What employers hope to learn
What (and what not) to wear
What to bring
Questions, responses, and counter-questions
Why some people aren't hired
Salaries and benefits
ASL interviewing rules and polices
The best interviews are seemingly informal conversations. However, getting to the point of such a seamless discussion requires planning and preparation. Learn everything you can about the firm or agency. Preparation translates into enthusiasm for the person interviewing you. There are three main areas to study:
- The firm’s practice areas and which side they stand on
- The firm's business history
- The firm's major cases or clients
For the practice area and position, start to learn the code language of law firm practice. For example “plaintiff’s firm" means that the firm generally represents the claimant in civil cases, would refer to the call for “tort reform” as truly the call for “insurance reform,” and thinks of itself as representing the underdog. These are generally more liberally minded practitioners, but be wary of any sweeping generalizations. On the flip side would be defense firms, which are usually larger and more corporate-minded. There are also transactional firms. They spend their time counseling corporations on transactions, employment issues, reorganizations, taxes, mergers & acquisitions and other issues. They act much like an outside counsel. Understanding the philosophical differences behind practice areas is essential to knowing whether you will be happy with any organization.
For an organization’s history, read the firm’s own literature very carefully, as well as its entry in Martindale-Hubbell and other resources in the Career Services Office. Also look at Westlaw and Lexis, especially in the news resources to see if the firm or certain lawyers have been in the news. You should also do a search of recent cases where the firm is listed as representing one of the parties. Few things are more impressive in an interview than, “I was reading Judge Carson’s opinion in the Hess case your firm defended. I was surprised that she allowed the plaintiff to bring in the co-party on the damages issues” or some other such detailed statement. This kind of preparation says to the interviewer, “I want to work with you so much that I took the time to learn about you. I’m this thorough in my legal work, too.” It speaks volumes, just as asking, “Do you do environmental law?” in an interview also speaks volumes. Expect to spend at least three hours researching each potential employer.
Ask the Career Services Office if it knows of any alumni who have worked at the firm, and call them. If they left on bad terms, take what they say with a grain of salt. Local attorneys who actually work on cases with the firm are also good resources of learning the firm’s general reputation within the legal community.
On the day of the interview, be sure to be on time. Bring copies of everything you sent to the employers. Know the interviewer’s name and how to pronounce it.
What employers hope to learn
Most employers say that they already approve of the candidate’s credentials before the interview, and that they are really looking for “fit.” Fit can mean several things. Some employers want to see that the candidate is truly interested in the firm and its practice areas. Others want to see if the candidate is easy to talk to and to gauge how they will interact with clients. Public interest employers indicate that they want to verify a sense of motivation -- not just for the employer but for public service. Other factors employers hope to measure include maturity and a sense of responsibility, verbal and nonverbal communication skills, ability to think on one's feet, ability to articulate ideas, and the ability to relate to colleagues.
What (and what not) to wear
Be remembered for what you say, not what you wear. Low-cut blouses on women, earrings on men: these are the downfall of any interview. Your interview outfit should be the most conservative and professional suit you own. The interviewer is looking at you for not just the first impression you make, but also at the first impression you are likely to make on a client in the future. They are not interested in your individualism; they want to see if you can look like someone that works at the firm.
Choose a conservative suit with a skirt. It is worth investing in a high-quality suit that you reserve just for interviews. A truly good quality suit will not go out of style. Make sure the skirt is not too short -- at or below the knee for interviews. An ivory jewel neck silk blouse is very professional. Your closed-toe pump should not be over 1½ inches. Be sure that your shoes are polished and your heels scuff-free. Your stockings should be nude. Do not wear more than one tiny non-gemstone earring per ear. If your hair is shoulder length or longer, consider wearing it up, but stay away from giant salon style hair clips and scrunchies, as they are too casual.
Your suit should be a conservative and dark. Stay away from double-breasted suits. It is worth investing in a high-quality suit that you reserve just for interviews. A truly good quality suit will not go out of style. Wear a white, long-sleeve cotton shirt with a conservative tie with a small pattern or stripes. Your shoes should be black or cordovan and match your belt and watch band. Be sure to shine your shoes. Regardless of shoe color, your socks should be black.
The impression you want to make is confident without being arrogant; enthusiastic without gushing. Smile and make direct eye contact. Sit up straight in the chair. Keep your hands in a relaxed position in your lap. Do not be lulled into a false sense of security by the receptionist or secretary. Being careless about how you come off to the support staff can hurt an interview. Do not confess anything negative to the receptionist, like you don’t really like the town or you have another interview that you really want to nail the next day. In the interview, if you find yourself adding nervous slang to your sentences, like “you know,” “like…,” or “um,” take a deep, quiet breath and slow down.
What to Bring
A leather foldover pad with a place for a pen is all you should bring. Leave the purse or briefcase at home -- it will just become something else to worry about and distract you and your interviewer. And definitely leave the backpack -- you want them to think of you as a professional, not a student.
Hold out your hand and look the person in the eye. Say your name. If you talk at the same time, repeat the person’s name to make sure you heard it correctly. Smile. Close your mouth.
Questions, responses and counter-questions
There are certain questions that are considered standard interview questions. You should expect to be asked all of these questions and have answers prepared. Although you may think that employers just want automatons that can work, work, work, they also want someone they will like working with. Preparing for the standard questions will help you be more at ease during your interviews. Questions and answer tips follow:
Tell me something about yourself.
This does not mean you should start talking about being the middle child or that you moved around a lot as a kid. Say something about your professional self. Enthusiastic, hard-working, and really interested in tax law (for example) might be a way to get things rolling. This is a good time to update anything that has happened since you sent the initial resume, like the next semester’s grades came out or you got an award.
What are your grades like?
If grades are a problem, acknowledge that you wish your grades had been better and direct your comments to classes you excelled in, especially if they are relevant to the employer’s practice area. If your grades reveal an upward trend, discuss your steady improvement. Shift to a topic about your accomplishments in academic-oriented extracurricular activities and job-related experiences. Avoid offering excuses for poor performance academically or professionally. Nobody wants to hire someone (or work with someone) who places blame on everyone else or who identifies personal life circumstances as the reason for mediocre performance. Everyone has personal problems and setbacks. Balancing academics, work and personal life is a fundamental coping skill.
Practice answering this question outloud. Set up various questions that force you to address the issue. For example, “Ms. ThirdYearStudent, I see from your transcript that some of your early grades are not as good as others. What happened?” Take a breath (but don’t huff). “Well, I am not as happy with those first semester grades as I am with later grades. I’ve thought a lot about it and talked to professors in those courses and read the exams I wrote. I think it really boils down to the fact that I didn’t know how to take a law school exam in the beginning. My background in computer science, while great training for analytical thinking, was not good preparation for essay exams. However, I learned from the problems and worked with an upper-class student on exam writing, and really saw my grades come up in the second semester.”
Another example: “I’ve had a chance to read your writing sample, and found it quite impressive. I am struck by the fact that your strong writing is not mirrored in your overall GPA. What are your thoughts on that?” Your answer: “I have given this a lot of thought. I think in part my GPA is the result of my struggles in the first year with the pressures of writing an exam. However, I improved my test-taking skills in the second year and now think I’ve learned to be more efficient. Still, my GPA is not as high as I’d like it to be. I think that on the whole, my GPA does not reflect my level of understanding of various topics or my strong advocacy skills. For example, last summer at the Environmental Protection Agency, I argued a motion…”
Notice a few things about these responses. First, they honestly acknowledge the grades and admit that they gave them serious thought. Next, they don’t try to blame professors, circumstances or other factors for their performance but focus on steps taken to address the grades. Then, they worked a positive point into the discussion, and turned to a topic they would rather talk about.
What are your strengths?
First, I would say that I’m very organized.
What are your weaknesses?
This is not confession time. Do not say, “legal writing” or “Getting things done on time” or “Analyzing cases.” Choose something that you have overcome. For example, you might say that you once had a problem with managing your time, but you sought help, tried some techniques, and now can juggle multiple projects simultaneously without falling behind.
Why did you decide to go to law school? Why did you choose the Appalachian School of Law?
Many employers have said they sense a disconnect between legal education and law practice. ASL has more skills requirements than most law schools. After taking all those classes, here is your chance to use it to your advantage. You might say that you wanted to be able to pass the bar and hit the ground running, and you knew that with ASL’s emphasis on skills, you would be ready to calendar an Answer, write a Complaint or take a deposition. Do not say that you went to ASL because it’s the only place you got in, even if that’s true.
Why should we hire you? Why do you want to work for us?
This is a great opportunity to show how diligent you have been in researching the employer and demonstrate the depth of your enthusiasm.
What do you know about our organization? Why did you decide to seek a position with the organization? Why this geographic area?
Many employers fear training someone for two years only to lose them because they would rather live in another region. You cannot possibly be too enthusiastic about a geographic region. If you don’t know anything about the area where the firm is located, learn a few things before the interview. Gush.
- Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?
- What three accomplishments have given you the most satisfaction?
- Do you know what area of practice you want to go into?
- How do you feel about working overtime, or spending nights and weekends in the office?
- What goals do your have, other than professional, for the next five years?
- What are your outside interests?
- How well do you meet deadlines?
- Would you be willing to move?
- What kind of salary are you looking for?
- What was your LSAT score?
- Tell me about Law Review.
Questions designed to catch you off guard
- What’s the last book you read?
- Who is your role model?
- What’s the toughest decision you’ve ever had to make?
- Describe your biggest failure.
- What are the successes in your life and how did they happen?
- What was your least favorite class in law school and why?
Questions to ask the interviewer
Many employers have said that the most important part of the interview is the candidate’s questions. Sincere, interested questions demonstrate to the interviewer that the candidate is after more than just any job. Even if you are after just any job, do not convey this impression. If you don’t seem interested in what you will actually be doing in the job, your interviewer will wonder if you really care. Your body language when you ask a question will also indicate if it is a canned, rehearsed question or one resulting from genuine interest. When you read the questions below, picture two candidates: One sitting back, hands to the side, head upright. The other leaning forward slightly, head tilted, brow furrowed as if anticipating the answer and hands in the lap ready to grab a pen to write down the fascinating response -- who would you like to respond to?
- Who will assign my work?
- How is the work supervised?
- What kind of training program do you have?
- Must attorneys choose a specialty immediately or do they rotate departments?
- At what stage in an associate’s career does the firm expect them to bring in business?
- What kinds of cases will I work on?
- What will a typical day be like for me?
- What do you find most challenging about being a lawyer?
- What are your expectations for the person hired into this position?
- How many attorneys have your firm hired in the last five years and how many are still here?
- What is the firm’s management structure?
Questions NOT to ask in an initial interview
- What is the salary?
- What are the minimum hours I will be required to work?
Why aren’t some people hired?
NALP research indicates that the top three reasons why students don’t get hired after an interview are lack of enthusiasm, arrogance, and poor communication skills.
As soon as you are invited to interview somewhere, stop in at Career Services to schedule a mock interview. Indicate where the interview is and leave a copy of your resume. Treat the mock interview like it is the real thing: arrive on time, dressed for the part and familiar with the employer. You will receive immediate, constructive feedback.
At one time, sending a thank-you letter after an initial interview was automatic. However, today the tide is changing, and many career advisers have discovered that a thank-you letter never helps a candidate, but can hurt them if anything about it is incorrect. The majority practice is to not send one after the initial interview, but to send one for all call-back interviews. If you do send one, it should be short and sent within 24 hours of the interview. You should mention something you talked about to remind the interviewer who you are. Here are some example thank-you letters.
NALP attempts to govern employment offers to law students. They publish the Principles and Standards for Law Placement and Recruitment Activities, which includes a section on the timing of offers and decisions. Generally, the principles and standards apply to large firms, and you are welcome to read about them if you find yourself interviewing at a big firm. For employers of 25 or fewer attorneys, the general guideline is that offers are left open for at least two weeks. The smaller the firm, the more likely it is that they don’t follow any guidelines but their own. Keep in mind that different types of employers may have different practices. For example, the accepted standard for clerkships is to accept immediately but no later than 24 hours from the time of the offer.
Salaries and benefits
The larger the firm, the more likely it is that they have a set starting salary and benefits package. Attempts at negotiation with large firms are frowned on. Smaller firms may have more room. Successful negotiation depends on you having a thorough understanding of market rates for similar firms in the same geographic region. So a good answer to, “What salary are you looking for?” is, “The going rate in this market is X dollars, and I’d like to get somewhere around that.” It is common to be assured of a small bonus when you pass the bar. It is perfectly acceptable (although not always granted) to ask for your bar review course to be paid for instead of the bonus. NALP publishes statistics on their website for starting salaries all over the country.
ASL interviewing rules and policies
Once you schedule an interview, do not cancel it or call to reschedule it unless you have a serious reason. If you do not show up for an interview and have not called to cancel it, you must send the employer a formal written apology within 24 hours and provide a copy to Career Services. (ASL will also send one.) If you do not send an apology within 24 hours, you will not be allowed to use the services or resources of the ASL Career Services Office. Calling the Career Services Office to cancel an interview is not sufficient; you must call the employer directly and advise Career Services about who you spoke to and when you called.
The initial interview is usually 30 minutes long, with one interviewer. The call back is in the employer’s office with several interviewers and usually includes a meal. It can last anywhere from a few hours to a full day. The purpose of this extensive interview is to see how you will fit into the culture of the organization. Respond to a call-back invitation as soon as possible, and try to schedule the earliest date offered. Ask how much time to allot and be prepared to stay as long as necessary. As the call-back interview is really a string of initial interviews, you will use all of the skills you used in the first interview.
The difficult part of a call-back interview is endurance. You have to be as bright and enthusiastic at the end of the day as at the beginning. It is acceptable to ask for two trips to the restroom for a full-day interview. Use this time to make notes about the interviewers you have met so you can write original thank-you letters.
Most call-back interviews, and some first interviews, will involve a meal. This is not a time to relax -- your eating habits and manners are part of the interview. The organization will want to know that they can bring you to meals with clients. A few tips to keep in mind are to order something in the middle price range from the menu. Do not order additional courses unless everyone else at the table does. Do not start to eat until everyone has their meal, unless the host insists. Pick food that will not make a mess. Also consider your breath for the rest of the day -- avoid onions and be sure to carry breath strips. Finally, check your teeth in the restroom mirror after the meal. Do not pick your teeth or do any other kind of grooming outside the restroom.