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Legal Interviews for Career Change

published February 25, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
Published By
( 90 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
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First, let's define some key terms. By a "lateral hire", meaning a job change made after one has been practicing law for a while, in which one is looking for a job in a different legal environment - for example, from a large law firm to a smaller law firm, from a law firm in City A to a law firm in City B, or from a law firm to a corporate legal department or government agency (or vice versa).

Where one is looking to change the focus of one's practice -- from a general corporate practice to bankruptcy work, for example --call it a "career change."

Obviously, one may be looking to make a lateral move and a career change at the same time; I would argue, however, that changing both one's practice and one's legal environment at the same time is an extremely difficult move. Once you have started in practice and developed a track record in one or more legal specialties (no matter how short), you tend to become a "prisoner of your resume"; people looking at your track record will assume that you did something in your life because you enjoyed doing it, and that you want to avoid making radical breaks with your past. Simply put, the longer you stay in the profession, the harder it is to make jagged, radical changes in your career path. You will find, I think, that most people who have made radical changes in their careers have done so only gradually and incrementally: they moved from a larger to a smaller firm first, for example, and then slowly began building up experience in a new and different area of practice as their colleagues gave them "overspill" work to do in that area.

Academic Record

You will most likely find that at this point in your career your experience will count for more than your academic credentials; you are not likely to be grilled about your grade point average, and you should be slightly insulted if your interviewer asks to see a law school transcript after you have been out of school more than a couple of years (if you are looking for another position within your first two to three years of practice, however, your academics may still be important, as you have not had enough time to build up a track record). Your academic record may, however, help support your argument for a career change ("I've enjoyed my two years of corporate work, Ms. Jones, but looking back over my academic record I can't help noticing that my best grades were in procedure-related courses and moot courts; I really loved those courses, and my gut tells me that I would be a better fit in litigation").

One of the questions you are bound to be asked during a job interview will be: "why do you want to make a change at this point?" or "what do you see in us that you don't see in your current employer?" The important point now is that this question has only two possible answers (or some combination of the two): you must be convinced (and be able to convince your interviewer) either that you are better suited to a different type of work that is not done at your current employer (or that is done much better at your prospective new employer), or that your "fit" with another employer will be better than it is at your current employer. The first approach identifies you as a career-changer, the second tells the interviewer you are in a "lateral" situation.

The lawyer-interviewer's concerns with a "lateral hire" or "career change" candidate will often mirror the candidate's own concerns. When looking at such a candidate, the lawyer-interviewer wants to know the answers to three questions: "does this candidate have skills and/or contacts that we need here right now?", "would this candidate fit in better here than with his current employer?" and "is this candidate a threat to my job security?" The answer to the first two questions must be "yes", to the third "no." Let's look at each of these questions in turn.

First, "does this candidate have skills and/or contacts that we need here right now?" When you are interviewing for a position right out of law school, interviewers usually are not too concerned about your chosen field of practice (although they may ask about your interests). They know that you yourself probably don't have a good idea what you want to do; that's why most of the larger law firms have "rotations" in the first couple of years, where you are given the opportunity to sample a variety of legal specialties with (sometimes) some choice over your future direction within the firm. In a smaller law firm, of course, these options do not exist: the interviewer will not ask what you want to do, but will rather tell you what the firm does, and you will have to enjoy doing what the firm does because they don't have any choice over their workload themselves.

Lateral Hiring

It is different when you are in the "lateral hiring" or "career changing" mode. A law firm, corporate legal department or government agency often does not have the time, and cannot afford, to train people in new areas or fields of practice. If they are in the market for a "lateral hire", they usually will want someone who can "hit the ground running" and begin contributing to the bottom line from his first day of employment. The skills that you have learned with your current employer, the substantive areas of law you have mastered, and the types of transactions you can do in your sleep, are the sorts of things the lawyer-interviewer will want to know a great deal about.

Rarely will you have all of the skills needed to survive in a lateral position, but you must have at least some carryover skills for which your prospective new employer has an immediate need. As for the rest (the skills you have not yet learned, the transactions you still must master), you must convince the interviewer that you have had at least some exposure to them and have a proven track record as a "quick study" that will enable you to climb up your learning curve quickly.

In the "career changing" situation, the interviewer will be asking himself the following questions: "what sort of experience has the candidate had that makes him think he's better at corporate work than litigation?", "do we have sufficient corporate work that we can afford to train someone at his level?", "is the candidate more likely to succeed in corporate work than in litigation?", and "is this candidate sufficiently convinced that corporate practice is his true life's work, or will he change his mind later on (and head off somewhere else) after he finds out how dull it is?"

The career-changer will usually find success only in one of two situations: either the employer is so desperate for people in a certain area that it is willing to train the new employee who has only marginal contact with that area of practice, or the employer will insist that the candidate start working in the new area at a reduced salary and a more junior level than the candidate enjoys at his current employer (for example, if you are a fourth-year associate at your current employer, the interviewer may say, "we're interested in bringing on more bankruptcy lawyers, but not at your level; if you want to pursue this change in practice, you will have to consider coming on board as a second-year associate").

Second, the lawyer-interviewer looking at a "lateral hire" or career-changer will want to know, "would this candidate fit in better here than with his current employer?" The question of "fit" is an all-important one in the "lateral hiring" situation, both for the candidate and the lawyer-interviewer. After all, the candidate is seeking to do the same sort of work that he is presently doing, so that alone cannot explain the change. The candidate must convince the lawyer-interviewer that he seeks a higher quality practice, a practice located closer to home, a slightly different focus to his practice (for example, a bankruptcy lawyer who has represented mostly corporations and business entities may want to expand his experience in handling individual bankruptcies), a chance to build his own clientele, practice in a different environment, or some other plausible reason for changing jobs that does not signal a desire to change careers.

The Hard Question

It is not wise for a candidate to try a "lateral move" and a "career change" at the same time. The candidate must wrestle with his conscience and ask the hard question "what is it about my current situation that I really detest?" If the answer comes back, "the work I am doing", the candidate will have a much easier time moving into a similar legal environment where he can do the work he enjoys doing and then, after a couple of years, move into a different legal environment if he so desires. Similarly, if the answer comes back, "the environment I am in" (for example, the candidate hates working the long hours that are requiring in a large law firm), he is better advised to change his environment first and then seek work in areas of practice that are more to his liking (in a smaller law firm, for example, the hours are usually more flexible, and the candidate will have to learn new areas of practice as few small law firms can afford the luxury of specialization).

Finally, the lawyer-interviewer looking at a "lateral hire" or "career change" candidate will ask himself: "will this candidate threaten my job security?" By definition, newly minted lawyers fresh out of law school are not threatening to their superiors: they know nothing, and usually are quite aware that they know nothing, about the practice of law, and are looking to gain experience and "get their feet wet" more than they are looking to climb the career ladder. An overwhelming majority of these new lawyers will leave their jobs within the first five years of practice and move on elsewhere, and the more senior lawyers within the organization know that.

The same cannot be said of the "lateral hire" or the career-changer, who has some idea of what he wants out of his work and wants to be viewed as a contender for success in his chosen field. The lawyer-interviewer will usually occupy a higher rung on the same ladder the candidate wants to climb, and will want to be sure he is not bringing on board the "Young Turk" that will knock him off that ladder.

A candidate who convinces the lawyer-interviewer that he has extremely strong skills in his field and a terrific potential for expanding the employer's client base in a dramatic way, may be doing himself as much harm as good because he will scare the living daylights out of the interviewer (keep in mind that most lawyers are insecure by nature, and constantly question their abilities, their talents and their success; paradoxically, it is this natural insecurity that makes them successful; because of it successful lawyers overlook no detail, however small, and take no risks, however small). After all, the interviewer is the "gatekeeper" that determines who comes into the organization, and who stays out; while his support of a candidate may be subject to some scrutiny by others within the organization, his decision to keep someone out almost certainly will not be questioned ("I just didn't think he would fit in here; much too aggressive", and so forth).

Perfect Candidate

If this sounds unfair to you, you should put yourself for a moment into the interviewer's shoes. If you were insecure about your talents and skills in your current job, and you were worried about being able to hold onto that job over the long term, what thoughts would be going through your mind when interviewing the "perfect" candidate for a job that could well lead to your position in a couple of years (or a few months)? Would you say to yourself, "his credentials are perfect; I will be doing a great service to my career by sponsoring him and giving him a chance to take over my job in a year or so." Of course you wouldn't! You would much rather be talking to someone whom you could "mentor" - someone who knows even less about the field than you do, with a personality that is nonaggressive, self-effacing and unchallenging.

You may be saying to yourself, "Wait a minute, Mr. XXXX ! What you are suggesting is that employers do not seek the best candidates for a position, but often are actually looking mediocrities that won't be a threat to them; how can we compete with the Japanese if we do that?" It is a good question indeed. The Japanese get around this, of course, by the rigid seniority system in most Japanese organizations: if you are an employee of a Japanese corporation, for example, and you are 30 years old, you simply will never be in a position to challenge the authority or leadership of someone in that organization who is 35 or 40 years old. It just isn't done; you are expected to wait your turn; so senior Japanese executives do not worry as much as their American counterparts do about the inadvertent hiring of their replacements.

It is not recommended that we adopt the Japanese management system in this country; it may be merely pointed out that there is good news and bad news in the American style of management. The good news is that you can indeed unseat someone many years your senior if you have the superior talent, aggressiveness, judgment and political survival skills to do so.

This is, by the way, what is known in most organizations as "team player-ship". Very often the people who make it to the top in organizations, or who survive the inevitable downsizings and cutbacks, are people who at first blush are not very impressive. Sometimes they appear to be wimps with little talent, and people will wonder "how did someone like Charlie ever become Vice President?" I suggest to you that these people are in fact quite impressive, and deserving of their success, because they have learned the difficult lessons of political survival better than their "smarter" and "more qualified" competitors.

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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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About LawCrossing

LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit

published February 25, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 90 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.