position in a midsized to large law firm in a large metropolitan area. Your run through the legal interviewing process will usually have two steps: an on-campus interview with one or more partners and associates of the firm who have flown into town for the sole purpose of interviewing at your law school; followed (if you successfully get past the first screening) by an all-expenses-paid trip to the firm, where you will be interviewed by a battery of people in their offices and taken out to a restaurant for lunch and/or dinner.

The on-campus interviewers will usually have two traits in common: they are members of their firm's Hiring Committee or Legal Personnel Committee, and at least one will be a graduate of your law school. Sometimes the interviewers will bring along one of their junior associates who is a recent graduate of your law school, so that you can see the sort of person they like to hire generally, and so that the interviewers can get the "inside story" on you from that associate. It is not always easy to tell if their primary objective is to find suitable candidates for first-year associate slots at the firm, or to maintain the firm's ties with your law school. Usually it is a little of both.

Sometimes, if you have worked in a particular field or industry before starting law school, you may see the interviewers express some interest in your non-legal background. This will especially be the case if you worked at one of the firm's corporate clients, or in an industry where the firm has special expertise (a firm that specializes in entertainment law with clients in the music industry may, for example, be very interested in hiring someone who worked as a talent agent and represented some noted musicians; they will not, however, be as interested in someone who spent years pushing buttons in a recording studio, no matter how many autographs he's collected over the years).

Usually, however, this will not be the case, and the interviewers will be interested only in your performance as a law student. The key word here is: credentials. Your grade point average must be high (how high will depend on the firm's reputation; generally, the higher the starting salary for associates, the higher your grade point must be), you should be on the staff of your law school's Law Review or similar publication, and you should have at least some prior connection with the geographic area in which the firm practices (a student who has spent his entire life in New York City and its environs, for example, will have a tough time persuading an interviewer he intends to spend the rest of his life in Kalamazoo, Michigan, unless, perhaps, he is engaged or recently married to someone who is a native of Kalamazoo; conversely New York City law firms never seem to question an individual's willingness to want to come to New York no matter where he is from. Generally, these are the only credentials that really count in an on-campus interview.

Your interest in a specialized field of practice may carry some weight if the firm specializes in that practice and your performance in that specialty is exceptionally high relative to your overall academic performance. For example, if your passion is international law, a firm specializing in international practice may be quite interested in your membership on your law school's Journal of Transnational Legal Studies, your mastery of Mandarin Chinese and Urdu (commonly studied languages like French and Spanish usually don't make the grade here), and the two "books" you earned in international law courses. These focused interests may in fact make up for an otherwise mediocre law school record if the competition has even worse credentials than you do. If, on the other hand, a candidate who is in the top ten percent of his class and a member of Law Review expresses interest in the firm, you will have a difficult time besting him even if his only qualification is that he drives a Japanese car.

This is not fair, or even good business on the firm's part. It is simply what happens in an on-campus interview. A candidate whose credentials fall below those of the people the firm has hired in the past is someone who needs to be explained or defended within the firm, and few lawyer-interviewers have the time or the willingness to put their career or reputation for good judgment on the line to help someone that, after all, they don't even know.

See the following articles for more information:
 


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.

About LawCrossing
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