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

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19 Responses to “Inside Straight: Biglaw Versus In-House Interviews”

  1. Bonobo_Drug Tester says:

    You failed to mention the mandatory drug test. 

  2. Gobbly says:

    GOBBLY GOOP.  (summary of this b.s.)

    • Matt says:

      And in answer to your question Mark, yes, you do look like Dear Abby, based on your penchant for writing books from the perspective of a crotchety old man, railing away at young lawyers in the douchiest tone ever. You and Dear Abby have tons in common.

  3. Guest says:

    Good post, but you don’t go far enough. Big firm interviews are a joke, but MOST interviews are an incredible joke. It’s extremely rare these days to find an interviewer who has taken the time to prepare insightful questions.

    I like this: “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.”

    Even there, you have to put “may.” Why? Because most interviewers are lazy fucks who did no prep work and expect nothing more but some football talk and a personality “gut” test.

    For real, though, this is good advice:  “Say something intelligent; say something funny; ask a good question; and listen more than you talk.”

  4. Guest says:

    Great post.  Thanks for this.  Much of this almost seems obvious once you put it together this way, but I know that much of it isn’t.

  5. Bonobo_Bro says:

    On my 17th round interview at Aon I was handed an itemized bill from outside counsel working on bet the company litigation. Knowing I only had all Sunday to make my move I ran out and abducted a teenager and forced them to review the bills in exchange for some shitty coffee. The interviewer asked me if I could come back next week. 

  6. Guest says:

    Mark had some useful tidbits in this post, but as usual they’re buried among a lot of unnecessary words and irrelevant points.  If you’re looking for more specific, bullet point advice from someone who’s been there done that, here are a few that quickly came to mind:

    – When interviewing for an in house gig, be sure to have very good reasons for why you made your various moves.  You will be asked about that for sure.
    – Be prepared to name drop about anything you put on your resume.  In house interviewers especially love to scan a resume and see if the two of you have common ground.
    – Be sure to make it clear that you are able to get your hands dirty.  Admin support is rare at corporations these days, so if you come across as someone who needs a support staff at your disposal it could put you out of the running.
    – Do what you can to convey that you understand that the priorities and mindset necessary for an in house gig are different than what’s required at a firm.  That will win you points.
    – At a first interview, don’t ask about how much work is farmed out to law firms.  Yes, it is relevant, but asking it makes it seem like you’re looking for a cushy gig where all you do is liaise work to firms.  Assume that you’ll be doing the heavy lifting.  If that ends up not being the case you’ll know before you have to accept the offer.

    These last two are general pieces of advice that are equally applicable to biglaw interviews, but they’re important enough to bear mentioning here:
    – If the first interview is a phone interview, and most these days are, be sure to go somewhere that you will not be disturbed and to use a phone that will not play your ridiculous ringtone if you happen to get another call or email.
    – Be sure not to interrupt or talk too much.  This is more difficult during a phone interview since there are no visual cues to take.  The key is listen patiently and resist urges to chime in with something until the interviewer has finished his/her thought or question.  The more you let the interviewer

  7. Latinthunder says:

    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.
    Right, which is why they typically hire other in-house lawyers in the same industry who they know well, or associates at outside firms they work with regularly.  You may recognize this as the practice you mislabeled “cronyism” in a previous column.

  8. Boba Fett, Esq. says:

    I hate interviewing new bounty hunters…wayyyy too many wannabes that will just never cut it. Hell, one of those fat pigs from Jaba’s palace could probably take out most of the interviewees I get. 

    On the interview, my most important question is “Do you own any thermal detonators, and if so, have you ever used one?” I usually save this question for last as it gives me a good sense of the interviewee’s potential.

  9. Former Biglaw Associate says:

    A few more to add to the last post’s pieces of advice:
    Be prepared to discuss (in detail) how each item of your resume relates to the work you would be doing in house.  
    If the job posting (assuming there is one) highlights specific skills or areas in which you will be expected to practice, jot down a few examples of work you’ve done utilizing those skills or in those areas.  
    Expect multiple levels of interviews, including, potentially, one with a random HR person (first level – to vet you and see whether you should make it to the actual attorney interview), one or more with the intermediate decision maker (which could actually be the person you would work with or report to), then another with the final decision maker.  Expect other people to pop in and out of the second and third levels, as they vet you for “fit” within the group.
    Depending on the company and its internal requirements, you may wait a while after your interview to hear the final decision.  Be patient, but maintain contact and reiterate your interest frequently (without appearing to be a stalker).

    • Benedick says:

      This describes my experience as well.  Patience is required when applying for in-house positions.  The hiring process can move excruciatingly slowly because hiring is an administrative task that will always lose priority to the crisis of the day.  If your interview gets delayed, repeatedly rescheduled, etc., you can score a couple of easy points by (duh) being polite and understanding about it and assuring your interviewer that you’re quite accustomed to working in a dynamic environment in which constant scheduling changes and re-prioritization are simply a fact of life.

  10. Steamroom Etiquette 101 says:

    Still have writers’ block on that way overdue article on 2011 stapler reviews, eh, Mark?

    Someday Lat’s gonna call you into his spacious, quarter-acre corner office and ream your ass. After he’s done that and you’ve toweled off, he will gently remind you that the big annual stapler review is now grossly overdue, and implicitly threatenthat he’ll have to hand the project over to Jay Shepard if you can’t finish it up for August posting.After this harsh admonition, Lat will proceed to ream your ass again (so bring some baby wipes and a clean pair of underwear.

    Consider yourself another victim of a brutal tongue-lashing by Bossman Lat.

  11. Benedick says:

    As an in-house litigator (and former Big Law associate who once did a little work for Mark), I’ll add another wrinkle:

    You will be asked why you want to go in-house (if you’re coming from a firm).  This is a pivotal part of the interview.  I absolutely do not want to hear a candidate tell me that he or she is looking for a “lifestyle change.”  While it’s true that jettisoning billable hours is (commonly) a nice feature of the switch, I’m wary of anyone who signals a primary desire (however understandable) to find an “easier” job.  What we do is not easy, first of all; and we need in-house litigators who will approach client matters with the mindset that they are the lawyers ultimately responsible for them, rather than the clients who let outside counsel handle the heavy lifting.

    So how do you answer that question?  Here’s the general approach that worked for me:  I want to work for one client, rather than many.  I want the opportunity to develop a thorough understanding of that client’s business and to devise solutions to problems that make long-term sense for the business as a whole, and not just for a particular case.  I’ve researched the litigation this company is involved in and has been involved in recently, and that docket presents an array of claims and legal issues that I find both stimulating and a good fit for my range of substantive experience. 

    I want to be able to think strategically about the company’s overall approach to legal matters and have the ability to implement strategies that make business sense as well as tactical sense.  And I would like to be part of a team/organization that has has its ultimate purpose (in this case, manufacturing health care products) something more tangible than simply the provision of legal services.

    • Iko1233 says:

      This is spot on.  As an in-house lawyer I am looking for someone who wants to be here because they understand our business and want to be part of what we do.  I am looking for someone who can advance the agenda, not someone who will find reasons not to act.  There are always risks to action – I want someone who can analyze the risks and come up with an approach that mitigates the risks to an acceptable level. 

    • Guest says:

      Sorry —I’m an in-house litigator, and this is retarded advice.  Be honest about why you want to switch careers.  Everyone knows it’s because you don’t want to work 15 hour days.  Spewing the bullshit you mention will just make you look like an insincere tool that can “fake it,” in which case he/she should remain in a law firm environment with all the other phony tools.  I like it when people are honest with me –“I still want to do cutting-edge work, but I don’t want to work 15 hours a day and then have to do business development on top of that. I like my family.”  In my eyes, that person is a genius. Just because you are working less does not make the job “easier.” It makes a hard job more tolerable.

  12. OnlyModerately says:

    You should do as much research on the company as possible. Just as the in-house counsel doesn’t have the luxury of not working with you if you don’t “fit”, you won’t have the opportunity to get work from someone else.  In the interview, you will likely need to demonstrate that you’ve thought about the their business, their legal problems, and how you’d approach them.

    You’ll need to show that you’ve been thinking like your BigLaw clients (how do we keep legal costs down? what should we send out and what should we keep?), rather than like a BigLaw associate (how can I get more work out of the client?). In the business world, solving legal problems quickly and cheaply wins over running up the bill.  You’ll have to unlearn a lot of bad habits.

  13. Anon says:

    @Benedick had a good piece of advice compared to the fluff in the column. Some other advice, prepare for the stupid stock questions like “What are your areas of improvements/weaknesses?” Big corporations like to ask these types of interview questions as opposed to law firm interview where’s it more about sitting around BSing about yourself. In a recent round of interviews, only one candidate was prepared to answer those questions. Another thing, try to be as sociable and likable as possible. Law firms know that associates are warm bodies that are easily replaced. Not so in-house. We know this person is potentially somebody who will be around for the long haul so we want somebody who fits into the department culture.

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