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The Legal Job Interview: Winning the Law Related Job in Today's Market


A. The Changing Legal Job Market

The young lawyer entering the profession today faces much greater challenges than his counterpart of ten or fifteen years ago. Back then, a lawyer's career path was extremely predictable. He graduated from law school, he passed the bar in a state where he expected to live out the rest of his life, he apprenticed himself to a law firm as an "associate" or salaried employee, and he worked for the firm from five to seven years while developing his skills. At the end of the five to seven year "apprenticeship" period he either was made a partner of the firm (which guaranteed him a job for life) or was "passed over", in which case he easily found a job as partner of a smaller firm in the same town or as "in house" counsel to one of his firm's business clients. Having settled into one of these three positions (partner of the firm where he served his apprenticeship, partner in another firm, or in house counsel to a corporation), he then continued to practice law in his chosen specialty (litigation or courtroom work, corporate law, taxation, real estate, matrimonial, or estates and trusts) until his retirement or death.

Each step in this career path was very well defined, with very few choices or options. While some lawyers found this narrow track stifling, most found it quite comfortable if not downright cozy. After all, lawyers are not normally inclined, and are certainly not trained, to take risks. The only practical choice for those who could not fit into one of the well established legal career niches was to leave the practice of law entirely, and the list is long of those who have left the legal world for careers in entertainment, politics, government service, business and the arts. Those who stayed in the profession had the luxury of never having to worry about their careers; each step on the treadmill was very well defined, legal employers were careful to "take care of their own", and clients seldom if ever changed lawyers so that once you landed a client (or one was referred to you by a professional colleague) it was pretty much yours for life. The lawyer of bygone days was worried only about keeping his clients happy and staying abreast of development in the law that affected his practice. Until about a decade ago, a book like this one would have been very short indeed.

The decade of the 1980s saw dramatic changes in the lawyer's traditional career path. Corporations began hiring more lawyers as "in house counsel", in the hopes that by paying them a straight salary instead of an hourly billing rate, they could get a better handle on their spiraling legal costs. Many of these "in house" legal departments have grown to rival in size and competence some of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the United States. During the 1980s, many clients gave up their loyalty to the law firms that had represented them since time immemorial, and spread their legal work among several firms based on the strength of their individual specialties. Clients became increasingly loyal to individual attorneys whose judgment they respected, rather than the firms in which those individual attorneys worked. This shift in client loyalty eventually led savvy lawyers to recognize that if they changed employers their clients would follow.

Finally, during the 1980s law firms became ever more subject to economic pressures, which led them to lay off partners who were not contributing to the firm's bottom line, retire their senior partners early, and fire associates (and partners) in areas of practice that were temporarily or permanently depressed.

The result of these dynamic changes is that the profession of law is no longer a cushy refuge from the realities of the business world. Most lawyers today realize that they cannot count on the traditional career path, much less their current employers, to provide the job security that they were able to do in years past. Today's lawyer must take responsibility for his own career, and "look out for Number One", to an extent that could not be imagined even ten years ago.

Today's lawyer or legal professional (such as a paralegal or law firm administrator) can be expected to change jobs, voluntarily or involuntarily, much more frequently than his counterpart of bygone days. Mobility for lawyers -- from one type of legal environment to another, from one location to another, form one area of practice to another -- is on the rise, leading to greater career insecurity and instability. Lawyers today have to spend a substantial amount of time planning their careers, refining those plans as their career unfolds, keeping their eyes open for changes in the legal environment which may make their current position no longer tenable, and making career transitions. At each stage of their careers, they will spend more time than ever before interviewing for jobs. This book is a guide to the special, and often unique, art of interviewing for a legal job.

B. The Growing Need for Lawyers to Develop "People Skills", Especially Interviewing Skills

Once upon a time, a lawyer was judged solely on the strength of his technical skills -- his ability to come up with the right answers, win the client's case, get the client's business transaction closed, and provide timely advice to keep the client out of trouble. His ability to deal with people, while never really unimportant, was secondary: a client was quite willing to tolerate a lawyer's eccentricities and idiosyncrasies if he was satisfied with the lawyer's work, and the lawyer's ability to play golf or tennis well could not make up for a failure to understand the client's business and legal problems, or the courtroom procedure necessary to win the client's case.

Today lawyers are inclined to view their work as less of a profession and more of a business. The ability to attract and keep clients, which in earlier times was taken for granted, is today all important. A lawyer who does not have "portable" clients -- clients who view him, and not his firm, as their lawyer and who are willing to follow him from one employer to another -- cannot count on being employed for very long, no matter how much he knows about the law in his field.

The growing pressure on the lawyer to become more attuned to the economics of his practice compel him (in some cases against his will) to develop "people skills" -- the ability to communicate with others outside his profession, the ability to market and "sell himself" to prospective clients, the ability to deal with difficult people, the ability to achieve his objectives through the work of others (which those outside the profession of law call "management"), the ability to win friends and support without being idiosyncratic or "weird" in his behavior, and the ability to convince others that he fits in with them (i.e. that he is "one of them", behaves the same way as they do, and shares their goals and objectives, their ways of getting the job done, their personal style and organizational culture).

Interviewing skills are among the most crucial "people skills" that the young lawyer or legal professional must master in order to be successful in his professional life. Each and every day in the lawyer's life, he is interviewing: eliciting information from his client so that he can analyze the client's problem correctly, persuading a client (or a colleague or a judge) to adopt his point of view and disregard all opposing views, seeking a higher paying or more challenging job, convincing his superiors that he is a more capable lawyer than the person across the hall and therefore more deserving of partnership.

While this book focuses on the skills necessary to survive a legal job interview, the reader should bear in mind that interviewing (in the broadest sense of the word) does not stop when the job offer is made. The wise lawyer who wishes to grow and develop as a professional never stops interviewing, and treats every interpersonal interaction on the job with the same care and caution as if he were in a formal interview situation. Simply put, the successful lawyer or legal professional never "lets his guard down" in a moment of weakness or severe stress; he always conducts himself in such a way as to make the most positive possible impression upon those around him -- he is always in an "interview mode". Wherever an individual desires something from another person over whom he has no control or power, his interviewing skills are the tools that will help him obtain that something.

C. A War Story, Or, How I Learned That Legal Interviews Are Different

When I was seeking my first legal job more than a decade ago, I scoured the business and career sections of every bookstore in town and devoured every book and article I could find on the art of interviewing (even then there were quite a few). I believed at the time that interviewing for a job required a certain amount of acting ability -- I sensed that I could not simply "be myself" in an interview setting, and yet I was not sure exactly how a young lawyer just starting out should present himself. I therefore looked to nonspecialist (i.e. not written for lawyers) books on interviewing for the answers.

I found, however, that even though I was following the rules and principles in these books to the letter, I was not having much success; in some cases it was painfully obvious that I was turning the interviewer right off the minute I opened my mouth. At first I attributed this to my own lack of interviewing skill, which I thought would come in time, or to my own failure to prepare hard enough for the interview, which led me to triple the amount of time spent researching and analyzing prospective employers. All to no avail.

As the rejection letters continued to pile up in a big way, I began to realize that the skills taught in interviewing books were not helping me succeed in my goal of obtaining a legal job, and that a fairly radical change in tactics would be necessary. I slowly began to realize that interviewing for a legal job was much, much different than interviewing for a job in business management, or the media, or government service, or any other occupation on Earth. Sadly, no book had then been written about the special tactics that would be necessary in a legal job interview (to my knowledge, this is the first book on the subject). I could not, of course, rely on words of wisdom I received from other law students; after all, they were my competition. Nor could I rely on advice from legal placement people of my acquaintance, since they themselves had never thought of legal job interviewing in a systematic way and were referring me to the same general interviewing books whose approach I had rejected. Despite excellent credentials, I began to fear that I would never find a first job, much less learn these special tactics for the long run.

I then had an experience which changed my entire life, and taught me in a single, Zen-like flash of intuition what it would take for me to succeed in a legal job interview. I had flown to New York City to interview with several major law firms (I had no difficulty obtaining interviews, so I knew my credentials were not the cause of my troubles). It was the last day before my flight back to law school, and I was scheduled to interview with two firms: I was to spend the morning at Firm A, a freewheeling, intense place known then for its antitrust work, and the afternoon at Firm B, a stuffy, "white shoe" law firm that represented many of the old-line investment banking firms on Wall Street.

The morning at Firm A, I thought, went spectacularly well. I met three of the most interesting people I had ever met in my life, and they seemed to love me. We talked animatedly for a couple of hours, and then they invited me to lunch on the spur of the moment (I had not been scheduled for a lunch interview). Three of the firm's top partners took me to a restaurant that was a favorite haunt of movie and television starts, sports figures and Wall Street executives. While there we went through three bottles of wine, and we regaled each other with war stories from our respective pasts (I had been a crime reporter for a daily newspaper before attending law school, and could match them story for story). They wanted me to return to the firm and spend the rest of the day, but I told them I had to catch an early flight because of a Law Review deadline (I couldn't tell them about the interview at Firm B). When we left the restaurant, I thought I was a shoo-in to receive an offer from Firm A.

On the way to my afternoon interview at Firm B, I realized I was not in the best shape for an interview. The wine had made me much too mellow, and I started frantically chewing on breath mints so that this fact would not be too obvious. Even worse, I had gotten so caught up in Firm A's salesmanship that I completely forgot all the information I had gleaned in my extensive research of Firm B. I thought to myself, "Holy Cow, Ennico! You can't go through an interview like this, especially with a stuffy place like Firm B that wants every hair in place. Maybe you should feign illness and ask for a postponement." Then, after a few minutes, I said to myself "hold on a minute. It's going to be weeks before you're back in town again; this may be your last chance for an interview at Firm B. Besides, Firm B is one of Wall Street's most elite law firms; someone with your background probably doesn't have a chance there anyway. You know you've got an offer from Firm A -- you really knocked them dead -- so you don't really need to try to so hard with Firm B. Let's just go through the motions at Firm B and get on back to school."

Sure enough, Firm B was as stodgy as I had imagined; the office looked as if it had not been redecorated since the Eisenhower administration. To keep my lack of preparation hidden from view, I sat through a series of interviews with the firm's senior partners in almost total silence. I let them do all the talking (they seemed to like to hear themselves talk). On the rare occasion when they asked me a question or showed any interest at all in me, I thought for a moment, uttered a direct four or five word answer and then countered with a question of my own, which started them off on another tangent for what seemed like hours.

As I left Firm B's offices, I said to myself, "well, you can write that one off. They hardly even seemed interested in you. All they wanted to talk about was themselves and how great they are. They probably took one look at you and said to themselves, this guy's not our type.' Frankly, you didn't give them much reason to be interested in you; you just sat there like a bump on a log. Oh well, at least you did well at Firm A; I think you'll be getting an offer from them, so the trip wasn't a total waste."

The letters from Firm A and Firm B arrived the same day. The letter from Firm A was a form rejection letter, just like the dozens of others I'd received. I was crushed. I just couldn't believe I had blown it. I couldn't imagine what I had done wrong. Everything had seemed to go so smoothly, and everyone at Firm A seemed to think I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I actually (this does not happen to me often) started to cry. Would there be no future for me in the law?

I almost did not open the letter from Firm B. It was in the same sort of envelope as the letter from Firm A, and I had always believed that if you were going to be made an offer it would come in a different size envelope. Besides, hadn't I done a terrible job of interviewing at Firm B? The best I could have hoped to do was hide the fact that I was not prepared for my interview there; those breath mints could not have done the job. I almost threw the unopened letter in the garbage (even today I can't recall what made me open it -- I probably thought that it would complete my collection of rejection letters from New York law firms, which might be worth something to a collector).

The letter from Firm B was not a form letter. It was a personal letter written by the firm's most powerful partner (the autograph alone is probably worth some money today), inviting me to join Firm B as an associate, for a salary so astronomically high that at first I thought it was a typographical error.

I sat on my sofa-bed in stunned silence. What in the world had I done wrong at Firm A, and what in the world had I done right at Firm B? Why were my perceptions of my own performance so off base? Why did I think I had wowed them at Firm A, when in fact I had turned them right off? And why did I think I had made a fool of myself at Firm B, when in fact I gave the best performance of my career? The answer didn't hit me until later that night, after a raucous celebration at the Law Review of my receiving the offer from Firm B.

The reason for my success at Firm B, and my utter failure at Firm A, is the subject of this book. The lessons I learned from that fateful day at Firm A and Firm B are the lessons I teach in this book, so that you won't waste as much time as I did collecting rejection letters from law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies.

Once I learned these lessons, I threw away all of the interviewing books I had collected in my job search, because I knew the information contained in them would be utterly useless to me in a legal job interview. While I do not suggest that you do the same (they do serve at least two purposes -- providing ready answers to some of the standard interview questions, and showing you how to deal with the "professional interviewer", whom you will undoubtedly encounter at one point or another), I recommend that you take them with a grain of salt. For sometimes these interviewing books are downright harmful to your chances for success. To succeed in a legal job interview, I believe, you must in some cases do exactly the opposite of what other books on interviewing skills will tell you to do. Some of the keys to success in a legal job interview -- which are described in detail in Chapter 4 -- will even seem contrary to common sense, until you apply them in practice and see how well they work.

D. What This Book Is All About: Interviewing with Unskilled Interviewers

This is a very personal book; an essay, not a treatise or textbook. It is not a book of absolute rules, but rather a summary of my own experience in legal job interviews and the lessons I have learned. I have practiced law for more than a decade, in a variety of legal environments, and have made several successful career transitions using the interviewing skills that I have outlined in this book. Still, I cannot hold myself out as an expert on the subject of interviewing. Nor can I guarantee that you will succeed in every legal job interview, even if you follow the lessons in this book scrupulously.

The reason is that there is no such ting as a "typical" legal job interview. Personnel and human resources executives in the corporate world are taught how to interview people for jobs, and as a result of this training their approach is somewhat standardized. They do very little of the talking; they ask lots of standard questions, most of which you can anticipate in advance; they ask "negative" questions and sometimes engage in what is called a "stress interview' to see how well you perform under pressure; they are more concerned with "screening you out" than "screening you in"; and so forth.

When you interview for a legal position, on the other hand, your interviewer is not a personnel executive but rather a lawyer just like you (or just like you want to become). Lawyers by definition are not trained in interviewing techniques, as personnel executives are, and so they often don't know the basic rules of interviewing job candidates.

The results can often be amusing, and sometimes can be tragic. In any event they are unpredictable. One of the shortest interviews I ever had was with a large New York City law firm that at the time had the reputation of being a sweatshop. The interviewer said nothing about the firm, and asked only three questions: "are you married?", "what were your billable hours last year?", and "when can you start?" The interviewer made me an offer immediately upon my giving the right answers to these questions ("no", "over 2200 hours," and "as early as next week", in that order), and then left it up to me to figure out whether or not I wanted to work there (I didn't). Those three questions told me more about the firm's attitude toward associates than anything the interviewer actually could have told me.

I recall another interview with a law firm partner whose office was bedecked with American flags of all sizes and shapes, including one covering an entire wall that looked as if it had flown over the White House at one time. The interviewer asked me questions covering virtually every facet of my personal and professional life, and seemed satisfied with my answers until I made the offhand remark, while answering a question about my summer jobs in college, that "I'm afraid I didn't have too many white collar jobs when I was at college; the summer jobs I did have were more blue collar in nature." The partner scowled, jumped to his feet, banged his fist down hard on his desk, so hard that the flag on the wall became unhinged in one corner, fixed an icy stare at me that made my blood run cold (I thought for a moment he was going to hit me), and shouted through his clenched teeth in a voice I am sure every lawyer in the firm could hear (and that I can still hear to this day), "M-I-S-T-E-R Ennico, the profession of law IS a blue collar job -- in fact, it is the most honorable blue collar job in the United States of America. There is nothing white collar about it. Lawyers are the highest paid factory workers in this country. And don't you ever, ever forget that if you expect to work here, M-I-S-T-E-R Ennico!" Needless to say, I was not too keen on working there either.

You cannot anticipate what the interviewer will do in a legal job interview, the way you can when you are dealing with a professional personnel or human resources executive. So, no amount of planning and preparation will help you win the day. Memorizing dozens of stock answers to stock interview questions could not have helped me in either of the above situations. The trick is to avoid getting into "no win" situations like these with interviewers who obviously haven't a clue how to conduct a successful interview. Instead, your objective is to win the interviewer over by putting him into the position in which he feels most comfortable. Since lawyers are by definition insecure people, who know only too well (in most cases) that they don't have interviewing skills, the best way to win in a legal job interview is to convince the interviewer that he will not need interviewing skills in order to make the right decision about you. As will be seen in Chapter 4, this is a lot easier than it appears at first.

This book is designed to be a complete guide to the legal job interviewing process. Chapter 2 will discuss the legal job interviewer; who he is, how he sees himself, what he is thinking about when you walk into his office (or the placement office at your law school), and what keeps him awake at night when he thinks about his role as interviewer. Chapter 3 will discuss the work you need to do before you schedule a legal job interview. Chapter 4 is the heart of the book, taking you step by step through a typical legal job interview and showing you what to do (and what not to do) to maximize your chances of getting a job offer at a law firm, corporate legal department, or government agency. Chapter 5 discusses some special rules for lunch, cocktail or dinner interviews, whose purpose is often quite different from the in-office interview. Chapter 6, which is not coincidentally the shortest chapter in this book, explains how to negotiate "tangibles" such as salary, benefits, size and type of office, and so forth. Chapter 7 offers some strategies for dealing with the questions you are bound to be asked in a legal job interview, with the caution that you must not follow these formulas too slavishly or else you will apear to be phoney and "programmed" (remember that interviewers may well be reading this book too, and may be on the alert for "Ennico-isms").

Finally, Chapter 8 stresses the need to continue using your interviewing skills after you have landed the job you want. If this book can be said to have a "conclusion" or a "moral", it is that interviewing skills are the tools of choice whenever you want something from a person (a prospective client, a boss, a member of your personal network, a colleague at another firm) over whom you have no power or control, and that the successful lawyer treats every interpersonal interaction on the job with the same care and caution as he would a legal job interview.

After all, your interviewer's perception of you will be shaped by your performance and demeanor during the job interview. If you act differently after you have been hired, your interviewer will begin to wonder if he made a mistake after all in hiring you, or if he was "taken in" by an acting performance worthy of Sir Laurence Olivier. It is not healthy for your career if your employer thinks that you are something other than what he bought. The purpose of Chapter 8, and this book in general, is to make you aware that interviewing is not merely a job hunting tool, but a career management tool you will employ virtually every day of your professional life.


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