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Mastering On-Campus Law Interviews

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At best, the on-campus law interview process is a frenzied time period that former law students recall with about as much fondness as having teeth pulled. Tackling a full course load with days full of twenty- and thirty-minute interviews-- which are often out of your control to schedule--is exhausting, no matter what your mental and physical capacity. But I'm going to give you some advice that should help you find your way through this maze. I've seen too many students make the same mistakes over and over again. I'm going to make sure you don't follow in those footsteps.

Understand the Interview Process at Your School

The on-campus law interview process varies tremendously among schools. Many schools allow prescreening of resumes by employers, while others have instituted some form of lottery system in which the actual selection process is left to chance. There is great debate among law firms and career service professionals as to which system provides employers with the students they want to hire and vice versa, in the most equitable manner. You must work under the rules established at your school, whatever method has been devised. Most schools offer an orientation to the placement office that clearly outlines their rules and regulations. Make sure you attend this program. Some schools have elaborate programs where the number of employers far outweighs the student population, while others struggle to attract even a small number of firms. Too many students make the mistake of not thoroughly understanding how their own school's process works until it's too late. Don't let this happen to you. Associates and recent law school graduates repeatedly tell me that they relied entirely too much on the on-campus recruiting process and their career services office. If you don't possess stellar credentials use the on-campus vehicle, but don't depend on it entirely, or you may find yourself without a summer clerkship in a law firm.

Basic Rules for Successful Interviews

Interviewing is an acquired art. If you have limited interviewing experience, practice until you are blue in the face. Rehearsing your role in an interview can make the difference between getting a callback or being canned. Some placement offices have the resources to videotape mock interviews for their students, and others offer intensive interview training courses. The following are some routine interview guidelines that will help lead you through the process successfully. While some of these suggestions may sound rudimentary or may be construed as common sense, it is surprising how sometimes even the brightest students arrive ill-prepared for interviews.

1. Get plenty of rest. Never underestimate the amount of energy it takes to interview. Get plenty of sleep and eat right in the days leading up to the interview.

2. Look and act the part. Students should present themselves in the best manner possible without making a fashion statement. You should look and act as though you were going to meet an important dignitary for a business lunch. Wear a nice, pressed suit, and make sure your hair is neatly combed. Wear minimal jewelry. Don't leave your manners at home. Use formal names (i.e., "Mr." and "Ms.") until directed otherwise. Don't sit until everyone else in the room has been seated. Sit up straight, look other people straight in the eyes, and be attentive. If you aren't familiar with formal business etiquette, buy an etiquette book and brush up.

3. Leave arrogance at home. Surprisingly, some students come across as arrogant during interviews. Don't assume that just because your credentials are stellar that you'll receive a callback. Many smart, cocky students find themselves with few callbacks because of their attitude.

4. Do your homework. Come prepared with at least a few "non-typical" questions even if you don't have time to ask them.

5. Be courteous. This means thanking the interviewers for their time, waiting patiently if necessary, and standing up to meet others who enter the room. Use surnames unless instructed otherwise. Formality is the norm throughout the interview process unless the interviewers set a different tone.

6. Use your best judgment at all times. If the interviewer is rude or demonstrates unethical conduct during the interview, keep your cool and talk to your placement director immediately following the interview. Let the interview take its normal twenty- or thirty-minute course, and then go through the proper channels to remedy the situation. Just because someone else does not follow the rules doesn't mean that you don't have to.

7. Strategically select interview times. If possible, avoid the first interview slot, the slots immediately before and after lunch, and the last slots of the day. Pick times mid-morning and mid-afternoon, when interviewers tend to be more alert and not looking at their watches, waiting for meal breaks, or wanting to go home. This can make a tremendous difference.

8. Act assertive, not aggressive. Act as though you are confident even if you're not. This begins with your knock at the door when your interview time arrives, even if another student is in the room. Shake hands firmly with the interviewer, then introduce yourself, and sit down once the interviewer is seated.

9. Bring your resume with you. Always bring a few copies of your resume to the interview just in case the interviewer left it at home or didn't receive one from the placement office. If you have a current transcript, bring that as well.

10. Maintain eye contact with the interviewer. Interviewers hate it when students fail to look them straight in the eyes during an interview. Lack of eye contact indicates lack of self-confidence or interest in the firm.

11. Don't be overzealous. You should be enthusiastic, but do not overdo it. A student with too much enthusiasm is annoying and turns off an interviewer quickly. You want to make sure that you don't come off as patronizing. Interviewers see through that quickly.

12. Be cognizant of your body language. No one expects you to become a professional interviewer overnight, but pay attention to the signals your body language sends to the interviewer. Don't cross your arms. Sit erect, facing the interviewer at all times. Make sure you don't play with your hair. The interviewer should have the undivided attention of your body as well as your brain.

13. Be businesslike. Interviewers are turned off by students who are too casual. Be relaxed, but don't overdo it. Sit erect in your chair. If you're wearing a skirt, make sure your legs are crossed.

14. Enjoy the time, and have fun. While most interviews are not always fun, you can learn from the experience, meet some very interesting people, and learn a lot about yourself.

The Ideal Interview

There is a logical sequence to an on-campus interview, although not every interviewer follows it. While you, as a student, aren't supposed to control the flow of the interview, it's helpful to understand how a properly conducted interview should flow.

The Purpose

The purpose of the on-campus interview is for the firm to determine if you, the student, are someone they want to bring back to the firm, at a future date, for further interviews. You are there to determine if you are interested enough in the firm to warrant further exploration through a callback interview if you are, in fact, invited back. At this stage, the purpose is not to ascertain if you ultimately want to work at that firm. Consider an on-campus interview as an initial screening process, nothing more.

The Process

Broken down into segments, a twenty-minute on-campus interview should ideally function as follows:
  1. Initial greeting (three to five minutes): The interviewer will engage in small talk to set you at ease. You should firmly shake hands, having eye contact. Ask the interviewer if he or she has a copy of your resume, just to make sure.
  2. The meat of the interview (eight to ten minutes): This is the informational part of the interview. If the interviewer does his or her job correctly, you should do most of the talking, taking cues from the interviewer. Ideally, your resume will have been read prior to the interview. The interviewer should only pick out pieces of your background for discussion or clarification. He or she should talk less than 10 percent of the time. You should be prepared to talk almost completely during this time period. Be totally familiar with your resume, and have a thorough knowledge of the firm with which you're interviewing. You won't know what questions you'll be asked, so just be yourself and respond in a relaxed, yet confident manner.
  3. Closing (three to five minutes): You should ask questions during this period if time permits, and when the next student knocks at the door, the interview should be wrapped up. The interviewer will indicate how and when you will hear back from the firm.
Obviously, not all interviews follow this format, and you may leave an interview learning very little about the firm you interviewed with. Attorneys love to talk about themselves and their work, and it's common for a student to leave an interview only with information on the past Sunday's NFL game. Experienced recruiters know better because they don't want to come home knowing little more than what they read on the resumes.

The Less Than Ideal Interview

Part of "the art of interviewing" is learning how to sell yourself even under adverse circumstances. There is no doubt that you'll encounter the interviewer who talks only about the movie he just saw, offering zero insight into his law firm, or the one who prefers to discuss politics or the recent wine harvest in Chile. Some of the high-powered law firm representatives, albeit excellent attorneys, are terrible interviewers and, worst case scenario, will make fools of themselves during this process.

Handling a Bad Interview

Should you write off a firm in which you were really interested because the on-campus interviewer was lousy or acted like a jerk? Only you can make that call, but remember that you ultimately choose a firm not because it has savvy interviewers, but because you like the people and its practice. But learn the difference between an inept interviewer and a jerk who crosses the line of normal interview etiquette.

One such episode involved a student who listed "magic tricks" as a hobby on his resume. During an on-campus interview, the interviewing partner wanted to "test" him and actually asked him to perform a magic trick. Another attorney, noting that a student was fluent in French, conducted the entire interview in the language, just to test the student's language capabilities (and to show off his own language skills). Neither interviewer accomplished anything by acting like jerks during the interview process.

When You Screw Up

Students also make mistakes during on-campus interviews, so you, as a rookie interviewee, should also be prepared to fumble. I was interviewing with a partner one year at a law school in New York, and a zealous student came in and expounded for almost five minutes on his sincere interest in our firm's maritime law practice. I kept kicking the partner I was interviewing with under the table, as I was baffled. Our firm had no maritime practice, and I was wondering why the student was even talking to us. The partner finally interrupted the student's dialogue to sadly inform him that our firm worked in many areas but none of them included maritime law. The student was extremely embarrassed, but clearly he had not done his homework, and he left the interview with his tail between his legs. He screwed the interview up and obviously didn't receive a callback. But hopefully, he learned his lesson and did his homework before his next interview. When you make mistakes, and you will, just make sure that you learn from the experience and don't make the same blunder again.

Everyone nervously hears similar stories, such as the unfortunate student who interviewed with his fly down or the one who called the interviewer by the wrong name. These mishaps happen to even the best prepared students. Don't let unfortunate events-big or small -bring your confidence level down below sea level, but do your homework. Rest assured that it is probable that one of these misfortunes could have your name on it. Just learn to take your mistakes in stride.

Following Up after On-Campus Interviews

Sending thank-you notes to on-campus interviewers can only make you look good-if you do it correctly. Students who want to make a positive first impression should send a brief thank-you note to the interviewer(s) immediately following the interview. You're going to find it difficult to find the time to write these letters so quickly with everything you have going on at this time of year, but make sure you discipline yourself so that it gets done in a timely fashion.

What to Include in Your Note
  1. Thank the interviewers for their time, making reference, if possible, to an interesting part of the conversation that took place during the interview. You'll have to keep good notes from your interviews in order to do this. If you talked about a certain case or area of law, you could make reference to it. This will help jar the interviewer's memory, since twenty students interviewed in a day tend to run together after a while.
  2. Handwrite your note, or do it on a computer, just as long as it is neat, legible, and professional in appearance, with no typographical errors.
  3. Mail the letter no more than three or four days after the interview. You'll get more bang for your buck the quicker the letter is received, even if it sits on an attorney's desk.
  4. If you promised to send the firm additional information such as a transcript or writing sample, this is an ideal time to mail these items to the firm.
Callback Decisions

There's no need to be in the dark about how firms make their callback decisions after on-campus interviews. Again, understanding how these decisions are made can help you piece the puzzles of law firm recruiting together.

How Firms Make Callback Decisions

Despite what many law students and placement professionals may think, there is no exact science to the method firms use to make callback decisions. Often it's simply a numbers game, especially for the large firms. Firms decide how many students to call back after on-campus interviews using different forecasting techniques. Some firms have years of statistical data to back up how these decisions are made well into the future, and others don't have a clue as to how it was done in the past and simply choose the students they like.

At Baker & McKenzie 's Washington office, we could estimate how many offers we needed to make to arrive at a summer program of a certain size. For example, Baker usually brought in about 50 students for interviews to end up with a ten- to twelve-student summer program. These estimates were based on the percentage of offers and acceptances over the previous three to five years. If the firm visited twelve schools, they could figure out approximately how many students they could bring in from each school, keeping in mind whether trips to these schools came early or late in the interview season.

If a firm has an early interview date at a top law school, it is generally accepted that a firm will get a bigger sign-up and see better students. Years of experience have shown me that this is usually the case. If a firm is interviewing during the last week at a school, a firm's pickings are usually not as good, especially at a top school.

Most firms do not have an established number of students they plan to invite back to the firm from each school. I have been on some interview trips where no one was called back and on others where ten of twenty students were called back to a firm. Some firms give the on-campus interviewers complete control over the callback selection process. Others have a hiring committee member or recruiting coordinator oversee this procedure. As you participate in on-campus interviews, it is likely you won't know how these decisions are made at each firm.

How Firms Relay Callback Information to Students

If you receive callbacks from firms with which you interview on-campus, you'll receive the news in different ways. In some firms, a partner will call and formally invite you to the firm. In some cases, if you really impressed a firm, you may even receive this invitation during the on-campus interview, but this is not the norm, and placement offices discourage this practice. Many firms simply mail you a letter indicating that they would like to invite you back to the firm for further interviews. Often, this letter is accompanied by a set of instructions for making your travel arrangements, including guidelines about what the firm will and will not pay for. Other firms will simply ask that you contact a particular person in the firm to make these arrangements. Many more students, however, receive "rejection" letters. These are also referred to as "ding" letters and have wallpapered many law students' bathrooms.

See 6 Things Attorneys and Law Students Need to Remove from Their Resumes ASAP If They Want to Get Jobs with the Most Prestigious Law Firms for more information.

Responding to Callbacks

Always respond quickly and courteously to callback invitations. You have no way of knowing how many students are being called back to a firm, how many interview slots exist, and what a firm's timetable is. Responding quickly is especially important if your school suspends classes for a callback week. Some firms limit the number of students it interviews each day to just a few people. If you are from a big school with a callback week, such as Harvard or Stanford, and many of your classmates are called back to a firm, there may be more students than interview slots available. And sometimes firms simply run out of interview space. You should also assume that students from other schools will be interviewing during the same week. Planning ahead will make your visit run smoother.

Your advance planning can have a positive economic impact, which firms also appreciate as recruiting budgets continue to shrink. A student can often save a firm hundreds or even thousands of dollars by planning ahead. While you won't get hired only because you saved the firm money by purchasing a supersaver fare, being courteous, even from an economic standpoint, usually doesn't go unnoticed.

See the following articles for more information:

Baker & McKenzie.

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