Finding the perfect legal job is not just about grades and experience; it is also about luck, determination and having the right skills. Regardless of how lucky, determined or skilled a lawyer is, however, she needs to ace the job interview.
Rarely will a firm overlook a bad interview. So, if a lawyer or law student has had the good fortune to land an interview (no small feat), she needs to bring her A-game to it. To do that, she needs to disabuse herself of some common myths about firm job interviews.
Myth 1: Grades aren’t that big a deal. Grades aren’t the only thing at which a firm looks, but the truth is that strong grades are the price of entry. Attorneys who make hiring decisions look at grades first when considering young lawyers and recent JDs. Grades are the best indicator of how disciplined, intelligent and hard-working a young lawyer is, so a candidate with weak grades needs to know she’s going in at a disadvantage and face that handicap head-on.
Myth 2: Law school rank doesn’t matter. It absolutely matters which law school a candidate attended. Just look at the bios on a firm’s website. Chances are the firm mainly hires from schools regarded as marquee law schools, regionally or nationally.
That doesn’t mean the less well-known schools don’t produce solid lawyers and that exceptional lawyers from such schools don’t work at the firm. But a firm is much less likely to take a chance on a student from a school with which the attorneys haven’t had years or decades of positive experience. With the economy still struggling, this is more true today than ever before.
The notable exception to this rule is if a lawyer has been practicing for several years, brings a solid stable of clients and has established an impressive track record. Those lawyers can overcome the perceived weaknesses of graduating from a less prestigious law school and/or a spotty GPA because they’ve already proved themselves in the real world.
Myth 3: Style doesn’t matter. Can a polished-looking candidate with a weak résumé win out over an unpolished legal genius? I like to think that would never happen, but there’s no denying that appearance matters.
Law is a service business. Firms want to hire lawyers they would be proud to bring with them to a client lunch, and a poorly groomed lawyer doesn’t fit the bill. The checklist includes hair, makeup, clothes, shoes and manicure — the whole package. Go for professional, not sexy. For fans of “The Good Wife,” think Alicia, not Kalinda.
Myth 4: Sports and extracurricular activities don’t matter. Assuming a candidate earned strong grades, what can set her apart from the other job seekers? Her extracurricular activities in college and possibly even high school can give her a distinct advantage, particularly if she excelled in them.
Firms, like all employers, like to hire leaders and team players. A background of dedication to a competitive sport or a fine art tells people with the power to make the job offer that the candidate has grit, tenacity and a competitive nature — all assets in the legal profession.
Myth 5: The interviewer is armed with specific, substantive questions. Some interviewers have been practicing law and interviewing lawyers for more than two decades; these lawyers may rely on their gut and ask substantive questions. Many others, though, don’t have that experience and probably are fitting the interview in between client meetings and billable work. Those interviewers may have nothing more probing up their sleeve than, “Tell me about yourself and why you want to work here.” So be ready to answer that nonquestion succinctly and persuasively. Write that answer out on paper and practice it — repeatedly.
Myth 6: It’s not what you know but who you know. While knowing someone at a firm can be helpful and might even produce an interview, the playing field is level once the interview happens. Firms tend to be democratic, so a candidate will need broad support from several lawyers (not just one) to get an offer.
As anyone in the job market knows, simply getting an interview takes work. It means the candidate has passed the first hurdle to getting the job she seeks, something the vast majority of applicants probably weren’t able to do.
But it’s a solid bet that there are others, perhaps several others, interviewing for the same spot. The smart lawyer will prepare her case meticulously, because she’s representing her most important client: herself.
Kathleen J. Wu is a partner in Andrews Kurth in Dallas. Her practice areas include real estate, finance and business transactions.