When preparing for a law firm interview, one of your primary goals is to anticipate and prepare for virtually every significant question that the firm is going to ask you. Of course, not all interview questions can be accurately predicted. But many can, at least in terms of the general subject matter. Of course, some of the questions that will be asked will not be predictable. Most of these questions will be trivial, however, and do not require preparation. For these questions, as well as the interview in general, you just need to have strong overall preparation. This includes dressing right, having strong confidence (which comes in part from being well prepared for whatever they are going to ask you), clear enthusiasm for the opportunity and your most charming personality at the forefront. Rather, it is only the substantial questions that you need to prepare for. And it is these questions that you can reasonably anticipate and be entirely ready to hit out of the park.
In fact, the essence of every law firm interview of a lateral attorney candidate can be boiled down to
just ten primary points or issues that the firm really cares about. Many – if not all – of the substantive questions that you will be asked during the interview will relate in part to one or more of these ten points. This means that if you are fully prepared to respond to each of these ten key points, you will be well on your way to delivering a knockout performance.
Boiled down to the basics, what each law firm really wants to know about you is:
- Are you able to fully perform the job at a consistently high level?
- Can we always depend on you to get the work done whenever or wherever necessary?
- Will you work hard to be as profitable for the firm as possible in terms of keeping yourself busy, hours billed, business developed, etc.?
- Will you always be fully professional and never make the firm look bad?
- Will you always be someone who is personable and easy to work with and not a jerk?
- Are you really enthusiastic about obtaining this job for the long term?
- Will you be a "team player" that generally fits in to the firm's culture and values?
- Will you respect our authority and allow us to manage you?
- Will you gradually grow and improve and become more valuable to the firm?
- Do you have any "red flags" that we would want to know about?
Now try to think of some common questions that firms typically ask attorneys during interviews. Below are just a few examples:
- What kind of specific transactional/litigation experience do you have?
- Why did you leave your prior job?
- How many hours did you bill last year?
- Why are you interested in this firm?
- Tell me about yourself.
What do all five of these questions have in common? The answer is that they all relate to one of more of the "top ten" points cited above. In fact, the last question ("tell me about yourself") is perhaps the most important one of them all. It is frequently asked in some form, and frequently "blown" by unprepared candidates who did not know how to handle an open question.
Of course, every candidate is different, and as a result the particularities of every interview question and answer are going to be different. Consequently, there is no "one" proper way to answer any specific question. But the best way to prepare is to be able to firmly understand and persuasively explain why you meet all of the ten points described above. Then you are ready for virtually any reasonable, relevant question that comes along.
In other words, you do not need to memorize every conceivable form of every conceivable question that could be asked at an interview and their corresponding answers. You just need to be ready to fully address the various important aspects of the 10 key points cited above, as well as any additional key points that may be relevant to your particular interview. If you can do that, you will be better able to answer any relevant question, regardless of how the exact question is phrased. The advantages of this approach include keeping you focused on the truly important subjects, simplifying you preparation, providing you with valuable flexibility and not rote memorized answers and giving you a solid understanding of where nearly every significant question is coming from. Once you understand the true purpose of each question, you are well on your way toward forming an excellent response to it. In short, by the end of the interview you want to be able to persuasively assure the firm that you are a great candidate with no significant "red flags" on any of these ten points. Of course, if you DO have some sort of "red flag" or issue that the firm either will or might inquire about, then you will have to be fully prepared on how to best address it during the interview and limit its potential damage.
Finally, what if you do get a substantive question that was not reasonably foreseeable or otherwise related to the ten points? Sometimes, this just may just be a broad open question like the "tell me about yourself" question identified above. In that situation, you are entirely free to use any of your prepared responses relating to the 10 key points. The more difficult types of unforeseeable questions fall into the "oddball" category. Such questions are rare, but they happen. Obviously, you can't fully anticipate or specifically prepare for such questions. You can, however, prepare a strategy for dealing with the possibility of one arising in an interview. Often, a good strategy is to again fall back on general "themes" that you have created to respond to questions that do relate to the 10 major points. Although the question may not seem to be very relevant to these points, there are usually opportunities that you can take advantage of to steer your answer back into so you can use one of your previously prepared answers.
For example, this was an actual oddball question that I once received at a big law firm interview: "If you were going to be stranded on an island for a year but could take any three people with you, who would they be?" You could, for example, fall back on your theme that you are an exceptionally hard and effective worker and pick people that meet that theme (Robinson Crusoe would be a good choice!), or perhaps you could emphasize your extraordinary legal acumen by choosing great judges and legal scholars. "Oddball" questions can be very dangerous precisely because they come out of nowhere, with no way to accurately predict what the questioning partner is really looking for. Using a theme to produce a more "safe" answer in a relevant subject will help steer you out of danger and while simultaneously promoting the theme that helps demonstrate that you are a great candidate for that firm.
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