Interview Stories

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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Be careful about what you say in the airport, or on a crowded train, or on the subway. Above the Law’s spies are everywhere.

And be careful about what you place in the trash. Law firms have paper shredders for a reason; use them. Consider this your practice pointer for the day.

Earlier this month, an ATL reader sent us a collection of documents relating to Sullivan & Cromwell’s on-campus interviewing program at the University of Michigan Law School. For the record, our tipster didn’t have to go dumpster diving for this find. The documents were contained in a black binder that was conveniently placed on top of an outdoor recycling bin, where it caught our reader’s eye. (As we all know from California v. Greenwood, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy in stuff you leave in the trash.)

So, what was in these documents? The contents will be of interest to partners and associates at other firms, as well as law students going through the OCI process right now….

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Every couple of years, people need to be reminded not to have private conversations in public spaces. Who could forget Acela Bob, the Pillsbury partner who talked about firing people on a crowded train?

University of Virginia law students, that’s who. Yes, we have another installment of: when popping your collar goes real wrong. On the way back to Charlottesville from New York City, a group of UVA Law students were waiting for their flight out of LaGuardia. They started talking about how their callback interviews went. They started talking loudly.

And others were listening….

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Your company was just named in a new complaint, and there’s no obvious choice of counsel to defend you. What do you do?

You ask around internally to see whether any of our lawyers has worked with good counsel in the jurisdiction. Perhaps you ask a trusted outside lawyer or two for recommendations. You narrow the choices down to two or three candidates, and you decide to interview the top three firms.

This brings us to the subject of this post: What do you ask at the interviews?

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Martin Luther dropped out of law school and he did just fine for himself.

Not all of our coverage of law schools is depressing; we bring you happy stories as well. In recent weeks, we’ve written about one law school dean’s creative (and healthy) student outreach program, a law student demonstrating kindness to animals, and someone having fun — perhaps too much fun? — in the library.

Let’s continue the good cheer. Back in the spring, we wrote about a law student who was thinking of dropping out of school. He sought our advice — and, surprisingly enough, my colleague Elie Mystal advised this fellow to stay in school (even though Elie is generally not a fan of legal education).

Some commenters disagreed with Elie (shocker), and urged the kid to drop out. But now we bring you an update suggesting that perhaps Elie’s advice was sound….

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