Interview Stories

Carter Phillips

After the Supreme Court heard oral arguments over the constitutionality of Obama’s healthcare overhaul last week, we discussed the case with veteran Supreme Court litigator Carter Phillips. Phillips, the managing partner of Sidley Austin‘s Washington, D.C. office, is a renowned Supreme Court litigator. He has argued 75 cases in front of the high court, more than any other attorney in private practice.

Check out our conversation below. He had a lot of insightful comments about the performances of Paul Clement and Donald Verrilli, the mind of Justice Anthony Kennedy, and even a few jokes…

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Obtaining a summer associate position at a major law firm remains difficult. That’s the upshot of a recent report (PDF) issued by our friends at NALP. You can read summaries of the report at the NALP website and at the ABA Journal. This quip, by NALP executive director Jim Leipold, pretty much says it all: “This is not a hot recruiting market.”

Given that employers are still in the driver’s seat, at least when it comes to entry-level recruiting — recruiting of lateral lawyers, whether associates or partners, is a different kettle of fish — you’d think that law firms would use this opportunity to experiment a bit with fall recruiting. There are some interesting alternatives out there to the standard model of 20- to 30-minute screening interviews, typically held in the summer before or early fall of the 2L year, followed by callback interviews at the firms. E.g., JD Match (disclosure: a past ATL advertiser).

But law firms, as we know, are a conservative group. They tend to stick with existing models, even if those models are imperfect.

Well, most law firms. Nobody ever accused Quinn Emanuel of not daring to be different….

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(Note: the scenarios depicted herein may be vastly different from what you experience(d). They are based on my opinion alone, and fact patterns may differ drastically. The process that I advise is based on an amalgam of numerous colleagues’ experiences.)

There is nothing like the feeling of a strange voice on the phone telling you that they’d like to speak with you about a job for which you’ve applied. There is a rush that comes with finally receiving a response, a euphoric “you like me, you really, really like me…” Okay, so that’s a bit over the top, but after slogging through job hunt Hell for months with no response but the rare (these days) ding letter, it’s certainly a nice change to have someone want to speak with you.

So, after that initial shock wears off, get to the getting. Not only do you want this job, the person on the other end of the phone wants to hire you. Nobody enjoys seeing candidate after candidate — time is money, and unlike law firms where interviews can entail lavish lunches or dinners, in-house interviews are vastly different….

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I wish I could name names; I really do. But I work at the world’s leading insurance broker for law firms, and I can’t go around offending the clients (or potential clients). You’ll just have to guess.

All of these interviews actually took place. I swear it.

First, there was the senior partner at a major New York firm, interviewing me at the start of my second year of law school: “You know, a lot of students want to make excuses for not having perfect grades. Sometimes, those excuses are pretty good: You hear from the single mothers. You hear from people who are working full-time and going to law school at night. The excuses aren’t bad.

“But I have to tell you something: If you have to give me an excuse, I don’t want to hear it. We have too many people who are perfect looking for jobs here. If you’re perfect, we’ll hire you. If you have to make an excuse, don’t even bother telling me. If you have to make an excuse, we’re not making you an offer.”

I didn’t say these stories were uplifting. I said only that they were true.

The next one’s at my expense:

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A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the difference between résumé-based interviews and behavioral interviews. (In a nutshell, résumé-based interviews ask applicants for opinions about their personal histories; behavioral interviews ask for factual descriptions of how applicants handled certain situations in their lives.)

I really didn’t expect that to be a controversial topic, but I received messages by the e-mailbag full. Two folks recommended entirely revamping the way we interview candidates for legal jobs, and I’m sharing those two thoughts here — revealing the less controversial suggestion before the jump and the more controversial one after, just to leave you hanging.

My first correspondent, from a large West Coast law firm, said that he liked the idea of doing behavioral interviews, but he didn’t think interviews should be a game of “gotcha.” Thus, we should not surprise applicants at their interviews by asking an applicant to, say, identify a situation in which the applicant was forced to lead a group, what the applicant did, and how the applicant assessed the results. Instead, my correspondent suggested, firms should send to applicants in advance a set of behavioral interview questions that might be asked during the interviews, so the applicants would have a chance to think about their pasts, identify responsive situations, and give considered answers when later asked the questions.

I think that’s a fine idea, but I don’t think it’s a novel one. I recently saw several business school applications, and many B-school essay questions read strikingly like behavioral interview questions: Identify a certain type of situation in your past, and explain how you dealt with it. If business schools think that carefully crafted written answers to those questions yield meaningful insight into whether to admit an applicant into school, then there’s no reason why law firms shouldn’t ask similar questions and give applicants plenty of time to frame their answers.

But my second correspondent was even more radical . . .

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Lateral interview season is about to kick off. You’ll likely see several law firm vacancies pop up early in the new year as firms struggle to find replacements for attorneys who jump ship after receiving their year end bonus.

In preparation for the upcoming interview season, the recruiters at Lateral Link have compiled a list of the top five tips to help you ace your next law firm interview.

1. Be prepared: Preparation is key. Do not try and “swing it” and go to an interview unprepared. Understand what is at stake when you go into an interview — getting hired. Back in the good ole days, your résumé alone was sufficient to get you a job. The interview process was merely a formality and a way for firms to screen out people who were completely socially inept. Today, the résumé is only one component of your candidacy….

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A story I often tell is about the first time I took a deposition. I got there early, and I thought that the most important thing was to control the witness. I didn’t realize the first time around that the way you control somebody is not by intimidating them. But I adjusted the chair that I was sitting on so that I’d be really tall, and could look down imposingly on the witness. But I raised it so high that as soon as I sat down, I toppled over and fell backward.

Amy Schulman, executive vice president and general counsel of Pfizer, in a New York Times interview about her leadership style.

(Additional excerpts and discussion, after the jump.)

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People have occasionally asked me for advice about interview techniques.

My suggestion has always been short and pointed: “Say something smart. Say something funny. Ask a good question. And get the heck out of there.”

What about on the other side of the table? I really don’t trust interviews. I don’t believe that it’s possible to tell during a half hour or an hour whether someone is truly competent or a great bluffer. I never thought I learned much from forcing people to talk about their résumés. So when I was interviewing candidates for jobs at a big law firm, I’d try to identify something that the applicant claimed to know — a practice area, a procedural issue, a case the person had defended — and engage the person on that subject. I figured that I was thus showing interest in something about the applicant while giving myself a chance to assess whether the applicant was sentient.

But now I work at a place that sells human resources consulting as part of its business. That requires folks to think a little harder about interviewing techniques. After all, if you’re offering professional advice about conducting interviews, you ought to interview your own job applicants effectively. I’ve recently been educated on this subject and, as a dutiful blogger, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned. What is behavioral interviewing, and why is it better than traditional interview techniques?

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A lot of people ask me how I ended up in this in-house gig. Oh fine, nobody has asked, but darnit, I’m gonna tell you anyway. And I’ll even include a couple of tips that I think helped me. I’ll assume you’re already familiar with a lot of basic interview tips, such as doing your research, preparing a great résumé, and not picking your nose in front of the receptionist, so I’ll avoid mentioning those.

I like to call the interview process I had for my current job the Shortest Interview Process Ever (SIPE, for short). If you’ve worked at a company before, you’ve probably noticed that companies absolutely love, love, love acronyms and use them all the time. Just FYI, your ability to learn acronym-speak is directly proportional to your success as an in-house lawyer, so feel free to start making up your own and using them on your BFFs!

At one point, after a few years in Biglaw, I called a recruiter I had used before and asked if there were any jobs out there. The recruiter was not happy to hear from me. But this was reasonable because, a few years earlier, he had helped to get me a job offer — that I didn’t take. At that time, I had four job offers (obviously, this wasn’t during the economic hellhole that we’re in right now) and decided to go with one other than his. So understandably, he wasn’t a happy camper to hear from me this time around….

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Ed. note: This post is by Will Meyerhofer, a former Sullivan & Cromwell attorney turned psychotherapist. He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, and The Hunter College School of Social Work, and he blogs at The People’s Therapist. His new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist, is available on Amazon, as is his previous book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy (affiliate links).

I was hiking in Iceland this past summer. We were pretty high up – around 1,000 meters – and it was raining hard, high wind, snow on the ground.

“Damn, it’s cold,” grumbled one of my American companions.

An Englishman behind us stumbled over a patch of frozen volcanic ash. “There’s a clue in the name, mate,” he offered helpfully.

Some things are so obvious they really don’t need to be explained anymore. Like it’s icy in Iceland. Like it sucks working at a big law firm. You kinda ought to know that by now — which is why interviewing 2L’s feels so heart-breaking.

I should know; I’ve been listening to senior and mid-level associates for the past month, telling me how much it sucks interviewing 2L’s….

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