INTERVIEWING SEASON — THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…

Labor Day is a good time to talk about getting a job. When it comes to Biglaw, I’ve been on both sides of that table. As interviews proceed on law school campuses, I wonder, “If I were a law student today, what would I ask big firm representatives?”

Here’s my answer: the same question that I posed to them 30 years ago. Before revealing it, I offer a few thoughts from an insider’s perspective.

Every law student knows the two-step process. Grades, life experience, and the campus interviewer’s subjective reactions combine at the first stage to answer a single question: Should the recruit receive an invitation to visit the firm’s offices for more interviews that, if successful, will culminate in a job offer?

As I conducted such interviews, I also asked myself what I assumed students were asking themselves about me:

“Is this someone with whom I’d want to work — perhaps for a long time?”

The process involved judgments about which reasonable partners differed. Personally, I was looking for brains and the interpersonal competence to use them effectively. I gave the nod only to those whom I thought would pass muster at the next level and receive offers. There was no reason to waste anyone’s time.

Can a student influence the exercise?

Grades and resumes are what they are, so there’s not much maneuvering room there. Even so, thoughtful interviewers are looking for something more:  a relaxed, engaging conversation. How can a student help to achieve it?

This sounds trite, but being authentic is the best strategy because that’s how you’re most comfortable. What have you accomplished if someone likes the person you pretend to be? How long can you maintain that facade? Through the second stage of attorney interviews at a firm? For a summer, if you get an offer? Until you become a non-equity partner? You’ll lose yourself if you start down that road.

Eventually, most recruiters will ask if an interviewee has any questions. Generally, students are reluctant to raise controversial topics. I didn’t, either. Perhaps it was cowardice, but I like to think that I developed a more subtle path to a firm’s jugular. Subject to modification for a particular interviewer’s age, here it is:

“Can you briefly sketch your own career highlights at the firm as, say, a second-year associate, a fifth-year associate, a non-equity partner, and now?”

The question works for both stages of the interview process — on campus and in the office. Lawyers love to talk about themselves and, if you pay attention, you can learn much from the responses.

For example, when a young partner in a prestigious New York firm told me that he’d spent his 10 years there on a single large lawsuit and still hadn’t seen the inside of a courtroom (or much of his family), I learned everything I needed to know about the place. It was — and remains — a great firm of talented attorneys. But I’d attended law school for reasons that seemed unrelated to what he was doing with his life.

Conversely, a fourth-year associate from another big firm told me that he’d recently first-chaired and won a federal jury trial. That sounded like a better fit for my lawyerly ambitions.

Of course, that was then. Any recruit looking for the New York experience that I shunned 30 years ago can find it in most large firms everywhere today. On the other hand, a first-chair trial for any Biglaw associate is rare because small cases offering such opportunities fall outside the current metrics-driven business model in two respects: 1) The limited stakes render associates’ huge hourly rates prohibitive, and 2) a firm’s average profits-per-equity-partner are higher when associates become absorbed into the leverage calculation on large matters.

But the salient point of my earlier inquiry still holds. The experiences of an attorney who has been with the same firm for several years are relevant to potential newcomers. Those listening carefully — and hearing between the spoken lines — can glean important truths about opportunities, mentoring, lifestyle, working environment, and firm culture. If the interviewer is a lateral hire, the answers provide different insights.

So while you’re busy hoping that a firm will offer you employment, you’ll also be getting information that will help you decide whether it’s a job you really want (and for how long). The effort could prevent you from becoming another statistic, namely, one of the more than half of practicing lawyers who are so dissatisfied that they counsel young people to avoid a legal career altogether.

One final point: I, too, labored under constraints that still persist, namely, enormous student loans that leave new graduates little room to maneuver. Get any job now; figure out a way to tolerate it later; repay crushing educational debt; then regroup. I get it.

But law students posing the right questions might cause some big firm interviewers to revisit their own careers, institutions, and lives. As others within the profession raise serious questions about the dominant Biglaw business model, its impact, and its future, a gentle nudge from the next generation can’t hurt.

5 thoughts on “INTERVIEWING SEASON — THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention INTERVIEWING SEASON — THE MORE THINGS CHANGE… « The Belly of the Beast -- Topsy.com

  2. Steve, well said indeed. I always felt there was a degree of tragic irony in the pursuit of becoming a partner at a big firm. Luckily for me, I never had the grades and never faced that partner interview.

  3. I suspect that Biglaw partners likely to be moved (both emotionally and physically) by the concerns you identify don’t need law students to raise the questions and those not likely to be moved probably will resent the questions. Did you leave K&E because of a law student provoked “Road to Damascus” moment? Probably not (though I can believe you would see a student who could provoke such a moment about once every thirty years). Truth is, most of the partners (as opposed to associates – which is more common) who can be freed up to interview law students either like the regularity and tedium of Biglaw (it’s well-paid, low risk work), or have made their peace with it. (Some find it exciting.) They may live lives of quiet desperation, but in their minds there are lower circles of hell. Anyone truly interested in the students’ questions would have already left for the academy, government, in-house jobs, public interest work, retirement (writing novels even), or gotten out of law altogether. I have mixed feelings about Biglaw. I think there are some nice places and types of work, and a lot of places and types of work that are dreadful, but law students are not likely to see either right away. The work will be too new to them for it to be dreadful, and they are not likely to be given anything interesting enough to make it nice. If you “get it,” as you say you do (and I’m certain that’s correct), I’m not sure why you would want students to ask your questions. They should think about the questions to be sure, but ask them of a Biglaw partner in an initial job interview, hardly. I don’t say this to be antagonistic. I think Belly of the Beast is one of the very best Biglaw blogs out there. Consistently, you say intelligent and interesting things, and are not cynical, but in reaching the state that permits you to do that, you may have lost contact with third year law students, at least those interested in Biglaw. They fall into two camps, those interested in paying off loans and those willing to pay whatever dues it takes to win the brass ring. They are not the uninformed naifs they often are thought to be. There’s too much information out there for that to be true any longer (lunatics, fools, and luddites excepted of course).

    • I think we agree on most points. (For more than 10 years, I’ve taught at Northwestern Law School — and for the last four at its Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences — so I have a sense of, at least, some third-years.) Our key disagreement is over the power of what psychologists call confirmation bias — especially for prospective lawyers. Like all of us, law students process data in ways that confirm their prior beliefs (and hopes): They’ll succeed where others fail; they’ll have satisfying careers where others won’t. The main point of asking the questions I posed as a student 30 years ago was to hear — directly from the mouths of practicing attorneys — how they described their own careers. There was no intent to be antagonistic and my interviewers didn’t so perceive my inquiry. For the most part, they were comfortable with what they were doing and spun their answers accordingly. But hearing them describe their own lives was a powerful antidote to my own confirmation bias. (For example, everybody was supposed to desire work at the prestigious NY firm that I eliminated with my question.) Needless to say, all big firms were much different animals 30 years ago. For the most part, the answers were not as problematic. Although the principal goal of the exercise is not to provide interviewers with “Road to Damascus” moments, it seems possible that a few interviewers listening to their own descriptions of their careers might pause. But you’re correct that most won’t.

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