One-site Interview: How to Deal with Non-lawyer Staff

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While attending the "one-site" interview, read carefully a few words about those associates on the Committee and the non-lawyer staff person who walks you around from interview to interview. It is very tempting in an "one-site" interview to save your best performances for the partners you are meeting, and "relax" a bit more when talking to the associates. I believe this is a tragic mistake. The associates who sit on the firm's Legal Personnel Committee are a special breed; usually they are hand-picked by the partners on the Committee, who are often among the most powerful partners in the firm. Indeed, one of the best ways to identify the up-and-coming associates in a large law firm is to see which ones are named to sit on the Legal Personnel Committee; some of them may indeed think they are already partners. This tells you right away that their primary loyalty is not to you, the candidate.

While they will sit in on the Committee meeting that determines whether or not you will be made a job offer, and may well have a vote, you can bet that their favorable opinions of you will not be as important to your future as those of the partners on the Committee. They do, however, serve a very important function: to obtain information about you that would not come out in a partner-level interview, where you supposedly are on your "best behavior". Sometimes they will go out of their way to get you to "relax" and reveal information that will tell the partners you really are not "one of them". Watch out especially if you are taken to lunch by a group of associates with no partners present; being away from the office may tempt you to "tell tales out of school". Be assured these associates are smart enough never to do that. There is a strong temptation either to talk to her who takes you from one interviewer to another as if she is unimportant (because she is a non-lawyer), or to "open up" when talking to her in the mistaken belief that the lawyers on the Committee don't listen to her. This latter temptation is especially great, because you're much more likely to let your guard down while walking through the hallways than when sitting in someone's office.

The non-lawyer is quite likely to sit in on the Committee's evaluation meeting, and if her view of you is markedly different from the lawyers' view, she will be listened to. In some firms, she may be charged with the task of determining how you will interact with the firm's non-lawyer staff (secretaries, messengers, librarians and so forth); if she perceives that you are likely to be cruel to staff people (because you treated her as if she didn't exist) or act improperly toward them (because you tried to pick her up), it may be the kiss of death to your candidacy at that firm.

Up to now we have been talking about firms that follow a two-step approach in interviewing law students -- an "on campus" interview followed by a series of "one-site" interviews.

Of course, the law firms who choose to follow this route tend to be the biggest and most prestigious, with the resources to fly their lawyers around the country interviewing on law school campuses, fly candidates from distant locations to interview at the firm, and pay the candidates' hotel bills. They constitute only a very small percentage of the total number of legal employers, and they certainly have no monopoly on good quality legal work.

Most law students, in fact, will not find their first jobs in this fashion. Rather, they will identify one or more geographic locations in which they want to work, and focus their attention on the small to medium sized law firms in each location. They will send to each firm a copy of their resume and a short cover letter, stating that "I plan to be in your city the week of XXX, and will call you in the next few days to see if you would have some time to meet with me during my stay." They then will schedule a block of interviews in their target location, and will usually pay their own airfare and hotel bills (most often, since the target location is the place where they grew up, they will stay with their parents or other relatives). Thus there will be no "on campus" interview.

Generally, a small to medium sized firm that is approached in this fashion will be less concerned about the candidate's credentials, although this cannot be presumed in all cases. If you look through the Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory and its description of the small to medium sized firms in a particular area, you will note that the vast majority of lawyers in those firms graduated from law schools in that area. If you are graduating from a law school outside of that area (unless of course it is one of the prestigious, highly visible national law schools), your credentials may have to be as good as if you are interviewing at a large law firm.

What will be more important to a small to medium sized firm are (1) the candidate's commitment to work in that geographical location, (2) the candidate's commitment to doing the particular type of work that that firm does (unlike a large law firm, the smaller law firm cannot usually give the candidate a choice of work; if the firm does mostly wills and divorces, you will have to enjoy doing wills and divorces), and (3) the candidate's potential for keeping the firm's existing clients satisfied and bringing in new clients (unlike a large law firm, there usually will be no room for the candidate to make partner unless he builds a client base of his own).

This does not mean that questions of "fit" are irrelevant in the smaller firm environment. Far from it! A small to medium sized law firm is like a family; the partners and associates tend to be more supportive of each other, just as in a family, but just like a family there can be a certain tendency to "smother" the individual, and there will usually be a strong sense of firm identity. Both you and the firm will be extremely unhappy if you are not totally committed to the "family business". As one partner of a very small firm once explained to me, "in a place like this it's very important that people see you are on the bus, going the same place that we are; if people have to worry about whether or not you're on the bus, that's going to be a big problem." Ironically, this is not as much a concern in the larger law firm where there is an expectation that many if not most of the young associates hired each year will eventually leave for greener pastures. The question of "fit" is, however, looked at differently in the smaller firm. In the large firm, the question is "does the candidate fit the firm's image" or "does he look right?" In a smaller firm, the question is more likely to be phrased "does the candidate have what it takes to be a productive member of the family" or "is he going to be able to hack it for the long term?"

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