Editor's note: This is the eighth article in a series providing interview tips and techniques for attorneys. Links to previous articles in the series follow this article.
If done correctly, an interview will provide an opportunity for both the prospective employer and the candidate to learn more about each other. Therefore, questions asked by the candidate are just as important as those asked by the interviewer. Besides eliciting information about the position and the law firm, you need to determine whether this is the right career move for you given your goals. Good questions demonstrate your interest and insight and can increase your chances of getting an offer.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
Just as an employer must define the position to be filled and determine the qualifications of an ideal candidate, as a job seeker you must know what you want. Consider where you hope to be in the long run, what kind of practice and people you prefer, what kind of training and support you need, whether you are more comfortable in a large or small firm, and what sort of culture, management structure and style best suit you.
Money alone should not be the determining factor in a career move. The question is whether this job will further your career and be a step towards reaching your long-term goals. While money is something to consider, in the long run, it is more important to match interests, priorities and values.
Ask yourself, also, when you walk down the halls during your interview, whether you are comfortable in these surroundings and with how the lawyers there treat you, each other and the support staff. You will be spending quite a bit of time with these people, and you need to feel comfortable with them.
Once you know what you want, it is easier to frame questions to elicit the information you need to make the best decision.
Second, do your homework. Interviewers frown on questions that can easily be answered with an Internet search. If you are working with a recruiter, or know someone who previously or currently works for the employer, you can get more inside information before an interview. Asking informed questions demonstrates your sincere interest in the firm as well as your thoroughness and resourcefulness, all qualities valued by employers.
FRAMING YOUR QUESTIONS
So, you know what you want and you've done your homework. What kinds of questions should you ask? Your goals are to show what you know about the prospective employer, express interest in the opportunity, demonstrate intelligence, resolve concerns and define next steps. But don't be so focused on what you plan to ask next that you stop listening to the answers.
Your questions should show that you have paid attention to what the interviewer has been saying. Responding to a point made earlier by the interviewer is a good indication that you have been listening and processing the information, rather than passively absorbing it. Asking questions also enables you to break down the formal interview/candidate relationship, establish an easy flow of conversation, and build trust and rapport. Since most candidates under serious consideration are more or less evenly matched in terms of qualifications, the selection often is based on "fit" with the prospective employer.
Your questions also can reveal your mindset and suggest your priorities and goals. Even though you legitimately want to gather information to assist you in choosing the right job, the purpose of an interview from the interviewer's point of view is to determine whether you are the appropriate person to assist with their needs. Therefore, it is wisest to begin with questions that demonstrate your interest in learning about how you can fit into their practice based on their needs. Then, ask about subjects more focused on your needs, such as training, advancement and culture. It's best to wait until you have an offer in hand before addressing issues such as the compensation package and hours requirements.
• Consider the audience
Your various interviewers will have different priorities and viewpoints depending upon their role in the prospective employer's organization and their relationship to the position for which you are interviewing. To a lawyer in a position of authority over your work or involved in management of the firm or organization, you can ask specific questions about the job, its responsibilities and challenges. You may also want to ask what kind of candidate they're seeking. When interviewing with lawyers in management positions, you also can ask about the future of the firm and its position in the marketplace. This is your chance to show off your industry knowledge!
A potential colleague and peer may be most candid about the particulars of the job, its challenges and the work environment. However, don't expect confidential information -- and certainly don't ask for it. A good time to address questions about quality of life and diversity issues would be on a second or third interview. Ideally, as the hiring process progresses, you can ask to meet with other attorneys at your level for a frank discussion regarding life at the firm.
If you have particular concerns regarding diversity issues, request a meeting with gay, female or minority attorneys from the firm. It may be a good idea to meet, also, with an attorney who joined the firm laterally to discuss how laterals are integrated and advance within the firm.
QUESTIONS TO AVOID INITIALLY
There are some questions you should NOT ask, at least at the early stages of the interview process. Focusing on compensation, benefits or hours during the initial interview is an immediate turn-off and is best left to negotiations once an offer is extended. Once you are discussing the compensation package, however, it is appropriate for senior candidates to ask what criteria are considered when dividing partnership profits (seniority, hours, business generation, etc.) as it indicates the qualities that the firm values. Some profit-division schemes encourage cooperation, while others foster internal competition.
Never ask an interviewer -- even a peer -- what he or she earns at any stage of the interviewing process.
Remember that a successful interview is a two-way street. After you've answered all the interviewers' other questions, the most important answer is "Yes", when asked if you have any questions for them. By being prepared with intelligent questions, you can obtain the information you need to make an informed career decision, while demonstrating to the employer that you are the best candidate for the job.
The following is a selection of possible questions. Decide which are most important to you. You might want to bring along a notepad with the questions you plan to ask, grouped by topic or order of importance, in case your time is limited.
1. What kind of responsibility will I have?
2. What is the progression of associates towards partnership?
3. What are the criteria for advancement?
4. What kind of person does well here?
5. How much direct client contact can I expect to have?
6. How soon will I get trial/deal-making experience?
7. Are associates assigned to particular partners or teams?
8. How is work assigned?
9. How are matters staffed? How many attorneys on a case/transaction?
10. How is the firm organized?
11. If a branch office, what is the relationship with other offices?
12. What kind of training is available (formal and informal)?
13. How are associates supervised and evaluated?
14. What are the firm's expectations regarding business development?
15. What kind of support is there for business development efforts?
16. What are some of the firm's clients, big trials or transactions? (Only if not on their Web site or easily found through an Internet search)
17. Which of the firm's practice areas are expanding? Contracting? What new practice areas is the firm moving into?
18. What has been the firm's growth history? Turn-over? Long-term stability?
19. If the firm has lost attorneys, why do they leave and where do they usually go?
20. How are laterals integrated into the firm?
21. What are the firm's expansion plans? Is a merger or acquisition being discussed? Does the firm wish to open new offices? Where? Why?
22. What is the firm's policy on bar association, pro bono and community activities?
23. What firms do you see as competitors?
24. How is this firm different?
25. How would you describe the culture or personality of this firm?
26. Why did you choose this firm?
27. What has been your experience here?
And, in closing:
28. Is there anything I can clarify for you?
29. Do you have any reservations about hiring me for this position?
30. What are the next steps?
Valerie Fontaine and Roberta Kass are senior legal search consultants with Seltzer Fontaine Beckwith, based in Los Angeles. Valerie Fontaine is the author of "The Right Moves: Job Search and Career Development Strategies for Lawyers" (January 2006, NALP). They can be reached at (310) 839-6000, or visit www.sfbsearch.com.
Read previous articles in the "Interview Strategies" series: