Do-It-Yourself Interview Prep

One of the most effective things you can do to prep for interviews is to practice interviewing.  Get ahold of a list of frequently asked interview questions (your recruiter should have one) and have a friend ask you the questions on the list.  Put aside an hour for the interview.  Note where you stumble, or where you feel like you didn’t give the best answer; it is fine to take notes while you are doing this portion.  When you hit roadblocks, think about how you would best answer each question, and take your time thinking about what you want to say before you answer.  Then practice once more; your answers should go more smoothly this time.

Once you’ve practiced your answers a couple of times and feel like you have solidified the substance of what you’re going to say, record yourself.  Most people have a smartphone nowadays, so you can video yourself as well.  Here are some common interview killers you can watch and listen for.  You probably don’t even know you’re doing them:

  • Saying “um” or “you know” too frequently;
  • Talking too quickly;
  • Acting stiff or unnatural;
  • Talking too much, and launching into long answers without stopping first to think about what you are going to say before opening your mouth;
  • Fidgeting, like rocking back and forth, picking at nails or hair;
  • Changes in the tone of your voice. Do you become animated when talking on certain topics, but not others?
  • Talking too loudly;
  • Failure to make eye contact or smile.

You might be surprised what you discover about yourself if you record and watch yourself interview.  If you do this, I can guarantee you will feel far more confident, and will interview more effectively when it is time for the real interview.

Joining a Law Firm as Either Partner or Of Counsel

I recently submitted a partner candidate to a large law firm.  He was in his 40’s, and had a book of business of around $500K – $600K.  Everything during the interviews went great.  But then late in the process (actually at the offer stage), we learned that the firm would not be hiring the partner as a “partner,” but rather as an “of counsel” with the expectation that after a certain number of months when the appropriate firm committee was scheduled to meet, he would be elevated to (income) partner.  He was told that this was the result of a new “policy” in which every partner candidate came in as of counsel, regardless of how much business they had.

Although I had warned him that this sort of thing was becoming more common with the big firms, the candidate was not happy with this news.  The candidate was an income partner in his present firm, and income partners in the prospective firm were normally required to show that they had at least $500K in business.  So under the circumstances, the candidate had the reasonable expectation that he would join the firm as an income partner.  There were three other good reasons for this expectation.  First, the usual way lateral partners changed firms was that they were given the same title they had in their prior firm and/or at least the same title as an attorney inside the firm with an equivalent amount of business.  Second, it is in everybody’s best interest to bring in a partner candidate as a “partner” in order to assist the candidate in further business development.  Third, the law firm did not appear to have anything to gain with this “policy,” other than an increased risk of losing high quality partner candidates with business.

It used to be that “of counsel” was a title reserved for retired, part-time or former partners (such as judges) that still had a limited relationship with the firm.  The term has also been used for more senior attorneys who do not or cannot develop business and/or otherwise make partner, but have some sort of rare and valuable specialty or quality that has allowed them to keep a job in the firm.  Now, we are seeing increasing use of the term for what are effectively “probationary” partners.  Some firms limit the use of this “of counsel” policy to partners who have a limited amount of business, perhaps below the firm’s threshold for income partner.  That kind of limited use of this kind of policy is more understandable.  But other firms, like the one in my example, generally refuse to grant any lateral any kind of partnership status regardless of the circumstance.  In my situation, we were able to resolve the issue by having the partner wait until the time the committee met and then was granted partnership right after he joined the firm, thus effectively eliminating the required “probationary” of counsel period.

The lesson to be learned here is that you should find out early in the process what “policies” the firm may have for lateral partners.  If the firm has a policy that you are not comfortable with, you should seek to negotiate a workable solution.  If that does not work, you will have to decide if the opportunity is good enough to justify the change of title.  It is often not a major deal and as a result many partner candidates accept the change in order to get into the right firm.  But this change in title, even if temporary, may not be acceptable to everyone for every firm.

Weighing Your Job Offer

As a recruiter, it is always an exciting thing when one of my candidates generates immediate interest from law firms, and even more exciting when a first interview turns into a first offer.

Believe it or not, however, there can also be a downside to this situation, the problem being when a candidate hesitates on the offer or interview because of this immediate and seemingly effortless success.

Yes, there are some practice areas that are so hot, and some candidates whose resumes and experience are so strong, that they are all but guaranteed multiple interviews, and likely multiple job offers in their lateral search process, but for all the new hiring and recovery we have seen in the lateral attorney market across the board, interviews and job offers are far from being a dime a dozen.  More like a dollar a dozen.  Or twenty.  You catch my drift.

As a candidate entering into your lateral job search, and especially if you have a strong background and happen to practice in an area that is currently very much in demand, you should mentally prepare yourself for the possibility of a quick interview and offer process.  Paradoxically, you should also mentally prepare yourself to have to wait quite some time before anything concrete materializes.  In either case, however, if you do happen to be one of the lucky attorneys who does get quick action on your job search, you should be prepared to decide quickly and possibly accept that first offer.

We have seen too many candidates who hesitate or turn down their initial job offers, even when they really like the firm(!), because they become stuck in the mentality of needing to weigh options, or explore what else is out there, even when we inform them that this first quick offer may be the only offer for months, or that it was a very pleasant surprise because their practice area is otherwise generally slow in the overall market.

Yes, recruiters have an interest in getting you into a job.  But they also know the market very, very well.  You should certainly ask as many questions as you need to feel comfortable about making a decision to join a new firm, and make sure you know what you are getting into with that particular firm, but the bottom line is that when a solid job offer presents itself, it is very much advisable to accept it, or at least give it very serious consideration given the relatively tentative state of the current hiring market.  Sometimes the worst regrets are the chances you *don’t* take.

As always, best of luck with your job search!

Special Opportunities for Solo Practitioners

The current market is stronger than it has been in years.  If you are a solo practioner who has been given any thought to the possibility of joining a firm, now is the time to explore this option.   There are multiple advantages to working in a firm.  But the primary advantage is that it is much easier to develop clients, grow your practice and increase your compensation.  This is the primary reason why solo practioners consider moving into a firm.  When you are a solo, you have to spend a great deal of time trying to bring in new clients.  In a law firm, they make it easier for you to get new work from both your current clients and prospective new clients.

Firms do this in three primary ways.  First, they allow you to “cross-market.”  Say that you are a solo commercial litigator.  Whenever you obtain work in a different area, such as corporate, RE or ERISA, you have to refer it out to some other attorney who can do the work.  As a result, you are unable to get any credit or compensation for the work.  But if you are in the right kind of firm, you could send such work to your partners in the appropriate departments.  You get credit for it, and you get paid for it.  Plus your partners get more work.  Everybody wins.

Second, you can get additional clients and work by using the flip side of cross-marketing.  Again, if you are a commercial litigation partner in a firm, you can be introduced to the many clients serviced by other lawyers in other practice areas.  This allows you the opportunity to market your services and obtain more work from other clients of the firms.  This is also a huge advantage over being a solo.  As the saying goes, it is far easier to get business from a client you already have than from a stranger client that is being solicited by numerous other lawyers.

Third, even with respect to soliciting “stranger” or prospective new clients for business, there are major advantages in doing it as a partner of a reputable firm.  Not only are there the cross-marketing opportunities, but there is also the greater prestige, reach and resources that the firm offers to prospective clients.

The bottom line is that for solo practioners now is the perfect time to contact a top notch recruiter and investigate firm opportunities.  You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.  If you find the right firm, your work and your income will substantially increase.  If you don’t, you have lost nothing and still have obtained valuable knowledge.  Perhaps soloing really is best for you.  But can you be sure without investigating the alternatives?

How Many Firms Should I Apply To?

This question has multiple meanings, and thus multiple answers.  If asked with respect to a job search in general, the obvious answer is “as many as is necessary to find the right job.”  But not all job searches are the same.  There are some job searches where the attorney is reasonably happy where they are and thus is not “actively looking” for a new job.  Nevertheless, for purposes of exploration, education and other good reasons, the attorney is taking a look at select firms in order to compare them to the present firm.  If it turns out that the attorney finds something significantly better during their more limited search, then they will make a move.  If they do not, then they will stay where they are for the time being.

But with respect to the more common open-ended search for a new job, the question I hear most often from my candidates is how many firms should I apply to initially?  The usual answer to this question is “as many as you can handle.”  Once again, the goal in a typical job search is to find that new job as soon as possible.  This means you should work as hard and as long as it takes to accomplish your goal.  On the other hand, there are necessary limits that you must recognize.  The two biggest limits are time and energy.  If you are still working full time (or more realistically for an attorney, more than full time) you are only going to have so much time and energy that you can dedicate to interviews and other necessary aspects of the search.  If you are unemployed, however, then you will have much more time and energy at your disposal for your job search.  Consequently, you should put some kind of appropriate limit on the number of initial applications based on these two limiting factors.

The other factor is the strength of your credentials.  Are you likely to generate a significant number of interviews from a relatively small number of applications?  If so, you do not need to send out as many initial applications to get to your estimated limit of interviews that you can handle at one time.  If, however, it is more likely to take a larger number of applications before you get an interview, then you should take that into account and maximize the number of initial applications that you send out.  As interviews come in, you continue to manage your time and energy limitations in determining how many subsequent applications to send out.

The other reason you should have as many applications as possible – both initial and subsequent — is that you want to be able to interview with as many firms as possible.  In this way, you can best learn about different firms and educate yourself on what kind of firm works best for you and your practice.  If you just jump on the first offer that comes along, there is a possibility that you have not had a chance to fully investigate your options.  On the other hand, there can be very good reasons for accepting that first offer.  One good reason would be if offers are going to be very few and far between, and this option is likely to be your best option.  Another good reason would be that you just happened to have just hit upon the right firm on your first try.  This is unusual, but it does happen.  In that situation, you do not need further investigation.  You have already reached your goal.

The Timing of Transition

I speak with countless attorneys who tell me they would like to switch practice areas, some very early in their career, and some many years beyond law school.  Those who are more than 1-2 years out of school will invariably say they are “willing to start over as a first year,” or “take a big salary cut” to get into the practice area they want, and believe that firms will jump at the opportunity to get a “discount” on an experienced (in another practice area) attorney for a first-year salary.

Plainly and simply, jumping to a new practice area is a very difficult, and often entirely unrealistic move to make.  The following are just a few reasons why:

-Structuring and client optics.  I have written more extensively about this before, but at the bottom line, most law firms do not want to hire more senior attorneys at a “discount.”  Maybe one or two years adjusted from an attorney’s graduating class year, especially if that attorney has been in house, which most law firms do not view as the equivalent in work experience or training relative to years spent at a large law firm.  But by and large and medium size firms tend to be fairly rigid in their class year composition (smaller and boutique firms less so).  Reasons include wanting to structure their practice groups and overall attorney staffing to ensure a consistent flow of promotion and advancement at the appropriate class and skill level; not being able to justify higher billing rates on their client matters by staffing more senior attorneys (and on the flipside wanting to avoid the optics of a client wondering why a Class of 2002 attorney is being billed out at a first-year rate and the perception of that attorney not being “good”); and wanting to avoid turnover when a more senior and skilled attorney gets bored doing lower-level work and sees another lateral opportunity on the market when the economy improves.

-Training.  It costs a lot for a firm to hire and train an attorney, and even if you are one of the best mid-level litigators the 21st Century has ever seen, a firm with a dire need for a mid-level transactional associate because of a large client matter is not going to want to spend the time or effort required to re-train that attorney into an entirely different practice group.  They also cannot justify billing out that attorney at their appropriate class year if the attorney does not have comparable skills, in which case you are talking about a class year discount, which gets into the issues in the section above.

-Perception.  If you are 4-5 years out of law school, and all of a sudden want to switch practice groups entirely and “start over” from the bottom, just imagine for a second how that is going to look to a prospective employer.  Will they be overjoyed they get a more senior attorney at a discount, or will they be wary that this candidate did not demonstrate the foresight to pick the right practice area to begin with, or have the fortitude and commitment to stick it out and be successful in their current practice area?  Most job seekers tend to employ at least a little bit of wishful and creative thinking, which is great when you are trying to market yourself to a particular position where your skill set might not be an exact fit, but this can be a liability if it leads to being completely unrealistic in terms of your lateral job search.

All of this is to say that if you are going to transition to an entirely new practice area, say from litigation to transactions, it can be done (and I have placed a number of candidates in this manner), but it must be done within your first two or so years of practice.  Any later than that, and you begin to run into the huge wall of issues above.

On the other hand, if you are wanting to transition into a practice area that is at least moderately related to work you were doing before, say going from commercial litigation to labor and employment litigation, or going from corporate transactional work to technology transactions, there is a lot more potential to have this be a viable option even 3-5 years out in your career.  Any more senior than that, and it becomes an extremely difficult proposition if you are targeting medium to large size law firms.

The broader lesson is to really think hard about what type of practice you want to have before leaving law school, and try as hard as you can to get into that practice area, or at least a closely related practice area, because there is a fairly small window of a couple of years to make a large change once you have started your career.

Modesty is Not the Best Policy

Attorneys are generally risk-averse.  Because of this tendency, in interviews, we want to manage the expectations of whoever might hire us so that they are not disappointed once they figure out we are not fluent in all aspects of our practice.  Therefore, often, attorneys lead by talking about what we can’t do, rather than what we can do.  This is a mistake, and it is also completely unnecessary.

I spend a decent amount of my time talking to my candidates about selling themselves effectively during an interview.  Some people do this well naturally, some even need to be toned down a little.  But in most cases, attorneys have a tendency to undersell themselves during an interview.   This is especially true of junior-level attorneys who lack confidence in their overall abilities.  I have also seen it in attorneys who have taken a career break, are trying to expand a very specialized skill set, or are trying to transition to a different area of the law.

Instead, always lead with your strengths.  The direction of this discussion, in an interview setting, is often up to you, because the interviewer will ask something open-ended like, “Tell me about your experience.”  You can start by talking about the area in which you have the most expertise, or the area in which you have the most interest, describing your relevant experience.  Let your enthusiasm come through during this discussion- this is another great tool in selling yourself effectively.  If you have experience that is not exactly on point but translates well to the job you are targeting, be sure to discuss that experience and point out that it is similar to whatever duties you may be asked to perform. While I am not suggesting that you should ever represent that your experience is greater or different from what it actually is, you can do yourself a lot of favors by emphasizing the positive in this manner.

Let your interviewers follow up on areas of experience that you may not have mentioned.  If you do not possess the experience they are asking for, again, talk about similar work that you have done in another area of the law, and point out in detail how it might translate to their practice.  If you really feel that you have no skills to offer to a certain part of the set required, you can simply say so, or point out that you are willing to learn.

If you are interviewing, it is because someone at the firm saw something on your resume that they thought they could use.  Emphasize that thing, whatever it is.  Don’t spend time telling them about everything that won’t help them.    They probably want you for what you can already do, so focus on that and don’t worry about the rest.

Preparing to Answer Key Interview Questions

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.

In fact, the essence of every law firm interview of an attorney candidate can be boiled down to just ten primary points or issues.  Many – if not all – of the substantive questions that you will be asked 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.  In short, what each law firm really wants to know about you is:

(1)    Are you able to fully perform the job at a consistently high level?

(2)   Can we always depend on you to get the work done whenever or wherever necessary?
(3)    Will you work hard to be as profitable for the firm as possible in terms of keeping yourself busy, hours billed, business developed, etc.?

(4)    Will you always be fully professional and never make the firm look bad?

(5)    Will you always be someone who is personable and easy to work with and not a jerk?

(6)   Are you really enthusiastic about obtaining this job for the long term?

(7)   Will you be a “team player” that generally fits in to the firm’s culture and values?

(8)    Will you respect our authority and allow us to manage you?

(9)    Will you gradually grow and improve and become more valuable to the firm?

(10)   Do you have any “red flags” that we would want to know about?

Of course, every candidate is different, and as a result the particularities of every interview 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 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 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, as well as any additional key points that may be relevant to your particular interview.  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.

Know Your Coworkers Personally

There is a sense in the business world that success is like water: keep swimming or you drown. If you let yourself grow content that makes you lazy and complacent; you cease to be competitive and you get picked over when promotions are being handed out. Only if you keep the competitor’s edge and elbow your way to the front will you get noted. Not that you have to be aggressive, but you do need to be assertive, and that means being friendly, but not so friendly that you would sacrifice an opportunity to a friend who deserves it less.

Yes, all that is true, but nevertheless, one can love his job and love his team as well. You don’t  necessarily have to let anybody walk all over you, but try to stop competing for a minute, and truly to appreciate the team you have around you. Of course your coworkers are more than lawyers and paralegals. They are fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters. They have hobbies, the have interests. They probably have political, religious, and philosophical identifications as well. Above all, they are individuals. Taking the time in your advancement as a lawyer to appreciate these other qualities in your coworkers won’t distract you from their business self. Far from it. It will help you appreciate their quirks all the more, anticipate how and why they make their business decisions, figure out what ultimate makes them tick.

So let yourself professionally love your coworkers. I mean respect them for who they are, and all they are, as persons who have a life that is outside the job, but that colors and characterizes how they work as lawyers.

By knowing people personally and caring for all they are, not just their professional self, you will have made a human connection, a connection that relates intimately with the business world as well. Open up your heart a little. Professionals do this. They care. There is nothing shrewd or ruthless in mixing love and business: keeping in touch with the human element the only way to keep excited about the job.

Traveling For Interviews – Who Should Pay?

If you’re currently on the lateral market and looking for a job, whether it’s opportunistically or out of necessity, one of the most difficult things can be managing your time and budget – typically the timing is the most difficult part to manage if you are currently employed, as an attorney in an in-demand practice area can be extremely busy.  And if you are out of work, or have recently relocated without a new position in hand, managing your job search on a budget can be quite difficult if you are relying on your savings and have no new guaranteed income to count on.

Both of these factors come heavily into play once you get to the point in the job search where you begin to field interview requests, and especially if you are looking to interview or land a job with a law firm that is not where you are currently located.

When the market was booming, all types of attorneys were heavily in demand, firms were flush with cash and willing to pay interview and relocation costs for almost every promising candidate because the competition for top candidates was tough, and firms were missing out on tons of potential revenue if they had an opening that remained unfilled for months on end.

A couple of years ago when the market crashed, many firms were laying attorneys off rather than hiring, budgets were tight, and candidates were lucky to get an interview at all.  Firms had their pick of candidates in most all practice areas, and thus adopted budget-saving practices of only interviewing local candidates, or requiring candidates to front their own interview travel expenses, and often their own relocation expenses.

Now that the market has recovered a bit, and we are seeing increasing demand for lateral attorney talent, we are in somewhat of a hybrid situation where top firms are willing and able to pay a candidate’s travel costs for interviews and relocation costs for new hires, however a lot of firms have not yet had the confidence or desire to come all the way back around.  Having learned to be cost conscious, and having not yet begun to miss out on top candidates due to competition from other firms (it is still a “buyer’s market”, although I believe we are approaching somewhat of a tipping point once again), there are a large number of firms who are still sticking to interviewing local candidates only, or who will not pay travel expenses for interviews, and even some firms who do not make it a practice of paying relocation expenses for a candidate from another city.

Because there is no established practice, you as the candidate really have to decide on how you will approach this dynamic.  If you really want a position and you are in a competitive market, it can be very much worth paying  a couple hundred dollars to fly yourself out for a second round interview that might land you a six-figure offer.  On the other hand, if you are only looking opportunistically, you may decide it is not worth the cost, and turn down firms who are not willing to pay those expenses.

I still advocate to my candidates that they be as proactive as possible in their job search, and be willing to pay their own expenses if the firm will not, because we have not yet reached the point where most, or even many, candidates will have their pick of a number of interviews and offers.  The market has come back in a major way, but it is not quite there yet, and if you are serious about your search, you should do whatever you can to give yourself every competitive advantage, including being willing to pay your own travel costs.