Asking the Right Questions in Legal Job Interview

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The key to saying as little as possible is to keep the interviewer at a legal job interview talking as much as possible, and the key to doing that is to keep asking questions. But not just any questions; to keep the interviewer talking, and genuinely interested in the one-way discussion, your questions must be the "right" ones.

The "right" question in a legal job interview has three characteristics: (1) it must be pertinent to your twin goals of getting the interviewer on your side and establishing your perfect "fit" for the job; (2) it must not be too direct for fear of turning the interviewer off; and (3) it must put you in the best possible light.

The Question Must Help You Achieve Your Goals

What do we mean when we say the question must be "pertinent to your twin goals of getting the interviewer on your side and establishing your perfect 'fit' for the job?" Simply that: in asking a question you are seeking either to impress the interviewer with the depth of your research or your shared experience, or you are seeking information you can use to show the interviewer how perfect you would be for the job. If a question does not serve either (or both) of these goals, it should not be asked.

You may be intently curious about weather conditions in the city where the interviewer's firm is located, but if you ask "tell me, Mr. So-and-So, what was it doing in XYZ City when you left this morning?", the interviewer cannot help but wonder where you are heading (most lawyers I know do not have much patience with small talk). A better way to satisfy your curiosity is to watch The Weather Channel on cable television, or consult the newspaper "USA Today".

The Question Must Not Be Too Direct

What about the second characteristic of a good interview question - that it not be so direct that it turns the interviewer off? Simply that: while there is certain information about the employer's style and culture you simply must know in order to make an intelligent career decision, there are some things you cannot find out about by asking a direct question. For example, if you were to ask the interviewer "tell me, is your firm a sweatshop?", the interviewer would think you a total clod, (1) because any firm in which he is a partner is definitely not a sweatshop, and (2) because you have just sent him a signal that you are not willing to work hard to learn your profession.

A better way to obtain the information you want, without risking a turnoff , is to ask indirect questions designed to elicit statistical information, such as: "are there any expectations as to the number of hours a first year associate is expected to work at your firm?"; "are you satisfied with the amount of personal time you and your colleagues have at this point in your lives?"; and "are you satisfied with the amount of associate turnover your firm has experienced in the past few years?"

Similarly, you should avoid questions about the firm's weaknesses and "sore points", even if you think you can phrase them in a positive manner. Questions such as "tell me, how is your firm handling that massive legal malpractice judgment that was rendered against you last year?" or "tell me, is it true what I read in last week's Fortune magazine that your company is planning on a major downsizing of staff later this year?" are guaranteed to make the interviewer feel ill at ease and question your judgment in being so direct.

Better ways to handle these questions are to phrase them as follows: "How does your firm handle quality control as a general matter? Is there much close supervision of associates in the early years?" and "What is your company's overall strategy for adding or reducing legal staff this year?"

Note: These phrasings of the same question are more general and value neutral, and give the interviewer more latitude in putting a positive "spin" on the answer. Just be sure to listen to the answers closely, and listen for the "music", not just the words.

The Question Must Make You Look Good

Finally, you must keep in mind that by asking questions you are interested not only in eliciting information from the interviewer; you are trying to impress the interviewer with your intelligence, tact and judgment. If a question does not make you look good, there is no point in asking it.

What sort of questions will make you look good? Generally, there are two kinds: questions that play to the interviewer's "hot buttons" (such as a special interest or current problem - something the interviewer could talk about for hours); and good questions that the other 25 candidates have not thought to ask. An example of the former is "Mr. So-and-So, I see that you chair the state bar association's Blue Sky Law Committee. What do you think of the current proposal in Congress to develop uniform standards for state 'blue sky' laws?" An example of the latter is "Mr. So-and-So, I see that your company is affiliated with a French financial institution with substantial interests in the Middle East; tell me, will your company be involved at all in helping Kuwait get back on its feet again?"

The answers to these questions may, of course, be irrelevant to the position you are applying for; their purpose, however, is to show the interviewer you have done your homework and are thinking about the same sorts of things that keep him awake at night. At the very least, he will know that you don't ask the same questions of every interviewer.

Some Good Interview Questions

The key to asking good questions is to do your research. Ask yourself if each question satisfies all three characteristics of a "good" interview question, and then memorize the question so that you can introduce it naturally and gracefully during the interview. With the understanding that there are no good "form questions" for a legal job interview, here are some good interview questions that I believe fit all three categories. You should feel free (and indeed must)to conform them to your own style of speaking and your own interests.

If I were to start working in this position today, what sorts of projects would I be working on? I find this is a better question than "what sorts of skills are needed for this position?" because it focuses the interviewer on the tasks he needs done right now, and gives you a much more detailed sense of the level of responsibility and client contact you can expect from the position. By asking follow up questions about specific transactions, research projects, or cases, you can get quite a bit of mileage out of this one.

When you think about your practice and where it's going, what sorts of things are you happiest about? Note that this question parallels that favorite of legal job interviewers: "what do you consider your strengths?" or "what is your greatest strength?" By asking this question you have simply turned the table on the interviewer, in what I believe is a fair and nonthreatening way. By getting the interviewer to open up about his own personal feelings about the practice of law in general (and the practice at his current employer), you can learn a great deal about how you will probably feel once you have reached the interviewer's level. You also send a signal to the interviewer, without saying so, that you are seriously considering being someday in his shoes, which any interviewer will find flattering. Note that you should avoid asking the converse of this question ("when you think about your practice and where it's going, what are you most worried about?") because it focuses the interviewer on a negative which will inevitably be transferred to you. A better way to ask this question, if you absolutely must, is "do you have any concerns at the moment about where your practice is going?"

Is There A Specialty You Don't Currently Have In-House That You Would Like To Develop In-House? This question has two purposes. The first is to get a sense of the employer's goals and weaknesses (or perhaps a sense of how their clients' businesses are faring; a sudden interest in bankruptcy work could spell trouble for the employer in the long run), and to learn about that part of the employer's practice that is most likely to experience growth over the next few years. The second purpose is a bit more insidious: you are sending the lawyer interviewer two very positive signals - that you are a market driven attorney who is willing to adapt his skills to his clients' changing needs, and that you are interested in becoming one of the young attorneys who help the employer develop and grow into the desired area of practice. With a little bit of research, you may be able to answer this question yourself before the interview begins, and thus be ready to follow this question up with a brief summary of the work you have done in the desired area.

If you had to narrow it down to one thing, what do you think is the key to success in this position (or, for an entry level position, "the key to success to getting ahead in your organization")? The interviewer's answer to this question will tell you a great deal about the employer's culture and its image of itself. Don't expect to hear the truth, but listen closely anyway; if the interviewer stresses "the ability to get along well with people", you know that politics are very important to getting ahead. If on the other hand the interviewer emphasizes "the ability to work hard and get the job done", you know the place is a sweatshop where there will be little or no time for politics.

These are very general questions, and will need to be supplemented by a lengthy list of job-specific and employer-specific questions that you will generate in the course of your research. Some "generic" questions are listed below, with the warning that rarely if ever should they asked in precisely this form; should you do so you risk appearing "packaged" and this will turn the lawyer interviewer off. You should feel free, however, to tailor these questions to the circumstances of the particular employer and interviewer, as they are designed to elicit extremely important information.

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.

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