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What makes a great interview? As a legal recruiter in the Washington metro area, I speak nearly every day with experienced attorneys seeking to make lateral moves between firms or to leave firm practice altogether to work directly for a company as in-house counsel. I also speak routinely with hiring lawyers in law firms and companies about their hiring needs generally and about individual attorneys. Out of these conversations, I have developed a better understanding of the type of information interviewers really want to know when they ask fairly common questions. This information is useful to any lawyer about to embark upon an interview. While direct eye contact, a firm handshake, and thorough preparation are all wisely touted as the basics of strong interviewing skills, another important tool is a working knowledge of the questions the interviewer is likely to ask. Gaining this understanding before the interview will let you use the questions to your best advantage. When you appreciate why law firm partners or a general counsel are asking you certain questions, you can provide them with a targeted and effective answer and make a lasting and favorable impression. ASK ME ANYTHING Here are some of the common questions that you’ll hear in a legal interview. As you decide what to say to your next potential employer in the interview, keep these interpretations in mind: Tell me about yourself. Interviewers typically use this question to get you talking, and what they want is to get a sense of how well you immediately present yourself. In short, they want to see you in action. How do you come across; how articulate are you; do you speak with confidence, poise, authority? It’s best to hit this with some punch, and then stop. You will no doubt lose the impact of a strong impression if you make a brilliant splash and then continue on with a 20-minute recitation of your r�sum�. Instead, respond by providing three examples of transferable experience that are relevant to the position for which you are interviewing. For example, identify the scope of your participation in a transaction or in a case you have handled, how you facilitated an aspect of that transaction or case, and your ongoing desire to build upon that experience. Remember to smile occasionally as you speak, and keep your answer to less than three minutes. Things are just getting started. You will have plenty of opportunity to elaborate as the interview progresses. Why are you interested in this opportunity? The interviewer wants to know what you know about the job and about the practice group or the firm. This matters a great deal. Your answer demonstrates, or fails to demonstrate, your interest in this particular job and this particular employer. And, on a larger scale, it reinforces the idea that you approach the interview (and the use of others’ time) in a professional way. View this question as an opportunity to share your understanding of the position and to invite discussion about it. In other words, do some research on the specific practice group within the firm or on the lawyers within the company or firm. What are the attorneys doing there, and how will you enhance (versus merely duplicate) their expertise? If you are uncertain about this position, develop questions ahead of the interview to ask to gain a better understanding of the practice. Ideally, you will leave your potential employer with the impression that you have given this opportunity considerable thought and that your experience and skills mesh with the company’s need. Where do you see yourself in five years? This is perhaps the most dreaded, and also one of the most common, interview questions. A few things may be at play with this question. The interviewer may want to know: Are you strategic? Do you intend to make a long-term commitment to this employer? And do you have an eye on the interviewer’s job? Since it can elicit so much information, there’s no wonder this question is asked so frequently. Let your answer reveal how much thought you have given to your career goals and why you believe this opportunity fits in with and enhances them. If you do not have a career strategy, it’s time to develop one. Along these lines, this is not the time to announce your intention to quit the practice of law in two years to pursue other interests. While this is not to suggest that you be anything less than forthcoming, understand that most interviewers want to assess your long-term commitment to the institution. Finally, and as with most things, too much of a good thing, such as ambition, can be perceived as a bad thing, so be mindful of this simple truth. Although this is a tough one, thinking through your answer will help you direct your own goals and will facilitate further discussion of your interest in the job. What is your biggest strength and weakness? This is another question so common and foreseeable that you should have a ready response for it. In addition to the trait itself, the interviewer is also trying to get a sense of your self-awareness. This answer will be remembered and will be evaluated in terms of how the trait adds to or detracts from the organization. Universally valuable professional strengths include responsiveness, keen listening skills, an ability to understand the desired business outcome and articulate how it can be achieved, resourcefulness, efficiency, and creative thinking. Ahead of the interview, think about which of your strengths is crucial to success in the role and be able to provide an example from your practice that illustrates this strength. Conversely, on the weakness side, select something to discuss that does not directly impact your ability to do the job, such as your reluctance to delegate work, and make the point that you are mindful of this weakness and making strides to address it in your practice. Do not dwell on a weakness — respond to the question and move on. Why do you want to leave your present job? (Translation: Are you being fired?) This question, in part, goes to your standing with your present employer. While some may view this as an opportunity to engage in a frank and open discussion of their current employers’ shortcomings, a better approach may be to focus on what you seek in a new opportunity. This is not to suggest that you change the subject or avoid the question, but rather to point out that you can focus your response on a positive (what you seek in a new position) versus a perceived negative (what you seek to escape in your present position). One note of caution here: Take a minute to consider what additional questions your response may raise. For instance, if you say you wish to gain access to a different practice area, the interviewer could ask if your current employer will allow you to make an internal transfer, and if not, why? If they would, why wouldn’t you want it? Also, here an employer may be trying to determine the depth of your interest in an area of law other than the one in which you have focused. For example, what backs up your stated (and seemingly newfound) interest in white-collar litigation when for the past five years you’ve focused on general commercial litigation? Think through your responses ahead of the interview. Your first stab at these answers ideally should not be in front of a potential employer. What is your current compensation? While it is rare for this to be asked during an initial interview, it will probably surface at some point early in the process. If you are asked about your current compensation, it is in your best interest to answer directly — to do otherwise may leave the impression that you are unresponsive or evasive. Once the answer is out there, though, add other relevant information as the circumstances warrant. For instance, if you are relocating from a market where compensation is significantly above or below the norm where you are interviewing, point this out along with your expectation of a commensurate cost-of-living adjustment either upward or downward. It is equally important to clarify what the employer includes in the concept of “compensation” to ensure you are both on the same page. Distinguish between your base salary amount and your projected bonus amount when describing your compensation, and inquire as to the various components that make up the compensation package being offered by the employer. While law firm salaries tend to be lockstep (and therefore predictable), in-house employers ask questions about compensation to determine whether you understand the range of compensation for the position and whether you are comfortable with it. In other words, they want to ensure they are not wasting their own time and yours if the compensation level is a nonstarter. Therefore, make it clear that you understand the compensation package being offered and that it is acceptable to you in light of the totality of the opportunity. These sorts of questions can offer an employer a comprehensive summary of your qualifications and interest in the job. A solid preparation will allow you to create the best possible impression, will enhance the likelihood of further discussions, and may even result in an offer of employment.
Sadie J. Madole is an attorney and legal recruiter with Garrison & Sisson, a legal search consulting firm in Washington, D.C. She practiced law for 10 years in a law firm and with the Treasury Department before joining Garrison & Sisson.

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