Biglaw, General Counsel, In-House Counsel, Interview Stories, Job Searches, Summer Associates

Inside Straight: Biglaw Versus In-House Interviews

Do I look like “Dear Abby”?

Somehow, because I’m working in-house and writing this column, I’ve become the adviser to the disaffected. A correspondent now asks: “I’ve worked at a Biglaw firm for several years, am at the end of my rope, and am interviewing for an in-house job next week. How will an interview for an in-house job differ from a Biglaw interview?”

I have three reactions: First, the interview may not be different at all. The in-house lawyers who are interviewing you may be veterans of Biglaw, and they may not have changed their interview styles when they changed jobs. Being qualified and pleasant may be plenty to land the job, as it is at many large law firms that are hiring new associates wholesale.

But the interview may be different in two ways that you should consider….

Although partners at big firms will insist otherwise, interviews for candidates as summer associates (who will then constitute the bulk, or all, of the next year’s incoming associate class) at Biglaw firms just don’t make that much difference. If the candidate is in the top ten percent of the class at a top ten law school, he’s presumptively hired. The candidate can lose the job only by saying or doing something flagrantly improper during the interview. (For lawyers employed at Biglaw firms, the job interviews they conduct are similar to jury selection: You’re not selecting people who are great. You’re de-selecting people who appear to be dangerously bad.)

Why don’t Biglaw interviews (for summer associate slots) matter very much? First, because a firm is typically flying back for interviews only candidates whom the firm perceives as qualified to hire. If the candidate gets flown back, an interviewer can safely nod in agreement with the decision to bring the candidate on board. The interviewer’s only job is to veto any truly bad choices.

But the interview lacks importance for other reasons, too. The firm is about to spend a summer working with the candidate and assessing the candidate’s skills. Whether or not you can learn much from a half-hour or hour-long interview, you can learn a fair amount by assessing a person’s work product (and interpersonal skills, and the like) over the course of a two-month trial run. If the summer associate is terrible, the firm can elect not to extend a permanent job offer.

Firms would, in fact, prefer to extend job offers to all summer associates. Firms fear that, if they don’t extend a permanent offer to the student from, say, Michigan Law School, the Michigan student will go back and crucify the firm on campus, poisoning the recruiting pool for years to come. For reasons of self-preservation, firms will typically err on the side of extending permanent offers to marginal summer associates. (There may be an exception to that rule for hiring decisions made during the worst recession since the 1930s. But, outside of economic crises that force their hands, big firms would really prefer to maintain cordial relationships with feeder law schools.)

If the marginal candidate is given a job offer at the end of the summer, arrives as a permanent associate, and isn’t very good, that still doesn’t matter too much. Individual partners can work with this person once, submit an unflattering review, and never work with the person again. The partner has suffered a little pain, but it wasn’t that bad, and the partner solves her personal problem (of the need to staff matters with competent junior lawyers) by never again asking the under-performing associate for help. The associate can bounce around from menial task, poorly performed, to menial task, poorly performed, for years. Finally, the firm’s hand is forced — by a series of bad reviews over the course of a few years, or by the inability to keep this lawyer busy, or by the need to make a partnership decision — and the bad lawyer is ultimately asked to leave.

In that business environment, interviewing candidates for summer associate slots really isn’t a very big deal. Chat with the candidate about baseball or current events. If the candidate seems okay, rate the candidate a “4” on the firm’s “1 to 5″ scale, and let the firm make an offer.

In-house life is different. Corporations typically employ fewer lawyers than huge law firms do, so the fit between in-house lawyers and their jobs is more important. If one of the lawyers who reports to you is not very good, you can’t easily excise that person from your life. Unlike partners at a firm, in-house lawyers don’t have the luxury of seeing that a person is incompetent, choosing never again to ask that particular lawyer for help, and thus solving the supervisor’s personal problem without having to fire someone. In a corporate environment, your direct report is your direct report; if the person isn’t any good, you’re nonetheless stuck with the person’s bad work until he or she improves, leaves voluntarily, or is fired. The decision to hire is a big commitment.

You thus shouldn’t be surprised if an interview for an in-house position is more rigorous than the interviews you had for summer associate slots. Some in-house lawyers craft hypothetical questions about legal issues, or ask candidates how they would advise clients in situations that the in-house lawyer has confronted, to get a real sense of the candidate’s capabilities. Interviews for in-house jobs matter more than interviews for summer slots, so some (but by no means all) employers take the process more seriously.

That has one other implication for you, the candidate. It’s pretty easy to bluff your way through interviews for summer associate positions at Biglaw firms. You can explain, to lawyer after lawyer in city after city, that you’re interested in the firm because of the firm’s stellar reputation, the breadth of its practice, and your lifelong desire to live in whatever city you happen to be sitting in at the time. (The interviewer will nod knowingly and tell you in turn that the one thing that truly distinguishes his firm is its people.) As an interviewee, you could add some specificity if you flipped through the firm’s brochure during the flight out, but it really doesn’t matter.

Corporations are different. Before you interview for an in-house job, read the relevant pieces of the company’s securities filings, and do some research into the company and its industry. In-house lawyers may expect you to show some interest in the industry in which you’re seeking a job, and some knowledge of the company for which you want to work.

After you’ve done your legwork, the interview itself should be easy: Say something intelligent; say something funny; ask a good question; and listen more than you talk.

If there’s anything that really matters to you about the potential new job, be sure to get your questions answered (but save the questions that might seem indelicate until after you’ve received an offer). Then get out the door unscathed.

Finally, to my recent correspondent who’s interviewing next week: Good luck!


Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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