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Interviewing Questions & Strategies

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During the course of a legal job interview, you can expect to be asked numerous questions about your background, your experience, and your personal interests, as the interviewer attempts to determine in his own mind whether or not you would be a good "fit" for his organization. Keep in mind that whenever a question is asked, the interviewer really intends to ask another - more difficult, more personal - question that the interviewing rules of etiquette (or his own conscience) prevent him from asking you directly. When framing your answer to an interviewer's question, you must first determine the question you are really being asked, and then answer the question in a way that both (A) responds to the "surface" question and (B) furnishes the information the interviewer is really after.

Let's look at some typical interview questions and see how you might be able to structure your answers. Note that I do not believe in "form answers" for two reasons. First, everyone is different, and a "form answer" that works for many people may not be convincing in your case. Second, it will be only a matter of time before interviewers get around to reading this book, and they will be suspicious if your answer sticks too closely to the suggested format. Sadly, there are no easy ways or shortcuts to answering interview questions; you must develop your own, write them down, and make sure you can deliver the words in a sincere, convincing way.

Accordingly, this article will not furnish you with "firm answers", but rather provide an analysis of the interview question and a structure or outline of the "right" answer that you can then flesh out in your own way. In each case an effort is made to identify the "hidden" question underlying the "surface" question, and illustrate how you can answer both questions with a single answer.

Why Did You Decide To Become A Lawyer?

You can expect this question when interviewing for your first job out of law school, although it may crop up as well when you are looking to make a lateral move or a career change. The question the interviewer really wants to ask here is "did you make this decision consciously, with knowledge of what the legal profession is all about, or did you just follow the crowd or let other people make your career decision for you?" In other words, the interviewer wants to know if you are self-directed or other-directed.

No matter what the truth of the situation, you want to provide an answer that shows you are self-directed, that you did your homework before applying to law school, you know what you have gotten yourself into, and you can live with the legal profession's shortcomings. Do not under any circumstances say, "my father (or mother) is a lawyer" or "I didn't know what else to do with myself, and the law opens up so many different career paths" or "I was attracted by the money and the power," even if these are truthful answers in your case. Similarly, your answer should not be framed as a variation on the theme "I wanted to help other people," as there are many other professions in which that can be done.

Your answer should send the interviewer a strong signal that you wanted to become a lawyer: that you were attracted by the intellectual stimulation which a legal career affords; that you knew a lot of lawyers growing up and were fascinated by their stories of what they did day-to-day; that you did a report in grade school on a famous legal case that turned you on for life. Your answer should not sound contrived or "hokey", but it will go over well if you can give your answer a personal twist.

An answer to this question goes something like this: "Well, Mr. So-and-So, when I was in college I knew I wanted a profession that would give me intellectual stimulation, but I couldn't see myself as a college professor; that was too abstract for me. What I love about the law is that it is a very cerebral and scholarly profession, and yet my actions and decisions are having an impact in the real world. I took a couple of Legal Studies courses in college, and that cemented my decision that this is what I wanted to do with my life."

What Sorts of Courses Have You Enjoyed the Most in Law School!

Again, you can expect this question more when you are interviewing for your first legal job. The question the interviewer really wants to ask is "what area(s) of practice are you interested in, and will we be able to accommodate your preference(s)?" You should not answer that you enjoyed courses in an area that is alien to the employer's practice. For example, if your passion is bankruptcy work, you should not bring this up when you are interviewing with a firm that does no bankruptcy work (although you should ask yourself why you are interviewing with such a firm in the first place? Methinks you have not done the homework Chapter 3 told you must do before a legal job interview).

Your research and homework before the interview will give you some idea of the firm's strongest practices, and which ones have the strongest potential for long-term growth. These areas should form the backbone of your answer. If in fact you have not taken any courses in these areas (because, let's say, they are third year courses and you are interviewing for a second year summer clerkship), you should say so, thus: "Well, the course I'm looking most forward to is antitrust, but I held off taking it until the third year because the prerequisites for that course are all second year courses and I wanted to get these done first."

In your legal career you will have to make a decision fairly early on about whether you will become a litigator (either at the trial or appellate level) handling cases or a legal counselor (such as a corporate lawyer or a "trusts and estates" specialist) whose practice consists mostly of office work. If you are not careful this decision will be made for you when you are assigned to your first department within the firm. If you are not sure which approach will give you long term career satisfaction, your answer should signal your desire to experience both types of practice at the earliest possible time, so that you can make an informed decision as early as possible.

Why Are You Looking To Join a [Big Firm] [Small Firm] [Corporation] Now

This question can be asked in almost any interview setting. Your answer must be carefully crafted, because the question the interviewer wants to ask is "do you know enough about the different legal environments that I can count on your having a long-term commitment to my employer?" Interviewers have a general distaste for job hoppers, but they really dislike people who demonstrate that they have not "found themselves" professionally. Your answer must show some research, and should persuade the interviewer that your career horizons are long term.

What is more, if you are changing jobs, you must be able to demonstrate why a different environment would be a better "fit" than your present one. Your answer to this question must fit perfectly with your answer to the question "why do you want to make a change at this point?", which is discussed below.

Your answer to this question will depend on the type of move you are trying to make. If you are looking to switch from a law firm environment to a corporation, for example, you will have to stress a desire to get closer to the business side of things (there are many who think that in-house corporation lawyers do not really practice law at all but are pseudo-business people) and represent one client instead of many.

If you are looking to switch from a corporation to a law firm, your emphasis will be just the opposite: you want to be "more of a lawyer," develop expertise in a particular area of practice, and represent a variety of clients instead of just one.

If your move is from a large law firm to a smaller one, you want to stress the desire to work on a variety of matters instead of just a few specialized transactions, and to work on an entire (albeit much smaller) matter from beginning to end rather than working on a very small piece of a very large matter. Your expression of a desire to "get closer to the clients, and be more of a full-service counselor to them" may also be helpful.

If you are looking to move from a small large firm to a larger one, you will emphasize your desire to work on a higher quality of matter, become an expert in your field, experience a greater intellectual challenge, and deal with more sophisticated clients. If you can say it honestly, and if the firm has the reputation for being one of the best in your chosen field, you can say something like "frankly, I won't consider myself a successful bankruptcy lawyer until I am working at your firm, because you are the best in the business, and I want to be known as one of the best bankruptcy lawyers around."

If you are interviewing for your first legal job, you can avail yourself of any of the above strategies for answering this question. Interviewers will be most interested in your commitment to a particular geographic area (discussed below), will be somewhat less concerned about your desired area of practice (most large firms will allow you to rotate among several departments in your first few years in practice, and most smaller firms and corporations have a more generalized practice anyway where specialization will be discouraged), and will think it premature for you to be worried about being an "expert" versus being "closer to the business side of things."

Why Do You Want To Make A Change At This Point In Your Career?

This question is certain to be asked in a lateral hiring or career changing situation; the interviewer looking at entry level job candidates will fully understand why you want to get out of law school and start making some money! Note that this question is the flip side of "what are you looking for in a [small firm] [large firm] [corporation]?" In that case you are being asked to identify the things that interest you in a different environment. In this case you are being asked to identify what you think is wrong about your current environment.

You have to handle this one very carefully; this is a question that should never be answered too honestly or candidly. It's a funny thing about human nature, but when you knock your current employer you end up knocking yourself much worse in the interviewer's eyes. Nobody (and I mean nobody) likes a whiner or a complainer; every job has its bad days and its negative aspects, and the position for which you are applying is no different.

One of the worst things you can do in a legal job interview is to cite as a negative aspect of your current situation something that the interviewer thinks pertains equally well to the position you are applying for! Your reason for leaving your current employer must be stated in positive terms: it is not so much that your "fit" with your current employer is not so good, but rather that you see the opportunity for a much better "fit" with the interviewer's employer. How to convince an interviewer that this in fact so? In particular, how do you do this when in fact you have been fired from your previous employer and are currently unemployed?

First, you should never admit that you are "between jobs." Before leaving the employer that fired you, you should get your former boss to agree that when discussing you with your prospective new employer, the former boss will use a "termination story" showing either that you left of your own accord (even though this is not strictly speaking true) or that you were let go because of circumstances beyond the control of either you or your former boss. Usually, this "termination story" will say either that you left of your own free will to pursue new opportunities with the old employer's blessing, because of your mutual perception of a less than perfect "fit" with that employer, or that your position was slated for elimination at some point in time (that has not been reached yet -always keep moving it out into the future so that it appears you are still employed) and you expressed a desire to "take a look around and see what the market is like right now."

Most bosses will agree to this. Why, you may ask? Because it helps them avoid lawsuits from terminated employees if they "play ball" to a certain extent. Besides, in a termination situation it is always best for both sides not to burn their bridges behind them. The legal profession is an incestuous one, and no matter how hard you try to avoid brushing up against people you knew professionally in the past, you will be constantly bumping into them - when working on transactions, when sitting on bar association committees, at social functions, and so forth. Who knows? In your next job you may become the world's leading expert in a narrow area of specialization that takes off and becomes the hottest thing. Your old firm may have to refer business to you! In law as in life, excellence is always the best revenge.

Once you have gotten your former boss to agree on the "termination story", you are in a much better position to answer the question "why are you changing jobs right now?". You simply repeat the story that you and your former boss have agreed on.

Let's say you have not been terminated but are simply "looking around" for a better opportunity. If you are looking at a different legal environment, your answer will track exactly your answer to the question "why are you looking for a [small firm] [large firm] [corporation]?" which is discussed above. There is nothing more and nothing less. If you are looking to move to a similar environment in a different geographic location, your answer will track exactly your answer to the question "why do you want to come to [name of city or town]?" which is discussed below. There is nothing more and nothing less. In either case, your answer is framed in terms of what YOU want to do, because of a decision YOU have made.

What if you are looking to move to a similar environment in the same geographic location? In other words, what if you are considering a move to a competing firm or corporation (I take the view, which some may dispute, that all law firms of a similar size in the same city are competitors)? Your answer to this question will have to include a paean to the superior practice or opportunity for professional development that is available at the new employer, which does not simultaneously knock down your current employer. You may want to say something like "after working on a variety of matters at Firm P, I have come to the conclusion that I want to make bankruptcy practice my life's work; while Firm P has a pretty good bankruptcy practice, as everyone knows, I think the opportunities for bankruptcy lawyers at your firm is much greater, because you are recognized as practicing bankruptcy law at a much higher level than just about anyone in this city."

In all of these situations, you must accentuate the positive, and eliminate the negative. What you have is good (or at least you are not unhappy with what you have); what you want is better.

Note that in none of these situations do you give the desire for a "lifestyle change" as an answer to the question "why do you want to change jobs?" You never, ever, ever want to appear burned out in front of a legal job interviewer. Lawyering is hard work, no matter where you practice, no matter what type of law you practice, no matter what your legal environment. The hours are long, and unpredictable.

By stressing the need for a "lifestyle change" you are in effect answering the question as follows: "I have tried my best to keep up with the demanding pace in my current position, but I just can't do it. I want to slow down, take things easier, have more time for myself, and develop at my own pace." While this may be a totally sincere answer, the interviewer cannot help but think that what you really want is an "early retirement" or a part-time law practice that will provide the financial security necessary for you to do other things that you find more interesting and challenging. Neither interpretation of your answer will help your cause. You must always appear to the interviewer to be a bright, hard working, go getter, even if you and he would agree (in a perfect world) that the pace of work at his firm is indeed much slower than it is at your current employer.

The one possible exception (note I say "possible") to the rule that "lifestyle change" is never to be given as an answer to this question is where you are a new parent who feels he must adjust his work schedule to perform his child care duties. There is a growing awareness of the need for "flex-time" in such situations, and some employers (not nearly all, nor even a majority) have begun to create "mommy tracks" that enable new parents (almost exclusively mothers ~ there is a certain amount of sexism in the application of "mommy tracks", and for the time being I would advise against a male requesting such a thing) to reduce their workload during their children's early years while still being taken seriously as a candidate for advancement and professional development.

I would argue, however, that even in such a situation, where your current employer is not as sensitive to this issue as your prospective new employer would be, you should stress your commitment to the profession and your desire to practice in a different environment that will be a better "fit" for you. Your status as a new parent can be communicated in other ways, and the message will be received without your having to make it obvious.

Why Do You Want To Come To [Name Of City Or Town]?

If you are looking to move to a different geographic area, you will have to explain your reason for moving. You do not want to say that you are following a "trailing spouse," even if this is the case (what if the spouse gets transferred again in a couple of years? Remember that lawyers are looking for long term commitment). Nor do you want to say that you want to be closer to a girlfriend or boyfriend (there is no guarantee, after all, that your relationship will be stronger once you are closer together, and besides, giving this as a reason sends a signal to the prospective employer that you value your personal life over your career).

The best reasons for a geographic change, assuming they have some basis in reality, are (1) a desire to return to the area where you grew up or went to college, after having practiced in a distant location for several years, and (2) a desire to practice in a location that is world famous for a particular legal specialty that you want to make your own (a specialist in insurance law, for example, would be silly not to consider a stint in New York City or Hartford, Connecticut, where most of the large American insurance companies are based).

In the former case, you are signaling to the interviewer that your "roots" are strong, and that you are unlikely to move from the area once you have settled back in. In the latter case, you are demonstrating a strong commitment to a specialty that is unlikely to move away from that area for a very long time; by moving away from that area you would be sacrificing much in the quality of your practice.

What Will Your Current Boss Say When We Ask For A Reference?

Until you started interviewing, you probably never realized that you would be asked to read someone else's mind. Usually when an employer offers you a job, it is conditioned upon a satisfactory reference from your current boss. Because of the fear of litigation, most employers are trained never to say bad things about an employee during a reference check. But you can never be sure your boss will know precisely the story you have told your prospective new employer. This is why it is best, in a termination situation, for you and your employer to sit down and review your "termination story" together as early as possible in the process, so that you both can get it straight later on (sometimes it is wise to commit the "story" to writing, and make sure you fax a copy to your current or former boss well in advance of a reference check so that he can be prepared).

Even where you have not been terminated but have simply accepted a position elsewhere, before you allow your new employer to call your current one you should sit down with your current boss, announce your intentions (only after you have gotten an offer, of course) and make sure you both get the "story" straight.

The interviewer who asks this question is looking for you to say something negative about your current boss (which would be a truly stupid thing to do), or to give an assessment of yourself that will prove to be different than what he hears when he calls your current boss for a reference. One way to defuse this question in a harmless way (at least, in a situation where you have not yet had a chance to prepare your current boss for the reference check) is to say something like "well, I hope he would say that I was a diligent, hard working, thorough and intelligent lawyer, because that's what he has always told me to date." That way, if your boss is foolish enough to say something less enthusiastic about you, it is your word against your boss' word. The interviewer still may choose to take your boss' word over yours, but at least you have not lied outright.

A word about reference checks

Many interview books place a lot of emphasis on these, and would lead you to believe that a prospective employer would turn you down, even after making you an offer, if your current boss' reference is anything less than an unqualified rave. In practice, however, it is very hard to tell if someone gives a less than enthusiastic reference because (1) he is genuinely unimpressed by the individual who has worked for him, or (2) he is genuinely upset that such a highly qualified individual is leaving him for employment elsewhere, and that he will have to begin the tedious process of replacing him. No interviewer will take the chance that his interpretation of the boss' reference is wrong, thereby saddling him with a possible lawsuit.

Accordingly, when answering this question it is always helpful if you can throw in a comment to the effect that "I suspect my current boss will be extremely upset to hear that I am leaving; we've always been so close, and he has been a terrific mentor to me." This will effectively defuse the question, as the interviewer will now have a strong reason to suspect the second interpretation of a less than enthusiastic reference. He will want to believe you, because doing otherwise will either (1) make him doubt his own judgment (a difficult thing for most people) or (2) compel him to back away from his previous commitment to you (which may cause him embarrassment within the organization).

Where Do You Want To Be Five (Or Ten) Years From Now?

When an interviewer asks this question, he wants to know if you consider yourself to have the potential for reaching the top ranks of his organization (possibly knocking him out of contention along the way), and whether your career ambitions are realistic. An incorrect, although possibly sincere, answer to this question would be "I want to be a partner in your firm. Period." Five or ten years is a long time, after all, and people's goals and expectations change over that long a period of time; I think an interviewer would perceive such an answer as immature.

Another incorrect answer would be "Who knows? Five or ten years is a long time; I believe in going with the flow." Everybody has to have some goals in life, after all; I mean, if you don't plan on going anywhere, how do you know which way to go? How do you know that you really want to be a lawyer, if that is how you feel about things? I think an interviewer would perceive this answer as indicating a lack of goal setting ability, ambition and drive. Generally, Type B people (people who are relaxed, calm, and take each day as it comes) tend not to do well in legal environments, where Type A personalities (intense, driven, inclined to push themselves and those around them as hard as they can) tend to succeed in the long run.

In answering this question you should appear to be ambitious but realistic. A useful strategy for answering this question is to cast it in the form of "I want to be working in an environment that will make me happy" with the clarification that at least right now you think the interviewer's employer is such an environment. For example, you might want to say something like "I want to be practicing in an environment where I am constantly stimulated and challenged by the quality of the work (this, you can guess by now, is directed at the large firm), and where I can be a recognized expert in my chosen field of bankruptcy law; as your firm is recognized nationwide for the quality of its bankruptcy work, I would hope you would still want me around after all that time, and I think it's an environment that would make me very happy." Note that you have not said you want to be a partner; you have merely said that you want to be there still, doing the work you love. That's the kind of answer lawyer-interviewers like: one that demonstrates your long-term commitment to a line of work, but one that does not require a reciprocal commitment from the employer.

Keep in mind that your answer to this question must be tailored to the legal environment for which you are interviewing. The answer as suggested above would not work with a smaller law firm, a government agency or a corporate legal department.

Do You Have Any Hobbies Or Outside Interests?

Beware! This question is a trap! In asking this question, the interviewer wants you to relax and tell him about all the things you love to do outside your work that you will no longer have any time to do once you start practicing law! I think this is probably the most dangerous "screening out" question an interviewer can ask, and you should approach it with kid gloves.

Above all, do not view this question as signaling the interviewer's sincere interest in your personal life. What he wants to hear is that you are just as much of a dull stick as he is, and therefore a perfect "fit" for his employer. The correct answer will signal two things to the interviewer: (1) that you really don't have many interests outside of your work; and (2) the few interests you have will help make you a better lawyer. You might, for example, want to say something like "well, most of my time is tied up with work, and my family obligations take up most of the rest of my time. I do, however, love to read, and I play golf whenever I can." This tells the interviewer you will have few distractions from your work life, and the few distractions you will have are things of which he can approve. A good golf game will help you cement relationships with clients, and your work will involve more than a little bit of reading - just don't admit to reading fiction, as a healthy imagination is not always considered a positive attribute in a good lawyer. If the interviewer asks you what you like to read, say "history" or "biography" or something else that shows your serious, logical, non-frivolous side.

How Would You Describe Your Strengths?

I have to believe that this question, and its companion "how would you describe your weaknesses?"are asked during ninety-nine percent of surveys conducted in the United States this year. You are virtually certain to be asked these two questions, so there is absolutely no excuse for you not to have an answer prepared in advance. One of the surest ways to screen yourself out in a legal job interview is to signal to your interviewer that these questions are coming as a surprise to you.

When the interviewer asks this question, he is looking to hear about things (1) that directly relate to the practice of law in his particular environment and (2) that he can use to sell you to his colleagues on the legal personnel committee, or to the other lawyers in the corporate legal department. An inappropriate answer would be "well, I once chugged fifteen consecutive cans of beer during a fraternity house party in college, so I guess you could say I hold my liquor well." While this may satisfy the interviewer's second criteria, it does not help him with the first.

A better answer can be structured something like this: "I love the intellectual challenge of the law, for the same reason I think I have always loved puzzles, games and mysteries of all kinds. I get so absorbed when I'm working on a problem that I totally lose track of time and cannot rest until I am comfortable I have the solution. I also have extremely strong people skills, and can get along with just about anybody. But most importantly, I know that [even though I have been doing this for a few years now] there is still a lot to learn, and probably always will be; I am not the sort of person ever to take my knowledge for granted." This tells the interviewer that you are detail oriented, are willing to do the work involved in finding a solution (note that I did not say "I cannot rest until I am comfortable I have found the answer"; finding the answer may be only the first step in solving a client's problem), and will not turn people (especially clients) off with your personality or bad habits. Finally, you have signaled your maturity (the law is always changing, and it is impossible to know everything there is about any area of practice) and humility in considering yourself a perpetual student of the law, one who does not "shoot from the hip" because he thinks he knows it all.

What Do You Consider To Be Your Most Serious Weaknesses?

While this is probably the most dreaded question in any job interview, it is surprisingly easy to answer. When the interviewer asks this question, he hopes you will be naive enough actually to volunteer that you have weaknesses! This is probably the only interview question in which the "surface" question and the "real" question are one and the same, and the only one you can take at face value. Yet, it would not be the right answer to say, "Well, I've given this a lot of thought, and I really can't think of any." Everybody has weaknesses; a failure to admit that is a sign of immaturity. How to answer this question without volunteering any weaknesses?

The key in answering this question is that what constitutes a "weakness" is simply a matter of perception. What you consider a personal weakness others may perceive as your strongest attribute. All you need to do when answering this question is to avoid mentioning anything that the interviewer perceives as a weakness, and use as the reason for screening you out. To put it differently, to answer this question correctly you must list one or two traits (never any more than that) that the interviewer is highly likely to regard as strengths, regardless of whether you actually view them as weaknesses.

You might, for example, want to say something like "well, a lot of people think I have an unbalanced life because I spend so much time on my work, and there are times I wish I could develop some more outside interests, but I take my work very seriously so that's awfully hard for me to do. As for other weaknesses, I guess you could say that I'm an impatient sort of person; I push myself very hard, and I sometimes get a little concerned when things aren't happening and there isn't much to do - I have to be busy or else I'm not happy."

Tell me, what weaknesses have you demonstrated by this answer. Only that you are a hard charging workaholic with few outside interests and a desire to get things done. Guess what? As a successful lawyer, your interviewer shares these very weaknesses--they are the very things (being intensely focused, having few distractions from the outside world, pushing himself hard to meet client deadlines and get the results the client wants) that have made him successful. There is no way he will view these attributes as weaknesses, so you have accomplished your task.

Of course, you must be able to say this sincerely and with feeling. Your acting ability counts for much here; if your interviewer thinks you are merely spewing out an answer you read in an interview book somewhere, it is all over for you. There are some interviewers, however, who actually look for this answer as a sign that you know what's going on in the world: I once had an interviewer tell me, "you know, Mr. Ennico, everybody gives that answer; and you know what? It's the only right answer to that question! Any other answer and you would blow yourself out of the water. You pass the 'stupid question' test; now let's get down to business.

Here's A Situation I'm Working on Right Now in the Office

What Would You Do If You Were In My Shoes? This is probably the most stressful question you can be asked during a legal job interview; the interviewer appears at first blush to seek proof of your technical competence. Actually, in most cases where the interviewer is not himself seeking free legal advice, he has a much different agenda. What is really wants to know is either (1) how you go about analyzing a difficult situation when it is first presented to you, much as a client would present it to you, or (2) how you handle a tough question when you know (and the interviewer knows) that you don't have the correct answer on the tip of your tongue. Will you bluff your way through and risk turning off the interviewer (or the client)? Will you take an "educated guess" and risk a malpractice lawsuit? Will you admit you don't know the answer and risk losing the client's confidence and trust? This question is full of potential landmines.

There is no one way to handle this type of question, but unless it is a situation you have encountered before and you know the answer right off (in which case you should not hesitate to demonstrate your expertise), the better approach is not to answer the question at all but show how you would go about finding the answer in a way that demonstrates you are thorough, cautious and not inclined to "shoot from the hip" under pressure.

I would begin by listening carefully to the facts given by the interviewer, and asking a couple of clarifying questions before putting together an answer. This shows your ability to focus on the important points -- the "operative facts" in the interviewer's hypothetical situation - and screen out the irrelevant details, while also demonstrating to the interviewer that you do not rush to decisions.

If you are interviewing for your first job out of law school, and you really don't know anything about the area of law that applies to the interviewer's situation, your answer at this point is an easy one: "Mr. So-and-So, I can see that to answer this question thoroughly requires a knowledge of XXXX law, which is a course I have not yet taken, although I intend to [or "which we glossed over in my first year property course, and which I remember in a general way only"]. I would obviously not want to shoot from the hip, and would want to familiarize myself thoroughly with this area of the law, or seek help from other lawyers in the firm who specialize in that area, before attempting a definitive answer, certainly before giving the client advice on which he is going to rely."

If, however, you are applying for a lateral position or are seeking a career change, and if you have held yourself out as having some experience or expertise in the law relevant to the interviewer's question, you will have to take a stab at it. Once you have gotten all of the information you feel you need to attempt an analysis, I would begin by saying "of course, this is not the kind of question that has a 'hornbook' answer. To give a definitive answer, first, I would want to know more about [certain facts that have legal consequences].

Then, I would want to refresh myself on certain fine points of the law in this area, particularly [one or two statutes or leading cases that bear directly on the issues in question]. Finally, I would need to know how the legally correct answer would go over with the client politically; if I had not had any contact with the client directly, I would want to talk to other lawyers in the firm who have. If you put a gun to my head, though, and told me I had to answer on the spot, I would say that the client is taking a serious legal risk in doing what he proposes to do, and I would advise him against taking further action until we could furnish him with a more studied answer." This answer may not be totally satisfying, but it will answer the interviewer's "real" question of how you solve problems; note especially that you took into account not only the need for a correct legal analysis, but also the need to tailor the answer to the client's political situation. This usually will impress a lawyer-interviewer, whose primary job is to keep his clients happy and in compliance with the law, not necessarily to find legally correct answers that nobody can use.


Because this is such an important subject, I think it is useful to review some of the most important points about answering an interviewer's questions during a legal job interview:
  • you must always look for the "hidden" question lurking beneath the "surface" question, and be sure to provide the information the interviewer is really looking for;
  • preparation is everything; in an ideal situation there should be no question which you have not anticipated in advance;
  • you must always tailor the answer to your interviewer's situation; your answers must always demonstrate a "fit" with the legal environment and culture of that particular employer, and must show the interviewer that deep down you are the same sort of person as he is;
  • you never volunteer negative information about yourself;
  • you never indicate that a question has surprised you or caught you unaware;
  • you keep your answer short, concise and to the point;
  • you remain silent after you have given your answer; if an uncomfortable silence ensues, you ask a follow up question or one of your prepared questions;
  • you never relax or let your guard down, especially if the question is a seemingly harmless one about your outside interests;
  • don't fudge an answer; if you don't know, try to buy time to find the right answer or (in the case of a technical legal question) tell the interviewer what you would do and what you would need to know in order to come up with an answer that works.

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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Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

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Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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