Biglaw, Interview Stories, Lateral Moves

Answering Tough Questions In Lateral Interviews

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral partner moves from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Sarah Morris is a Director at Lateral Link based in Northern California and oversees attorney placements and client services in California. Prior to joining Lateral Link, Sarah practiced law for five years at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP where she was involved with the hiring and women’s committees. Sarah also worked as an in-house attorney for Bare Escentuals. Sarah obtained her J.D. from Berkeley Law School (Boalt) and her B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley.

Many candidates find that most lateral interviews end up being easier than anticipated, but there are always those tough questions that you want to be prepared for. In addition to doing your research on the firm or company you are interviewing with, be prepared to spend a few hours familiarizing yourself with the types of questions you may be asked. Nothing turns off an interviewer more than “ummm” and “uhhh.” You don’t have to memorize your responses verbatim (and you shouldn’t), but being prepared will help you avoid awkward answers. While it is impossible to cover every tough question an interviewer may ask, below are some of the more commonly asked questions. In addition to some recommended responses, I have also added comments explaining the purpose of the question, and I point out some “traps” the interviewer may be setting by asking you that particular question…

Why are you leaving your current firm?

This question is posed to figure out whether it was your decision to leave or whether you are being pushed out of your firm.

Answering Strategy and Options
Remember to never say anything bad about your current firm. Instead start with, “I’ve learned a lot and had a great experience at Firm X. However…” It’s perfectly acceptable to move firms when the workflow is unsteady or you want to expand your experience. Perhaps you want to specialize in a particular niche within your practice area or the firm you are interviewing with has a stronger corporate practice or more interesting clients.

What was the toughest problem you handled this year?

They’re looking for brain cells here. Take the question and run with it. Employers want to see a demonstrated ability to work hard, write well, solve problems, and deliver results. Your answer does not have to be limited to legal or professional problems. Use other challenges you faced, and explain how you overcame them.

Answering Strategy and Options

  • Professional Challenge: “Recently I researched a controversial contract formation issue arising from a defective letter of intent in a failed corporate acquisition. The question included the laws of three states, which were in conflict, and an acquisition of a $500 million company that was abandoned. The partner wanted to develop a motion for summary judgment, but was uncomfortable with the state of the law in the 9th Circuit. Over three weeks, I spent 95 hours developing a new angle that was incorporated into the briefs that were filed at the end of the summer.”
  • Personal Challenge: “Ever since college, I have wanted to run a marathon. It was a struggle trying to balance training runs and working at a firm, especially while I was in trial. I also injured my ankle a month before the marathon and was worried I wouldn’t have enough time to recover. However, I remained committed and finally completed my first marathon a few weeks ago. It was definitely physically and mentally intensive throughout the marathon, but I remained focused, stuck to my pace, and finished the marathon within my goal time.”

What is your greatest weakness?

This is always a tough question asked to put the interviewee in a stressful situation and see how they respond.

Answering Strategy and Options
Do not say the first weakness that comes to mind. It can make you look unemployable. Instead, take a negative and make it look like a positive. The interviewer is not necessarily interested in the weakness itself, rather, the interviewer is looking at how you respond to weaknesses and that you are capable of improvement. Describe a weakness you have, but are currently improving (e.g., “I have always had a tough time giving negative feedback to those working under me, but recently I’ve put forth a greater effort to give the feedback in a meaningful way to help the junior associates that work with me to improve their practice”). Beware of “false weaknesses” (e.g., “I work too hard”). Nobody is perfect and the interviewer knows this, but if you try to be cute with your answer (e.g., “I smile too much”), you may turn off the interviewer altogether.

Tell me about a recent deal or case you’ve worked on.

This question is posed to figure what level your practice is at and what you can bring to the table. The interviewer wants to know whether you are a true third-year attorney or whether your firm was so slow in your first year that they should really consider you a second year. They are also checking to see how well you can articulate an answer. If you can easily explain a complex deal or case to the interviewer, you will likely be able to do the same for a client.

Answering Strategy & Options
Come into the interview ready to discuss three matters you have worked on this year. If you don’t remember the tasks you completed for each one, go back and take a look at your time records. For each matter, be prepared to discuss your role, the outcome and anything else that made the work unique.

Are you a team player? Do you prefer working alone? Have you ever had an unsatisfactory experience working for someone (or when someone worked for you)? How did you handle it?

Whether you work in a firm of two or 500 lawyers, teamwork is essential. You will work closely with clients, adversaries, other counsel, and colleagues. People who don’t enjoy a team environment or who are too single minded to work effectively with others are likely to fail.

Answering Strategy and Options
Don’t just tell interviewers you are a team player — come up with a specific example in your current position where you have put other people on your team before yourself (maybe you recently covered for someone or volunteered to mentor a more junior associate). We’ve all had bad experiences with supervisors or subordinates, but don’t use this question as an opportunity to criticize others for whom you have worked. Falling into the pit of disparagement creates an impression that you may be insubordinate at worst and inflexible at a minimum.

What do you think you will be doing 5 years from now?

This is not a trick question. It is usually sincere and not intended to upset or confuse. Remember, the partner asking the question probably asks the same question of himself frequently and is just as uncertain about the answer (if one exists).

Answering Strategy and Options
Few of us have concrete plans that are 95% certain 5 years down the road. Say something like, “I hope to be a partner in a firm like yours or to be in-house with a firm client. What does it take to make partner here?” These days, many associates do not make partner. If you don’t want to make partner, going in-house with a firm client is the next best thing for the firm. Still, asking what it takes to make partner at the firm shows motivation.

Relocation

One day you might possibly want to relocate for one reason or another and are interviewing with firms in your potential new city. Below are a few additional questions that you could expect to be asked during your interview.

You currently work in New York. Why are you now interested in California?

The question is not malicious. Each year, many firms are burned by attorneys who profess an interest to move to a new city only to end up staying briefly and leave within a year or two. Be honest, but don’t feel pressured to list off any possible connection you may have in the location of the firm (e.g., “A third-cousin I never met lives in the city too”). Just remember all of the reasons why you want to relocate and be enthusiastic with your response. A genuine explanation far outweighs any made up one.

Answering Strategy and Options

  • “My spouse has decided to settle in California. He was raised here and his family still lives here” (a powerful and credible explanation). To make a stronger case, think of an additional reason you are interested in the area so the interviewer doesn’t think you will pick up and move again in two years once your spouse gets yet another new job.
  • “I have spent a considerable amount of time researching San Francisco, examining the firms, and talking with lawyers in the community. It is a city that matches my practice interests the best as I am fascinated by emerging growth companies.”

Who else are you interviewing with in Seattle?

A possible throw away, but the interviewer wants to see how serious you are. Know the list of other firms. Cold. Don’t blow names. Do not infer that Seattle is one stop on your coffee tour through the Northwest.

Answering Strategy and Options
Your answer should be, “I have contacted the 5 or 6 leading firms that match my practice interest and background most closely.” If pressed for specifics mention the names, accurately and without bravado.

What can I tell you about the firm?

This could possibly be possible filler, or a sincere question by someone who wants to sell you on their practice. Regardless, this is your moment to shine and show off all of your interview preparation. When this question comes, embrace it and take control of the interview. You would be surprised at the number of interviews that are dead upon arrival once this question is posed.

Answering Strategy and Options
Use this opportunity to highlight your knowledge of the firm, which, in the eyes of the interviewer, will translate to your interest in the firm. You now have the chance to select topics, guide the conversation, and hopefully learn more about the firm along the way. If you know the interviewer recently closed a multimillion dollar deal, ask them about the experience and if junior associates are ever involved in the process. If you know the firm is expanding a practice group, ask about how it is going and if the firm has a growth strategy for the practice group you are interested in.

When in doubt, ask away!

If you are in the middle of a tough interview and the interviewer is asking questions that seem to be tripping you up, turn the interview around by asking the questions instead. People like to talk about themselves and attorneys who are sitting in their office most of the day will welcome a few minutes to tell you more about their career path or even the picture on their wall from their recent trip to Ecuador.

Although you may only be asked one or two of the above questions, you should always be prepared. Preparation coupled with enthusiasm and doing your research on the firm or company you are interviewing with will get you the offer you are looking for.


Lateral Link is one of the top-rated international legal recruiting firms. With over 14 offices world-wide, Lateral Link specializes in placing attorneys at the most prestigious law firms in the world. Managed by former practicing attorneys from top law schools, Lateral Link has a tradition of hiring lawyers to execute the lateral leaps of practicing attorneys. Click ::here:: to find out more about us.

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