Successful Interviewing for a Legal Job

I.  What the Employer is Looking for During the Interview.

In general, the interviewer is assessing two things simultaneously: your personality and your intellect. Your personality is important in several ways: 1) you have to come across as the kind of person the interviewer wouldn't mind having in an office next door or going out to lunch with; 2) you have to come across as someone who could work well in a group situation or taking orders from a partner, a senior associate or any other supervisior; and 3) you have to come across as someone a law firm or other legal employer would feel comfortable introducing to clients or representing them in any public setting whether it's a court appearance, an  interagency meeting, a bar association dinner or any other setting where your association with your employer will be known. As to intellect, the interviewer has to believe you could competently do the work demanded by the employer. What these dual goals of the interviewer mean for you is that while your personality will be revealed in almost every answer you give, you will have to create an opportunity to display your intellect if the interviewer doesn't provide you with one. This can be through talking about legal work you've done, a paper you've written, clients you've represented in a clinic, a moot court experience, a substantive issue in a field that interests you or anything substantive you can naturally work into your answer to an interview question.  

II.  Qualities of a Successful Interview.

1.  Appear confident - but not arrogant.

2.  Always look the interviewer in the eye (not down at your feet).

3.  Have a "can do" positive attitude - if you get questions asking whether you'd like to do a certain kind of work, the answer is always yes - you'd look forward to the challenge. Obviously, you can't pretend to be something you're not for the sake of an interview, but everyone has more than one aspect to their personality. If you are 90 percent pessimist and 10 percent optimist, you should emphasize your optimistic side during the interview.

4.  Make sure at the end of the interview it is clear that you've worked harder than the interviewer. A two sentence question shouldn't get a one word answer. If the interviewer asks "Have you enjoyed law school?" The short answer is yes (that positive attitude you have to display - if you didn't enjoy law school then the employer may conclude you may not enjoy working for them), but the complete answer is yes with details. Talk about a favorite class or teacher or extracurricular activity that made law school a special experience for you.

5.  Be prepared for the interview. Just like you wouldn't take an exam without studying, you shouldn't go into an interview without preparation. Forms of preparation:

a) You may be asked about anything on your resume. If your resume mentions honors on your college history thesis, you may be asked the subject of your thesis. The wrong answer is "I don't remember." (In addition to displaying poor memory and poor preparation, not good traits for a lawyer, you're losing an opportunity to display intellect). If you list hobbies or extracurricular activities on your resume, and one of them is hiking. You may be asked where have you hiked? Before the interview, go through your resume and refresh your recollection about the details of anything referred to on your resume.

b) You will be asked if you have any questions for the interviewer. Have some ready. Know everything you can about the employer. If it’s a law firm, look it up on Google and in Martindale-Hubble or other sources you can think of - the kind of work it does, the biographies of the people who work there, etc. and try and ask questions that reflect your advance preparation. You don't want to ask a generic question such as "How large is your trusts and estates department?" only to be told that the law firm doesn't do any trusts and estates work. If it’s a government agency or any other kind of employer, do the same thing.

c) Remember that most interviewers for legal jobs are lawyers who work for that employer and not professional interviewers. They typically interview many people and being asked to do interviewing is not the high point of their career. That means they usually do not have a prepared set of questions and are looking to stave off boredom. The result of this attitude is that they will often look down at your resume and pick the most unusual thing on it to ask you about. If your resume says you’ve been a professional wrestler, a drummer in a band, or an executive assistant to a celebrity you can guarantee you will be asked about that former employment and that the interviewer will be more interested in the answer than they are in your discussion of why Contracts was your favorite first year class. Embrace the opportunity to talk about your atypical background, make it interesting and entertaining, but also use the opportunity to point out any skills you learned in that profession that will be useful in your work as a lawyer or why your experience led you to law school. 

d) Do some practice interviewing - through the Career Services Office - or with a friend. Practice answering questions so that when the time comes your responses are more fluid. Prepare for any negative questions you're likely to get. If there is anything on your resume that the firm may raise questions about, be prepared to put what some may see as a negative in a positive light. Some interviewers may ask a negative or hostile question (even if the interviewer personally doesn't believe the issue raised is a negative one) just to see how you respond. Why should we hire someone who went to WNE School of Law when we could hire a Yale law grad? (There really are some answers to that question - great school, great faculty even if less well known. The faculty have practiced law and understand they are preparing students for the practice of law so my legal education has better prepared me to work at your law firm. Faculty really care about the students and spend lots of time with students so the school has helped me to develop my abilities in a way that goes beyond what I would have received at Yale, etc.).

6) Dress appropriately. While others can offer more specific advise about what to wear, my summary of all that advice is to dress so that no will remember what you were wearing once you leave the room. If they do remember, chances are it will not be for a good reason, but because there was something memorable in a bad way about your clothing such as too tight, too short, or too loud.

7)  Don't make the interviewer feel the employer has wasted its time in interviewing you. If a law firm or government agency specializes in labor law, don't tell the interviewer you're not interested in labor law. If the employer is located in the South, don't tell the interviewer you wouldn't consider moving to the South. Either don't sign up for interviews at places you wouldn't work at or if you do, be prepared to tell small harmless lies so that it seems as though you would seriously consider an offer by the employer. Moreover, if you get an offer, seriously consider it. Maybe it isn’t the kind of work you imagined doing or the place you imagined living, but that doesn’t mean you should write it off without seriously considering it.

Good luck with the interview.