Early Interview Week/On-Campus Interviews season is upon us!

EIW/OCI is a singular experience.  It can be grueling.  (I’ll never forget the harried experience of shuttling up and down those crowded elevators at the Embassy Suites in Battery Park City in my own bout of law-firm speed dating, where I ended up having 28 20-minute interviews in just a few days.)  But, hopefully, it’s also exciting. It’s the first tangible step on your law firm journey.  And it’s an important one.  For most Biglaw-bound law students, your first EIW/OCI determines where you spend your first summer, and and your first summer determines where you begin your career.  So the stakes are high.

In determining where you will end up, your choice of law school and first-year grades will, of course, be important factors.  But by the time EIW rolls around, those drivers are out of your control.  What is in your control is how well you perform in your interviews. 

In honor of the season, we wanted to offer a few interview tips for our law school audience, including our view on what makes for not just a good but a great law firm interviews. 

(Please add your own tips in the comments below to support our community members as they embark on this right of passage!)

How to Have a Good Law Firm Interview:  the Nuts and Bolts

To begin, let’s start with the basics.  The nuts and bolts.  How can you, as an interviewee, ensure that you have a good law firm interview?  No surprises here—only conventional wisdom. But that wisdom is conventional for reason: it’s tried and true.  And it all boils down to this bottom line:  be prepared.

Know the Firm

Know about the firm with which you’re interviewing.  Now, there’s no need to go overboard with the research (speaking here about the EIW/OCI meat-market experience specifically, not individual, direct screening interviews or callbacks) and know everything there is to know about a firm for a 20-minute screener.  But you should certainly know a little bit about firm’s background (where it comes from, where its offices are located, its size, etc.), the kinds of work that it does, and–most importantly–why you think you might want to work there.  (And, for the love of God, if there’s any doubt in your mind, figure out how to pronounce the firm’s name. One of my close law school friends—one of the smartest women in our law school class—went through an entire screening interview mispronouncing the name of a firm she was interviewing with, which I’m sure didn’t help her cause). 

That means you should know things like what (major) departments the firm has/what kinds of law they practice (and, perhaps even more importantly, what kinds of laws they don’t practice, so that you don’t indicate a strong interest in something they don’t actually do—which, believe me, happens all the time).  That also means you should be able to articulate why you’re interested in interviewing with that specific firm.  Maybe it’s renowned for practice area in which you’re interested or it’s of a particular size or headquartered in a particular place. Maybe you had a positive experience with a firm member in the past or it came highly recommended by a close friend or family member.  Whatever the reason, be able to speak to why you’re excited to be there putting yourself forwards a candidate.

Specific interests and detailed knowledge of a firm can be impressive.  But they can also be dangerous.

(But no need to go overboard here either.  If you’re interviewing with one of the big, prestigious New York firms, your interviewers are likely to be of the mindset: “of course this person wants to come work here if they’re looking to join a big firm; why would anyone not want to come work here?”)  The more off-the-beaten-path (i.e., a nonlocal office or small satellite office of a nonlocal firm) or specialized (e.g., a boutique) the opportunity, the more detail is likely to be required to communicate a genuine interest.

(Pro tip:  Specific interests and detailed knowledge of a firm can be impressive.  But they can also be dangerous.  It’s difficult to understand exactly what a firm does from the outside—particularly as a law student—and you never know which practices are ascendant within firms and which are on the skids or—particularly for the small niches—how the hiring and staffing for highly specialized areas work.  If you express an overly narrow interest in a firm or link your interest to a specific firm element, and that’s not a practice into which they are hiring, for example, facts you don’t know might translate your message into: “I’m not a great candidate for the firm’s current needs” or “I have no idea what I’m talking about.”  Don’t get me wrong, specifics, deployed carefully, can be powerful.  You just need to be judicious and hedge appropriately.)

Know Yourself

It’s also important that you do some serious thinking about yourself—what’s important to you, what you’re looking for, etc.—before beginning EIW/OCI.

Don’t worry if you feel like you’re operating with wildly incomplete information.  I certainly did.  Biglaw is a bit of a black box for those of us who weren’t paralegals, and law school rarely gives you insight into the types of work done buy non-litigation groups.  I remember feeling like I had absolutely no idea what large law firms did on a daily basis, what distinguished one firm from another, and what the heck I wanted to practice in any event.  (I recently rediscovered the hilarious firm research” spreadsheet my friends and I were populating in advance EIW—complete with laughably inaccurate commentary, irrelevant considerations, and pretty color-coding.)  Just do the best you can.

[K]nowing the broad strokes of what you want to say on certain common interview themes so that you’re speaking extemporaneously, as opposed making it up on the spot out of whole cloth, should greatly improve your interview performance.

I always found it particularly useful to have conversations with folks who had been there before (e.g., my 3L TA’s who had already summered, alumni at events) about their experience at different firms, trying to get a read on firms’ culture, strengths and weaknesses, etc.  Attend as many events sponsored by law firms as possible, and spend much time as you can at those events interacting with firms’ lawyers.  Read (with a shaker of salt) what you can online.  You may not get clarity, but you’ll certainly start to feel more comfortable narrowing down your target list of firms and talking about why you might want to work at one place versus another.

You also need to spend time with your resume.  Not just revising and proofreading, but looking at it with fresh eyes, trying to anticipate what would catch the eye of a third-party interviewer. Make sure that you feel immensely comfortable talking about everything on that page in a way that will help support your candidacy (more on that later).  Brush up on all the relevant pieces of your personal history.  (Do you mention a college thesis? Give it a skim to refresh your memory.)

Finally—no surprise—it’s important to have thought through potential answers to common interview questions.  I think it’s best not to script answers, but I do think it’s immensely helpful to attempt to answer them out loud.  To actually put words to the ideas in your head and see how they sound.  Don’t just go sit in the library for 30 minutes, think a bit, and then just say “I’ve got this.”  Find a quiet room and speak to an imaginary interviewer.  Better yet, role play with a friend.  Consider recording it, so you can see how it comes across.  Again—I wouldn’t try to script out answers.  There are too many possible questions, and trying to keep all those scripts in your head will make you anxious and prevent you from performing at your best.  But knowing the broad strokes of what you want to say on certain common interview themes so that you’re speaking extemporaneously, as opposed making it up on the spot out of whole cloth, should greatly improve your interview performance.  (And, trust me, by the time you have done a dozen interviews back to back, you’re messaging on certain topics will have naturally evolved into a bit of a script anyway—one that will have generated organically in the context of real conversations.  It’s best that that organically-generated script isn’t warring in your mind with one you created in advance by talking to yourself.)

There are a number of good lists of such interview questions out there, so we won’t waste the space and time creating our own.  To get started, have a look at:

Know What Points You Need to Get Across

Interviews can take any number of turns, with conversations heading off in a million different directions.  Good interviews are about having good conversations; so—to some extent—you want to go with the conversational flow and just have an enjoyable chat.  But your screening interviews are only 20 minutes.  And while a nice chat might leave your interviewer with positive feelings as you walk out the door, you need to ensure that you’ve also made a lasting impression of why you’re a strong candidate—one that will stick with the interviewer at least until the evaluations are completed and the callback decisions made.  That means that you need to take responsibility for ensuring that, before your 20 minutes is gone, you’ve highlight your key strengths (and, potentially, shore up any key weaknesses/soft spots in your resume).

In advance, identify the two or three (or more) points that you feel you NEED to make in order to put your best foot forward and ensure that they get made—regardless of the quality of the interviewer and her questions.  Maybe you can take advantage of a natural segue in the discussion.  But you also need to be prepared to manufacture one in order to find a way to hit your points.  (In an extreme case, you could even make an abrupt redirect by saying something like, “I’m mindful that we have a very limited time together, so before our time runs out, I wanted to share [x]/address [y]…”  Be tactful and read the situation, but don’t subject your professional fate to the quality of your interviewer.  It’s your job to get your message across before you leave that room.

Know What Else You Need to Know

Finally, one of the most important parts a screening interview is the opportunity for you to ask your own questions of the interviewer.  It’s important not only because it gives you a chance to gather information, but also because the questions you ask actually communicate a great deal about your level of interest, engagement, and commitment.

Spend some time in advance coming up with good questions.  Questions specific to particular firms are great, but it’s also important have a solid number of generally-applicable questions in your back pocket, so that you’re never coming up dry during question time.  (It’s also very useful to be able to compare answers to the same or similar questions given by different firms.)  For example, you could ask: “what are the qualities that you think make for a great junior associate?”; “what are the questions you would advise me to ask OTHER firms as I go through this interview process?”; “what’s something you wish you had known or been thinking about when you were in my shoes?”.

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If you prepare for your interviews on these four fronts, you can’t go badly wrong.  Worst-case scenario is likely to be that you’ll end up exactly where your school and grades suggest you should.  There is, however, a difference between a good and great law firm interview.  And sometimes that difference can be THE difference between a candidate ending up where it is suggested they should and where they really want to be.

How to Have A Great Law Firm Interview:  the Extra Mile

There’s no magic formula for a great interview. In fact, breaking out of the mold and exceeding an interviewer’s expectations is usually the result from something innately personal to a particular candidate that creates an idiosyncratic chemistry between the interviewee and the firm or the specific interviewer.  That said, after conducting literally hundreds of interviews of strong candidates on behalf of a top-tier law firm, I do think there are a few generalizable, common threads that tend to run through great interviews.

Connect with Your Interviewer

We are interested in others when they are interested in us.

—Publius Syrus, Maxim 16

There’s a reason why the world’s greatest salesmen rarely begin pitches by talking about their products.  Even the most impressive product in the world isn’t usually as effective at winning over an audience as a compelling personal connection.  And I don’t mean connections in the sense that so-and-so knows your family or you’re members of the same social club (although those sorts of connections are certainly useful, too).  I mean that you’ve been able to have a genuine exchange that establishes a human connection apart from the selling/buying dynamic—particularly one where you can exhibit an honest interest in something that is important to the other person.  (Pro tip: What is important to people is usually themselves.  Not in a callous way.  But in a human way.  So finding the right topic or opportunity to create that connection usually involves listening to others/looking around their space, identifying what they care most about or some specific shared interest, and engaging with them on it.  For a deeper dive on how to do this effectively, there are some great resources out there, such as Dale Carnegie’s canonical How to Win Friends and Influence People (affiliate link).)  If you can do that, the product usually sells itself.  In law firm interviews, the product is you.  Don’t get so caught up with the nuts and bolts described above that you forget that lawyers are also just people.  Connect with them.  At the beginning of an interview, or at the first opportunity, look for a way to express genuine interest and something that’s important to your interviewer or explore some common ground.

Be Positive, Enthusiastic, and Authentic

Most law firm interviews are behavioral interviews where the interviewers try to get a sense for your personality and how well you’d fit in at their firm. The classic Biglaw interview litmus test is:  “would I want to be stuck in the office at 3 AM working in close quarters on a  stressful matter with this person?”  And to pass, attitude is everything.

The attitude and energy you bring to an interview are every bit as important as the substance.  Infusing your answers with an overall sense of positivity goes a long way to ensuring that the interviewer views you as someone they’d want to work with.  Which is the goal.  But—and this is a big but—it needs to be authentic.  Lawyers have pretty good bullshit meters.  (Takes one to know one, right?)  That’s one of the reasons it is so important for you to do the background work/thinking we described above.  You need to know yourself, know what you want, and know what you’re interested in, so that you can communicate it to someone else in an authentic way.

Don’t get so caught up with the nuts and bolts described above that you forget that lawyers are also just people.  Connect with them.

(That’s also why we warn you to be thoughtful about getting too specific.  It’s hard to express an authentic interest in a niche where there is no reasonable way you could know much about it.)

(Pro tip:  Career services department will often tell you to be clear and decisive about your professional interest.  For example, decide in advance whether you’re more interested in litigation or corporate work and tell firms one or the other.  But when you try to package your interest in that way, it makes it that much more difficult to be authentic.  And whereas that may be good advice when you start to get further downmarket (where firms get a little more targeted about filling discrete practice niches), I don’t think expressing a broad range of interest is necessarily a liability at the top end of the legal market, if that’s where you’re lucky enough to be interviewing.  In the run up to my own EIW, I tried to take the advice above, and the first partner I described my (narrower) interest to—funny enough, a Davis Polk partner at at a firm-sponsored cocktail hour—read my internal ambivalence like a book, pressed me to give him the full story, and encouraged me to be honest in my interviews, which I did—to great success.)

Again, don’t get so caught up with the nuts and bolts of your interview that you get up in your own head and forget how you’re coming across.  Expressions of positivity, enthusiasm, and genuineness are as powerful as the most well-crafted interview-question answer.

Carry Your End of the Conversation

There is nothing worse than feeling like it’s a slog to get through a 20-minute interview—having to scramble to come up with question after question because the person you’re interviewing is not really engaging and playing their part in an ongoing dialogue.  As noted above, listening to your interviewer is good. Getting getting them to talk about themselves and talk about things that they are interested in is good.  But you have to be able to carry your end of conversation.  Make sure you are giving them an opportunity to ask the questions they need to ask and that you’re ensuring that you are getting to make the points that you need to make, but otherwise don’t forget it’s a conversation.  Be an active part of it.

Be Memorable;  Be Passionate

Even the best candidates can run together at the end of a day of 30 interviews.  And a week of 100.  Not only is it important, as discussed above, that you get across the points that you need to make the best sell yourself as a prospective associate, it’s also important that you be memorable.  There are lots of ways to make an impression (and following all of these “great” interview tips will propel you in that direction), but take note of anything your background that might be particularly distinctive or interesting to someone who is having the same conversation about the same topics over and over again and try to work it into the conversation.  What are the unique things about you that might help bring you to mind at the end of a long day.  (“Oh yeah–that was the [label/achievement] guy” or “the girl who [did the super-cool thing].”)

When prepping for your interviews, think about one or two things that could make you memorable in a sea of candidates, and be able to tell a story good about it.

And it certainly doesn’t need to be something related to law. In between college and law school, I cofounded a nonprofit, gave bike tours in France, and worked on a political campaign.  Nine out of ten my interviewers were most excited to talk about one of those three things (probably seven of those nine zeroing in on the bike tours/related adventures).  And I have no doubt (particularly in light of my own experiences as an interviewer) that those monotony-breaking conversation snippets helped me stick in my interviewers’ brains when they were sorting through resumes at the end of the night/week.

It’s less about having a wild personal experience and more about having a great story.  Storytelling is an incredibly powerful medium.  It makes people feel inspired and connected, and nothing sticks in the human brain like an engaging tale.  When prepping for your interviews, think about one or two things that could make you memorable in a sea of candidates, and be able to tell a story good about it.

(Pro tip: When it comes to engaging storytelling, nothing is as captivating as genuine passion. Always be looking for opportunities to talk about things that you’re truly passionate about and let that passion shine through.  But don’t be naïve.  Firms are making an investment in their new hires, so they want them to stick around for a while.  Steer clear of a passionate speech about wanting to devote your life to that public-interest cause that would imply to firms that their investment will be looking for the exits in a year or two.)

Inspire Confidence

Finally, firms are hiring you as a junior associate.  And being a great junior associate isn’t about having all the answers.  In fact, juniors rarely have many answers. Yet, juniors are often on the front lines of interacting with clients and providing client service. One of the hardest parts of an associate’s job, therefore, is operating in a visible, high-stress environment with limited experience and information while maintaining client confidence.  Great associates are great at keeping their composure. They find ways to tactfully fIeld client questions and concerns—even when they themselves don’t have the answers or the insight. 

In that frame, a few tough or unexpected questions could transform a traditionally behavioral law firm interview into a case interview testing that critical associate skill: coolness under fire.  How you handle yourself in an interview says a lot about how you would handle client interaction.  It’s not about knowledge.  It’s about presence and control.  Do whatever you can to stay cool, calm, and collected in your interviews—no matter what is thrown your way.  Carry yourself like somebody it can be trusted with responsibility.  Great interviews are the ones that leave your interviewer feeling sure that you can handle the most difficult parts of the job.

(Pro tip:  If something happens that throws you for a loop—a question comes completely out of left field and you don’t know how to answer it—don’t get anxious and respond immediately (as most people would do) by babbling in hopes of working your way to something that resembles a relevant and coherent response.  Instead, say something like “that’s an interesting question; let me think about that for second,” and take a breath.  Be comfortable with a moment of silence, hold the floor, think of something reasonably responsive to say, and say it.  Never be afraid to collect yourself.  Done right, it will communicate volumes about your ability to handle the pressures of the job.)

Have Questions About Law Firm Interviews?

If you have any questions about law firm interviews, leave a comment below, tweet them to @bnblegal, or share them in The Issues List.  We’ll be answering them on an upcoming episode of the Blacklines & Billables podcast (subscribe on iTunes here).

We also answered questions on law firm interviews at our last Associate Intel meetup.  Join the meet up to get invites to future Associate Intel events.

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