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.