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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.

Why You Should Use a Good Legal Recruiter (Part II – The Need for Expert Experience)

This is the second of three essays regarding why attorneys should use a good legal recruiter rather than “go it alone” when seeking a new job.  The first essay explained that the primary reason you should use a good recruiter is the need for expert assistance.   The legal market is highly complex, and just as your clients rely on your expertise in legal matters, so should you rely on a good legal recruiter’s expertise in the legal market.  This essay will focus on the second major reason why you should retain a recruiter – the need for the recruiter’s expert experience in the legal market.   It is assumed in all of the essays in this series that the searching attorney is in a situation in which using a recruiter would be both appropriate and advantageous.  As will be explained further in a follow up fourth essay, this is not the case for every attorney.

The good recruiters will have years of experience with the legal market, preferably at least five (or more for the top recruiters who specialize in assisting partners).  The most qualified recruiters will have additional years of experience as an associate (or even better, also as a partner) at top firms.  From all of this experience, they will have built up strong relationships and credibility with the local firms, including the most elite ones.  This means they can not only help attorneys find which firms are the most likely to be the right firm for them, they can also help the attorneys get in the door.  This is especially true if the recruiter works for one of the few large, national recruiting companies like BCG that have been around for years and established a stellar reputation (and often a personal relationship) with numerous firms across the country.

Thus, the best recruiters will be able to use their experience as both a recruiter (and often as an attorney as well) to fully understand the candidate’s particular practice, needs and preferences.  This understanding will in turn allow the recruiter to better identify which firms are most appropriate for the candidate  – i.e., are a better “fit.”   The candidate will then be better able to narrow down the firm choices and construct a more efficient and effective search.  For attorneys who have limited time and/or need to move quickly, this ability is invaluable.

Finally, the experience of a good recruiter allows them to better “maximize the odds” with respect to application process, even with the most elite firms.  The law firm hiring process is both long and challenging, especially for the most prestigious firms and especially for partners.  In addition, the competition in today’s legal market is fierce.  In many practice areas, the supply of lawyers exceeds the demand for their services.  Even attorneys with generally strong credentials must often find some way to “stand out” from the competition, or they will most likely be rejected at the application stage without any real opportunity to “make their case” to the firm.  Experienced recruiters, however, can better “market” their candidate in such a way as to maximize their chances of ultimately having their application accepted and receiving an initial interview.  The third essay will explore the need for a good recruiter’s knowledgeable and objective advice through the deeper parts of the process, including interviews and offers.

What is the best way to respond to recruiter cold calls?

Perhaps you find them bothersome.  But if you get them, especially in large quantities, you should be grateful.  It means that your market value is still high.  It is when they stop calling that it is time to be concerned.  In any event, when you do get a recruiter cold call, it is a good idea to know how to respond to them in a way that best advances your interests.

As an initial matter, there is usually very little risk in accepting a cold call.  At worst, it can waste a minute or two, in which case you should politely say good bye and end it.  At best, it can provide you with the employment opportunity of a lifetime.  Even if you are not currently “looking,” cold calls can provide you with valuable information about the current market, which makes those calls still worth a few minutes of your valuable time.  Moreover, in the legal profession things can (and do) change very quickly.  Consequently, you may have need for a top notch recruiter in the future.  Accepting cold calls is a great way to meet recruiters, identify which ones really know what they are doing and then build long-term relationships with the best ones so that they will be available in case the need later arises.

What you certainly don’t want to do is immediately agree to have whatever stranger recruiter who happened to call you at that moment send your resume off to however many firms.  I have been amazed by how many lawyers will do this.  Can you imagine one of your sophisticated clients hiring a lawyer to handle their complex legal work based solely on a single happenstance cold call without any more information about that lawyer, their firm or their experience and level of ability?   What if the cold calling lawyer is a complete schlepp?

This is why it is in your interest to do the appropriate research in order to distinguish between the highly competent and fully experienced recruiters from the majority of other recruiters that do not fit either of those descriptions.  The best recruiters will be the ones who have successfully placed attorneys like you (such as big firm partner) into the type of firms that you work in over the course of around 10 years or more.  They will also typically work for well-established and highly reputable recruiting firms (such as BCG Attorney Search), as well as have impressive credentials (such as top 25 law schools and/or previously worked in prestigious AmLaw 200 type firms).  Impressive credentials are especially important if you are an attorney with similarly stellar credentials looking to move to an AmLaw 200 type firm.  Do not be shy about asking direct questions about the recruiter’s background, experience and credentials.  You have every right to know who you are doing business with.  It is also wise to check out the recruiter on the internet after you have spoken to them.  Once you have verified that a particular recruiter is truly high quality, and not just some joker trying to make a quick buck by emailing your resume all over the city (and there are all too many of those as well), then and only then does it make sense to trust them with your professional future.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PROMPT COMMUNICATIONS WITH LAW FIRMS

As I explained in an earlier essay, what is true with respect to individuals in dating is also true with respect to law firms considering lateral candidates – they want to be wanted.  If you don’t show much interest, energy or enthusiasm with respect to a potential mate, chances are he/she will develop little interest in you.  It is the same with law firms.  Law firms, like every other employer, want people who are not only excited and energized by their career, but who are also excited and energized by the interviewing firm itself. (See prior essay).

This fundamental point is related to another very important lesson with regard to how lateral attorney candidates (and their respective recruiters) should communicate with law firms during the interview/recruiting process.  Busy lawyers are often swamped with emails and phone voicemails.  Sometimes they have more than they can possibly answer in a timely manner.  So naturally, they prioritize.  Many lawyers will thus respond to clients and senior partners right away, while putting most other less critical emails and messages on the back burner until they can get around to them.  But what may work for lawyers in their everyday practice does not necessarily work when a lawyer is in serious discussions with another firm.  I have seen how lawyers all too often treat communications with an interviewing firm, as well as related communications from their recruiters, as “non-critical” and therefore shoved to the back burner.  Regardless of whether the lawyers are doing this out of habit and/or because they are not taking their job search as seriously as they should, this is a major mistake.

The reality is that – for the reasons stated above – law firms expect to have “top tier” or “critical level” priority when it comes to lawyers returning their communications.  In other words, law firms want to be treated like clients or senior partners, so that their communications to interviewing lawyers (or their recruiters) will be promptly returned, ideally by the next day (if not the same day).  Consequently, I have seen law firms become clearly irritated when an interviewing attorney has failed to promptly respond to an email or voicemail from the firm.  When this happens, the firm usually assumes that the reason for the delay in responding is due to the attorney’s lack of interest or enthusiasm in the law firm.  This assumption – whether accurate or not – can seriously damage the attorney’s chances to obtain an offer.  In one particular case, I witnessed a law firm withdraw an offer because the partner candidate failed to timely respond to the firm’s emailed offer and also to a voicemail from one of the firm’s partners (both the partner and the firm also failed to timely inform me of either of these communications – if one of them had done so (as they should have), the miscommunications would have most likely been avoided).  Again, this happened because the firm assumed the partner no longer had any interest.

For these reasons, I find myself having to constantly remind attorney candidates that they cannot afford to treat an interviewing firm’s communication as a low priority no matter how busy they are.  If the attorney does not consistently treat such communications as top priorities, they are likely to harm – or even ruin – their chances of obtaining an offer from that firm.

Obtaining Outstanding References

A question that sometimes comes up with my attorney candidates is “what is the best way to get great references that will impress prospective law firms, as well as to avoid bad ones that will torpedo you candidacy?”  This is understandable, given that many attorneys lack experience in seeking references, much less in actually writing references or serving as a reference themselves.  Moreover, merely asking for a reference is awkward in itself.  Of course, the candidate does not want to give the person providing the reference the impression that they are trying to “tell them what to say.”  For these reasons, candidates are not comfortable with discussing the content of the reference with the person giving the reference, especially the important subjects of what a fantastic lawyer and person the candidate is and all the other glowing things that the candidate wants the person to say in their reference.  Consequently, most candidates just leave the content of their references entirely up to the persons giving them.  This is a major mistake.

A candidate should attempt to control everything about their candidacy that they possibly can.  This does not mean that candidates should go so far as to try to write or dictate their own references.  Such an attempt would usually not be taken well by the person providing the reference.  Nevertheless, it is both prudent and appropriate for the candidate to provide the person with at least some general guidance about the reference.  In fact, persons who are asked to do references often request that the candidate provide them with such general guidance.  Regardless of whether such guidance is specifically requested or not, however, the candidate should provide this general guidance in the form of all of the necessary information that will assist the person in acting as a reference.  This information includes all the projects the candidate worked on with the person and the specific attributes of the candidate that prospective law firms will want to know about (intelligence, legal skill, work ethic, personality/people skills, quality of work, reliability, ethics, no problems/weaknesses, etc.).  Candidates can even provide “samples” of prior written references (which have been fully “sanitized” of course).  These can be especially helpful to persons who have never provided references before.

In addition, the candidate should not hesitate to directly ask the person whether or not they are entirely comfortable in saying really great things about the candidate across the board.  This is because the candidate needs to learn as soon as possible if the person is merely lukewarm in their opinion of the candidate and/or is otherwise unwilling to provide the candidate with anything less than a full, ringing endorsement on virtually every subject.  Thus, if the person openly acknowledges that they are not willing or able (for whatever reason, good or bad) to give a rock solid reference, or if the candidate has other good reasons to suspect that the person is being less than candid about their lack of enthusiasm, then the candidate should politely and professionally inform the person that it would be better for everyone if they do not serve as a reference after all.  Then the candidate should immediately look for someone who is more likely to give a total “knockout” reference.  Candidates cannot afford to have negative or even just mediocre references in this highly competitive market.  For this reason, candidates should learn the strength of their references and maximize their effectiveness before they apply, not after.

HOW TO IDENTIFY THE BEST ATTORNEY RECRUITERS

It should go without saying that attorneys are not very likely to get great results in their job searches by going with any random recruiter that just happens to call them.  After all, do your clients hire you because you just happened to call them without being concerned about your level of legal credentials, ability and experience?  Or do they trust you with the future of their valuable business because they know that you are one of the best at what you do in your city?

Attorneys should treat their valuable careers the same way their clients treat their businesses.  They should actively seek out and retain only the best recruiters.  Cost is not an issue, so why not the best?  Yet, I sometimes see attorneys working with mediocre (or worse) recruiters.  As with doctors and lawyers, the damage that can be done as a result of using a bad – or even just less mediocre — recruiter can be serious.

The following are some ways to effectively distinguish the great recruiters from the not-so-great (or worse) ones.  A common attribute of top recruiters is exceptional credentials, just like with top lawyers.  Such credentials include attending “top 25” (or better) law schools and a prior legal career as an associate (or even better but more rare, also as a partner) in a top firm.  Of course, not every great recruiter attended a top law school and/or practiced at a top firm.  There are always some exceptions.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that – as with attorneys — the few recruiters who do possess such stellar credentials are much more likely to be in the highest ranks of their profession.  This is because – again as with attorneys — stellar credentials are very strong indicators of exceptional knowledge and ability in the legal industry.

Another key factor is the amount of the recruiter’s relevant knowledge and experience.   Clearly, working with someone who is just a beginner or a “dabbler” in the complex legal market is asking for serious trouble.  The very best recruiters will have about 10 or more years of experience at the highest and most challenging level of their profession (namely, working with partners with business at top firms, as well as being a valued advisor to such firms).

Specialization can also be very important.  For example, a recruiter who specializes in highly credentialed attorneys will be much more valuable to such attorneys than a recruiter who does not.  Similarly, because the issues involved with partners with business are usually much more complex than with associates, such partners should seek out one of the few recruiters who specializes in advising such partners.

Finally, you should consider the size and reputation of the recruiter’s firm.  Although size does not always equate with quality, it is often seen as a major factor.  For example, while there are certainly exceptions, the law firms that are considered the “best” are usually among the largest firms, or so-called “Big Law.” So it is with the big recruiting firms.  In addition, the few top national recruiting firms (such as BCG ATTORNEY SEARCH) are much more likely to employ the most well-credentialed and highly skilled recruiters, just as the biggest and best law firms are far more likely to have the most well-credentialed and highly skilled attorneys.  Moreover, by definition the big recruiting firms will also have much deeper resources and stronger established relationships with far more law firms of every size than a small recruiting firm.

What Credentials Do the Top Law Firms Consider in Evaluating a Lateral Partner Candidate

As noted in my previous article, when top law firms are conducting initial evaluations of associate candidates they primarily focus on certain “tangible” credentials that can be easily determined at the time of the candidate’s application. These credentials include the prestige of the candidate’s law school, their grades and class rank, the prestige of their current law firm (or company if in house), their billable hours, the current market demand for their practice area and their class year. In making initial evaluations of partner candidates, law firms consider these same tangible credentials with the exception of class year. As with associates, once a firm does decide that it has interest in a partner based on these preliminary “tangible” credentials, the firm will then evaluate several more “intangible” credentials through interviews, references and the like. These more intangible credentials include intellect, skill, personality, reputation, teamwork, drive and “fit.”

However, there is an additional credential that is generally only used for partner-level candidates (and a small number of exceptional senior associate candidates). This credential is the amount of client business that the partner candidate can bring with them to the prospective new firm. This amount is commonly referred to as a partner’s “portable business,” “portable clients” or “book of business.” Law firms typically seek between $300K and $3M+ in portable business from partner-level candidates, depending on the size, prestige and the financial situation of the particular firm. These amounts can sometimes be affected by other factors, such as whether the firm has partner-level work already available and certain other strengths the partner may be able to bring to the table.

Moreover, portable business is, by far, the most important credential for partners. Consequently, partners who have a large “book” are going to be in much higher demand than partners who do not have much portable business. This is true even if a partner lacking portable business has otherwise superior credentials (top law school, top firm, skill, reputation, personality, work ethic, etc.).

The reason for this is related to a fundamental difference between associate and partner candidates. With respect to associates, firms will not hire them unless there is already enough work available to keep the associate fully engaged. The firms also usually prefer to hire junior associates to do the work. Consequently, it is less likely for a firm to seek a more senior associate and very less likely for it to hire a partner level candidate for this purpose. Rather, partners are expected to “bring their own work” to keep themselves fully busy and preferably work for others as well.

For partner level attorneys who are seeking to go in house, however, portable business is not an issue. For some attorneys, the absence of an expectation to bring and further develop a large practice is one of the major advantages of in house positions. On the other hand, this advantage can become a disadvantage when in house attorneys get “downsized” or otherwise have to look for another job in law firms are unable to get in the door because they lack portable business.

WHAT CREDENTIALS DO THE TOP LAW FIRMS CONSIDER IN EVALUATING A LATERAL ASSOCIATE CANDIDATE?

Initially, firms look at the credentials that are both the most tangible (or easily measured) and the most accessible, as they are normally contained in an associate’s application. These include the prestige of the an associate’s law school, their grades and class rank, the prestige of their current law firm (or company if in house), their billable hours, their practice area and their class year. The associate’s undergraduate record is also considered, but this is usually less important.

Top law firms look for associates who attended law schools that are typically ranked in the “top 25,” and more preferably in the “top 10.” While the exact ranking order of “top” law schools varies, there are three law schools that stand apart from the rest. These are Harvard (most often #1), Yale and Stanford. These three schools are usually followed in varying order by other “top” law schools such as Chicago, Michigan, Columbia and Virginia. Generally speaking, the higher rated the law school, the less importance is given to grades and class rank. The reverse is also true. These means that associates who did not attended a top law school will usually need high grades and/or class rank (including law review) before a top firm will seriously consider them.

Similarly, law firms look at the prestige of the associate’s present law firm. As with the top law schools, some law firms are more “top” than others, and their ranking vary. Nevertheless, and again as with top law schools, there are a certain firms that are consistently cited among the best or very best (Kirkland and Skadden come to mind as obvious examples). For example, the “AmLaw 200,” which includes the 200 largest firms in the nation as determined by the American Lawyer magazine, is considered to be a general indicator of top law firms. There are also some exceptional smaller firms that are widely thought to be among the “top.” Firms are also interested in the associate’s number of billable hours because it demonstrates work ethic.

With respect to practice area, a law firm’s level of interest in an associate will be affected both by the general level of demand in that area as well as the particular firm’s needs in that area. Associates that happen to be in a more “hot” area are thus more likely to obtain attention from law firms. Finally, firms also take into account the associate’s class year. This is because law firms tend to favor associates who have been out of law school no fewer than 2 years and no more than 5 years. As a result, associates that are only 1 year or less out of law school or are 6 years or more out of law school will usually generate relatively less interest from law firms.

Once a firm does decide that it has interest in an associate based on these preliminary “tangible” credentials, the firm will then evaluate several more “intangible” credentials through interviews, references and the like. These more intangible credentials include intellect, general writing and lawyering ability, personality, charisma, teamwork, ethics, motivation, drive and “fit.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF BUSINESS PLANS

As noted in my prior articles, possessing sufficient portable business is crucial for success in the law firm market for both partner and senior associate candidates. For background, see for example my prior articles on “Calculating Portable Business” and “Alternative Portable Business.” Law firms typically require between $300K to $3M+ in portable business for a partner level position, depending on the size and financials of the firm. The usual (and most effective) way that a candidate presents their portable business to a prospective law firm is through some type of business plan. The format of such plans varies greatly, and there is no single “right” way to do them. However, there are some general guidelines that should be followed in order to make the business plans clearer and more persuasive.

Business plans are not just limited to the interview process. Savvy partners (and associates) prepare business plans every year to outline their past business generations and plans for future business development. The types of business plans used in the interview process have the same general purpose. However, their structure differs from “regular” business plans because they are also intended to persuade a prospective law firm that the attorney not only has generated a certain amount of business, but also that the business is portable to the new firm.

The plan typically starts by describing all of the attorney’s business generations over a recent period – usually 3-5 years – as well as descriptions of their active clients and other general financial information (billing rates, hours billed, etc.). The plan then estimates how much of that business is likely portable to the prospective firm. The more detail of the reasons why each client and their business is likely portable, the better. Example of persuasive detail includes the nature and duration of the key relationships that have been cultivated by the attorney at each client; how well the attorney controls each client’s business compared to other partners in their firm; how strongly the attorney’s firm is likely to compete for each client and other reasons (such as lower rates or type of platform) why certain clients are more likely to prefer the prospective new firm over the current one. The ultimate goal, of course, is to persuade the prospective firm that the attorney’s portability estimates are accurate.

In preparing the plan, the attorney should not be limited to the “traditional” type of portable business from present clients. It should also have a section describing prospective clients, as well as estimates on how much additional “alternative” or prospective portable business these clients may bring to the new firm. Business is just as legitimate if it comes from a present client or a future one. Nevertheless, the distinction between the two types of clients and portable business should be made clear.

Finally, the business plan should present an estimate of the total amount of portable business from all sources that is likely to come with the attorney over the next year should they join the new firm. By presenting this total estimate in the context of a detailed business plan, it will be much more persuasive to a prospective firm than if the estimate is simply provided by itself without any explanation or support.

GETTING PROPERLY FOCUSED IN YOUR LAW FIRM SEARCH

It is very important for attorney candidates seeking a new law firm to be properly focused in their search. In particular, they need to know how to best determine which firms they should apply to, and which ones they should not. This is easier said than done. Because they are so busy with their own work, many attorneys do not take the time to seriously examine either what they really want in a firm or what options are out there for them. Fortunately, this is an area where I (and other knowledgeable recruiters) can help them.

 

The first step is for me to help the candidate to better define their law firm needs and desires. They should evaluate the many different possibilities with law firms, such as with regard to size of the firm/office, available practices, reputation, billing rates, financial condition, compensation, full service v. boutique, home office v. satellite, culture, potential for client conflicts, opportunities for business development, etc. Ultimately, the candidate comes up with an “ideal firm” for their search. The next step is for me to prepare an initial list of target firms that come closest to this “ideal firm.” This helps focus the search on the firms that are most likely to be a good fit, so as to both be more effective and to not to waste valuable time.

 

The next step is for me to evaluate the initial target firm list to determine which firms are realistically in the candidate’s “market range.” That is, I identify the firms in which they have at least some reasonable chance to obtain an interview based on their credentials and state of the present market, and I eliminate the firms that do not meet this description. I then send the final list of my recommended target firms to the candidate for final confirmation. Having gone through the proper analysis, candidates generally do not reject the recommended firms at this point absent good reason.

 

Of course, in confirming which firms should go on the final target firm list, the candidate should use the proper criterion. For example, I recently had a candidate reject a law firm that I had recommended on a final target firm list on the grounds that he believed he “was not the candidate they’re looking for.” I reminded him that this is not something that he was really in a position to determine.  He clearly met the firm’s basic requirements of an associate with excellent credentials and commercial litigation experience.  Beyond that, whether or not he is the “candidate they’ve been looking for” can only be decided by the partners of the firm.  Inany event (and more importantly), the issue he should be considering is not whether he is right for the law firm, but rather whether there is at least a reasonable chance that the firm is right for him.  Based on this proper criterion, he agreed to confirm that I should apply to the firm so that he would have the opportunity to more fully investigate whether or not the firm was truly right for him.