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Legal Job Interview: How Not to Conduct It

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You have now passed the preliminary hurdles in interviewing process. You have researched the employer and the interviewer(s), you have a long list of questions which you have carefully memorized, and you have done something (such as answering an advertisement, contacting a headhunter, or signing up in your law school placement office) that has made the employer want to interview you for a position. You are now on your way to the interviewer's office, or one of the airless cubicles in your law school placement office (why is it that so many placement offices are located in the law school basement?), where the interview is going to take place.

Legal Job Interview: How Not to Conduct It




What should be going through your mind as you walk in the door? How should you conduct yourself during the interview? What should you do with your hands? Your feet? Should you look the interviewer in the eye or at a point three inches above his head? How much talking should you do? How much talking should the interviewer do? What is the best way to close the interview? Do you have to send a thank-you note afterwards?

To combine all of these questions in a single question: How do you put my best foot forward and maximize the chances of making a positive impression on this fellow human being whom fate has thrown into the same room with me for a few brief but precious minutes? This article helps you answer this most important of all interviewing questions. Before we begin our dissection, it may be wise to take a quick and humorous look at how not to interview for a legal position. A friend of mine tells this story, and it is one of my personal favorites:

I was not one of the brightest in my law school class, but I wasn't one of the dumbest either! I was interviewing for a summer clerkship with a large law firm, so of course I knew I was up against some tough competition. Some of those guys can be pretty condescending too, especially if your law school is not Harvard or Yale. But I never knew the meaning of condescension until I interviewed one day with a lawyer from a prominent firm from a medium-size city in the Midwest (to avoid any libel of an otherwise excellent firm and a very livable city, I am calling it "Midwest City ").

I had signed up to interview with the Midwest City firm out of curiosity more than anything else. It was the only Midwest City firm that interviewed at my law school that year, I had some distant relatives who lived in Midwest City, and frankly I was dating someone who was originally from that area. I just wanted to find out if firms in the Midwest were any more laid back than firms in the Northeast, with the thought that if I liked these guys enough I might be willing to split my summer; I noted that I was one of only three people who had signed up to interview for the firm, none of them Law Review or top ten percent, so I thought my chances for a "call back" were pretty good.

Offensive Questions

The interviewer from the Midwest City firm was one of the senior partners: a tougher, more ornery looking bird I have never seen before or since. He glared at me when I walked into the interview room, perused my resume briefly, let it drop to the floor, and then sat back, crossed his arms, and began to interrogate me with some of the most pointed, offensive questions I have ever been asked in an interview setting. If my grades were so good in college, how come I did not go to Harvard? Why had I done so poorly in Contracts first semester? Why was not a member of the Order of the Coif (a national honor society for law students; to be a member one must be in the top ten percent of one's class)? Why had not I been selected for Law Review? Why wasn't I looking at less prestigious firms, since it was clear I didn't have what it took to be seriously considered by a firm like his? Why was I talking to a firm from Midwest City when it was clear I hadn't any prior connection to the city?

After a few minutes I began to get angry; I held back at first, because I thought this was the "adversary interview" that all of the books on interviewing talk about, and I wanted to demonstrate that I was tough and could defend a difficult case (this particular partner, I found out later, was one of the top trial lawyers at his firm, and so was probably pretty accustomed to cross-examination). Perhaps he was trying to "test" me to see if I could handle a difficult situation.

But with each passing minute it became more and more clear that he was not playing an interviewing game with me: he was sincerely offended that someone with my less-than-stellar credentials had applied to interview with his firm, he quite clearly believed that someone like me should not even be considering a career in law, and he wanted to do everything in his power to put me down and punish me for my boldness. Finally, after what seemed like a hailstorm of fire and brim-stone, in the form of one "negative" question after another, he interrupted my answer in midstream, threw his notepad down on the floor (he had not taken a single note that I saw), folded his arms, turned away from me, and said "okay, I've heard all I need to know. Now, what do you want to know about the firm?"

At this point I was too mad to speak. I was as close to physically assaulting someone as I ever hope to get in my life. I decided that I was not going to blow up and give him the satisfaction of knowing that his judgment about me was correct. But I wasn't going to let him get away with his rude behavior either. Knowing that nothing I could do would interest him in me (and having decided that I would not work in his firm if they paid the highest starting salary in the United States), I calmly pulled out a small notepad and pen from my jacket pocket, poised myself to jot down notes, and asked the partner "tell me, Mr. So-and-So, I see from Martindale-Hubbell that you went to Harvard Law School. Tell me, what was your rank in class? "

The partner almost fell out of his chair. He turned to face me, stunned, and asked in bold disbelief, "why is that of any importance to you?" I said "Well, to be honest yours is the first firm outside the Northeast I've interviewed with. I'm looking primarily at firms in the Northeast, because everyone knows the quality of practice there is so much better than it is anywhere else, if not necessarily the quality of life. I'm curious to find out how much of a tradeoff in quality in practice I'll have to make if I settle for your firm. "The partner began to turn red, and sputtered "I'll have you know, I was in the top quarter of my class at Harvard." "Thank you," I said, and jotted the information down on my pad, asking as I wrote "and were you a member of the Harvard Law Review?" His eyes widened as if I had pulled a knife on him. "No, I wasn't, but I was editor of one of the other journals there; you could have known that had you read Martindale-Hubbell" "I know, sir, but then I also knew that you were not Order of the Coif so you could not have been in the top ten percent of your class either," I said.

"Now tell me," I continued, "did you go directly to your present law firm? Or was there a stop in between? Did you start somewhere else? "The partner could not believe his ears; he was clearly amazed, but instead he sat back in his chair, squirming at the taste of his own medicine, and said "No; I went directly to this firm." "Did you look at law firms elsewhere?" "No, I did not." "Why did not you? You are not a native of Midwest City, and you didn't go to college there." (I knew this from Martindale-Hubbell). "I don't think I have to answer that."

A Piece of Advice

Now I had him. I threw my notepad down on the floor, directly on top of his, took off my glasses very slowly, looked him straight in the eye, and said, "Mr. So-and-So, there's a lot here that just does not fit. If you were in the top quarter of your class at Harvard, a journal editor to boot, you could have gone anywhere in the country to practice law. What the Devil are you doing in Midwest City? "The partner turned beet red, and his hands started clutching the armrests on his chair as if he were holding himself back. I sat back in my chair and said, "I don't see any point in continuing this discussion; you see, I care as much as you do about working with quality lawyers. And in treating me the way you have in the past few minutes you have just turned off the best summer clerk you are ever going to get from this law school this year because only three students signed up to interview with your firm, and I'm the best of them. Anybody who is better - in your definition of better -- wouldn't be caught dead talking to a firm from Midwest City when they know they can work for a firm from New York, or Washington D. C, or San Francisco. I can think of only two reasons that might explain your decision to practice law in Midwest City: either you were dating someone from there, which as it so happens I am right now, or you just could not get into anyplace better. Next time, before you tear into someone, try to remember that beggars can't be choosers."

Fair Play

I did not give him the chance to respond; by this point he was furious, quaking with anger, and was trying to keep from becoming physically violent, much as I had earlier in the interview. I picked up my pad, turned my back on this loser, and stormed out. I didn't have too much of a chance to gloat about my "turnabout is fair play" treatment of the interviewer, though. For there, waiting to interview with that same monster, was one of my best friends in law school, who happened to hail from Midwest City. This interview obviously meant a great deal to him, and I felt lousy the rest of the day knowing that I had set him up for one of the worst experiences of his life (although, frankly, I don 't have any assurance that the interviewer would have treated him any differently). When I saw my friend later that evening, he said "What did you say to that guy? I couldn't get a word out of him the first couple of minutes; I thought he was going to have a stroke!"

I am sure many of you had a twinge of satisfaction in reading my friend's account of a particularly nasty interview. There are two morals, however, to this story, neither of them favorable to my friend. While many lawyers are fine examples of humanity, the legal profession like any other has its share of jerks, bastards and other difficult people. To learn to survive in a legal job environment means learning to deal with all kinds of personality types, egos and political styles. What is more important, though, is the effect that my friend's conduct had on the entire interviewing process: by his own admission, he hurt one of his best friends in law school without intending to. Even more serious, he may have poisoned his law school's reputation with that law firm; if I were that interviewer, with the titanic ego he had, I would have recommended to my Legal Personnel Committee that we write that law school off for good. If the law school's Placement Director (or Dean) heard about my friend's conduct from the interviewer or from other alumni/ae who were working at that firm, I think my friend's reputation would have been in jeopardy, and he may have been cut out of the interviewing program (these sorts of things routinely happen, although they did not happen to my friend).

One thing I have learned in my years of practicing law: no matter how large the profession may seem (just look at the size of those Martindale-Hubbell volumes, after all), you are constantly bumping into people you've worked with, people you've interviewed with, people you went to law school with, people you negotiated or litigated against, over and over again. You cannot afford to alienate anyone you encounter in your practice, even if it makes you feel good at the time. Perhaps this explains why some of the most successful lawyers alive today have the blandest and most colorless of personalities: they don't light any fires, but they don't create any negative impressions either!

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
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 www.LawCrossing.com.

Harvard Law School.

    

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