Preparing for a Legal Interview
As you begin preparing for the interview, it might be helpful to first think about the hiring process. To better understand how you can excel in an interview, put yourself in the place of the interviewer. What is it that you are looking for? What skills and talents will he or she have?
Different organizations can have different interviewing styles:
- Law firm interviews may be less formal than you might expect. You probably will not be asked hypotheticals - instead, employers will be judging these criteria through your presentation, your professionalism, and your ability to inspire confidence.
- Interviews with public interest and government employers tend to be structured - these employers are typically very clear on their organizational mission. Interviews with these organizations may include hypothetical questions designed to test the interviewee’s commitment to the area of practice or occasionally even knowledge of law in a particular area. For more information, review the government or public interest webpages.
- Interviews with business employers, such as investment banks, full-service accounting firms, and consulting firms, are very structured. They have often done analysis of their employees to identify the qualities that make one a “star” performer, and they have developed questions designed to draw that information from their candidates. If you will be interviewing with these companies, be sure to consult CP&P prior to your visits and review our Business/Industry webpage.
In preparing for the legal interview you need to:
- know the organization and the work it does;
- know why you want to do that kind of work and express a real enthusiasm for the work you will be doing;
- know your own talents and skills and have the ability to convey how the skills you possess match up to the needs of the employer;
- be able to emphasize why that particular employer interests you and tie in any personal connections to that employer or the geographic region; and,
- know your personality type and social style.
The items below will help you with this process:
Learning About the Organization
You want to know as much as possible about an organization - its work, its clients, and its “personality” before your interview. To aid in your research, review:
- the organization’s web site (you can connect directly to many of these websites through Symplicity (click on “employers” tab))
- employer recruiting brochures and other information about an organization
- the PSJD public service data base at www.psjd.org
- the resources available at our Researching Private Law Firms page
- the Insider’s Guide to Law Firms (available in CP&P and in Biddle)
- alumni or other contacts you can gain at that employer
You may, particularly if you are focusing your search on law firms, be tempted to say “they’re all alike.” Don’t be fooled. Organizations have personalities that can be gleaned from their materials or from “insider info.” Most importantly, all organizations think of themselves as different and unique from their competitors, therefore, it is important to know the distinguishing features of the organizations.
Legal services organizations often have practices that change with the times. For example, changes in welfare laws have resulted in subtle transformations to many areas (employment discrimination, housing, etc.) as a result. You will want to know as much as possible about the local and national issues that are affecting the practice of law for this public interest organization.
In short, learn as much as you can about an employer and be prepared to include the information you gather in your interview with that organization.
Why That Organization?
Know why you want to be a lawyer with the particular organization you are interviewing with. Thinking about how and where you want to be involved in this work will allow you to express your enthusiasm for what individual organizations do in a convincing and genuine manner that will be attractive to employers.
1Ls and 2Ls: This does not mean you have to know exactly what area of the law you want to practice. The answer: “I am really looking forward to the opportunity to learn as much as I can about a variety of practice areas, and your organization is attractive to me because it would afford me that opportunity.” is a good answer (and far preferable to an answer like “I’m interested in international law” or “I’m interested in corporate transactional work” when you really don’t have a CLUE what those practice areas are all about).
While you may not know what particular practice area you’re interested in, you DO have to know what it is that leads you to the practice of law, what it is about the work generally that attracts you, and why you think your skills are a good match to the skills lawyers typically use.
We can’t stress enough the importance of knowing why you want to work for THAT PARTICULAR ORGANIZATION. Good interviewees clearly articulate what it is they are attracted to in a particular practice and find positive ways to convey that interest. This is particularly true with public interest organizations, which tend to have more specialized practices. Now more than ever, your goal is to make the case that your attributes match up with the organization’s work.
Private Law Firms
At interviews with private law firms, you may not be directly asked about your commitment to the firm’s business, but that doesn’t make it less important for you to show it. You have to have a clear idea about what it is attorneys do at a firm, and at this particular firm, and be able to show your genuine enthusiasm for that work. If you go in with the attitude that, “Well, I’ll go there for a few years to make the big bucks and then do something else…” interviewers will sense your ambivalence. Firms are reluctant to hire people, train them, get them up to speed, and then watch them leave.
There are a myriad of great reasons to work at law firms, such as:
- Firms provide intellectually challenging work in a variety of practice areas. Even in “boutique” or specialty firms, every case and client present new challenges and opportunities. The work is interesting, demanding, creative, and intense. The intellectual challenge is great.
- Your co-workers will be fantastically bright and accomplished people who will teach you a lot and help you grow as an attorney. You will learn from the best and brightest and then, when you are the best and the brightest, you’ll be able to share your skills with the newest recruits.
- Firms provide the best of many worlds — the chance to grow as a professional as you develop your expertise and practice, the chance to be an entrepreneur as you develop your clients, the chance to be a thinker as you consider the law and policy and its application to practice.
- You’ll be able to do work that sometimes, or even often, has an impact on the development of a legal theory or procedure or a business practice or standard in your field.
- You’ll do all this while developing relationships with people — your clients and co-workers — and making them happy with a job well done.
Again, you need to know if and why you want to work at a law firm. And you need to be able to present this information to interviewers directly (if they ask you) and subtly (if they don’t). Some interviewers may outright ask: Why do you want to work at a law firm? You want to have considered and thoughtful responses to that question.
Let’s look at some simple answers students have given to that question that might have been more successfully developed:
- “Law firms have tremendous resources.” Interviewers might think you mean someone to get your coffee in the morning. Be very specific about what you mean by “resources” and how you think that will help you develop as an attorney.
- “Law firms provide great training.” This is true in many cases, but flesh the answer out. What does this particular firm do in the way of training? Perhaps they highlight in their materials that they have weekly presentations by partners to the associates. Talk about that, and talk again about how training will help you develop as a lawyer who will be of great value to the firm.
- “Law firms have a lot of departments and I don’t have a clue about what I want to do yet.” Again, there are positive ways to frame this. Talk about the variety of work at that particular firm and how that will enable you to test your skills and interest in various fields. Talk about the challenge of choosing and ask the interviewer if he or she expected to be doing the work he or she is now doing. Ask how the firm assigns new attorneys to particular departments.
- “I have tremendous debt that I need to pay down before I can do what I really want to do.” It’s hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t want to earn a major law firm starting salary – the firms are aware of this or they wouldn’t be willing to pay you so much. But this answer makes them feel taken advantage of. Feel free to say, “I’m looking forward to being well-compensated for my hard work” if you have to address the issue of salary head on.
Government and Public Interest Employers
At government or public interest employers, you may be directly asked about your interest. Public sector employers want to know about your commitment — philosophy, work-style, even financial commitment — to their work. A prosecutor’s office, for example, may ask how you feel about the death penalty or whether you have applied with public defender’s offices, and a defender’s office may ask the same. An environmental advocacy group may want to see your prior dedication to their field or may have questions about your interest if you don’t have relevant experiences already indicated on your resume.
Interviews with public sector employers are often more directed and substantive than interviews with firm employers. You may even be expected to handle a substantive question or two — take a minute, think about what you would want to know about the law in order to answer, communicate that information to the interviewer, and then give an analysis based on what you do know about the law based on your experience to date.
In general, let your enthusiasm for the work of the organization be your guide through the interview — learn as much about them ahead of time and then display as much energy for their work as you can.
Regardless of the type of organization, you will shine if you have more than a superficial grasp of what life as a lawyer at that organization is like. Talk to practitioners to get a real sense of the day-to-day life. Get on the phone and talk to some Penn Law alumni. You may access this information via the Finding Alumni page or through the Alumni Network .
Conveying Your Skills and Talents
Why should we hire you? - If you can think about your answer to this question now, prior to your interviews, you can begin to build a successful interview around your potential answer. Let’s say your answer is that you have great organizational skills, you have a good ability to “listen” to people and discern what it is they really want from a situation, and you are a very dedicated worker who invests in bringing things to conclusion. Your goal should be to reiterate these talents throughout your interview in subtle ways, so that the interviewer has a clear picture of you exhibiting these skills.
One way to be certain you do this is to take your resume and actually diagram out how your talents are displayed throughout those listed accomplishments. Click here for an example of how to accomplish this.
The Social Aspects of a Legal Interview
It is important to recognize that successful lawyers, in whatever their field, inspire the confidence of others. Accordingly, someone who enters a room with a friendly smile, a firm handshake, and a comfortable manner has a leg-up on someone who does not make eye contact, has a weak handshake, and has a quiet manner. This does not mean the first person will actually be a better lawyer, it just means that, in this environment, they are creating a better first impression as a lawyer.
Also, different work environments will match better with different personality types. Your ultimate goal is to make the best match for you and to find work in an environment in which you are most comfortable. So you don’t want to ignore your core personality and become this TV character to get yourself a job as it may end up being the wrong job for you.
With that said, think about your social style and how you may need to adjust during interviews. If you are a quieter person by nature, you may find that you’ll need to push yourself some to get through interviewing season. And if you are tremendously gregarious, you may need to tone down and be more circumspect. Whatever your personality, think always about whether or not you are painting a picture in your interviewer’s head of a competent, confidence-inspiring, enthusiastic, energetic, and committed person who will be a great colleague and an even better lawyer.