My main mistake, and the mistake of so many associates going through the interview process, was talking too much. Firms don’t need to know everything that’s on your mind right off the bat. They haven’t even decided that they want you. The worst thing you can do is walk in and start talking about what you want from them. It makes you look terrible, not to mention arrogant. Your job in the interview process is twofold: 1) gather as much information as possible in order to decide whether it is a place you might like to work, and 2) make them want you.
The first objective is accomplished by listening and paying attention. Find out what kind of a place it is you are interviewing. You are being interviewed, of course, and you may do a lot of the talking. But if they like your resume (and they do, if you are sitting in an interview), your interviewers may well try to “sell” you on the firm. Listen well. Pay attention, and ask lots of follow up questions. Don’t explain why you are asking (i.e.,” I want to know how many women partners you have because I think it indicates a better quality of life”); just ask the question and listen to what is said. Pay attention to what associates tell you unsolicited, and discretely ask about the things that pique your interest, either because you view them favorably or unfavorably. Try and figure out if there is a common personality among your interviewers. What items do you hear repeated from person to person? I remember doing an interview with a firm when I was a young associate, and deciding at the end that it was not the kind of work I had thought it was (I had thought it was a labor and employment law position, but it turned out that to get that work, associates had to start out handling workers’ compensation), and that I did not want to continue. Instead of telling them what I wanted, I simply withdrew my application when I returned home later that day. In another interview, several associates told me about what a blast they had going out drinking late nights after work, then coming in hung over and exhausted. You are interviewing the firm as much as they are interviewing you, but you are not in a position to make demands or even hint at your own agenda. You are there to listen and learn.
The second objective, once you decide that the firm is somewhere you might like to work, is to get an offer. Your personality, skill set and interests will either match the firm’s needs or they won’t, so there is no point in trying to look like someone you’re not. Once the firm has made an offer, you can reveal your own needs and wants. You are in your strongest bargaining position once the firm decides they want to hire you. Is the offer one you are willing to take with no negotiation? Or, are there items you would like to ask for that are not included? For example, I recently had an attorney negotiate a change in location to an office that was more convenient to her home. The firm agreed to let her work out of that office 2 days per week. Another attorney got a firm to agree to give him occasional work from a related practice group because it was an area that he had experience in, and didn’t want to let his skills lapse. (There is always a slight risk that the firm can withdraw their offer if you counteroffer like this; however, I have never personally seen it happen.)
The long and the short of it is this: an interview is not the correct forum for making your particular needs and desires known. Listen and learn about the firm. There is plenty of time to ask for what you want when there is an offer on the table.