By ERIK BADIA
The halls of law firms and legal offices across the country are littered with the gaffes and missteps of job candidates who looked so promising on paper but failed to deliver when it came to crunch time. Ask any hiring partner, legal recruiter, or human resources professional in the field, and they’ll likely be able to come up with at least a couple of anecdotes of epic blunders that have doomed many new associates. While every year a crop of newly minted lawyers hits the open market, the professionals who are in charge of making the hiring decisions can easily identify the patterns of common mistakes that wind up tanking the chances of the unprepared.
With the sweeping influence of the Internet, social media, and a decidedly fast-paced— and arguably more informal—lifestyle, the current legal hiring arena is filled with even more landmines and booby traps than ever. From staring at the floor for the entirety of a meeting to answering a cell phone call during an interview, the professionals who deal in the hiring of lawyers have seen plenty of mistakes. Here they offer guidance on what to do—and what not to do—while you’re on the job hunt.
‘So, what’s this firm do?’
The most common complaint from hiring managers about the newest crop of job candidates was a lack of preparation and research on the firm and the partners. Mark T. Stancil has been the hiring partner at Robbins, Russell, Englert, Orseck, Untereiner & Sauber LLP, a small litigation firm in Washington, D.C., for the last seven years. He said he’s seen even top candidates with major- league credentials shoot themselves in the foot by not preparing properly for an interview. “It’s very important to do your research on the firm and find out exactly what they do,” he said. “One of the questions we’ve been getting in interviews, which is always a little confusing to me, is, ‘What kind of stuff do you do?’ In today’s world, it’s readily discoverable what it is that I do. In this day and age, you can figure out exactly what it is that any firm does.
“I think 15 or 20 years ago, it was easier for someone who was smart and talented just to find a niche in a firm, and that was perfectly fine,”
“Someone who’ll spend literally just an hour or two trying to figure out the kinds of things the firm is involved in on a regular basis before they walk in the door has a huge advantage in interviewing,” Stancil added. “Whereas someone who comes in and asks those questions about what we do in the interview has lost the opportunity to have a conversation about them.” Those who come in prepared will also have a much better chance of making a connection with the interviewer. “Spend that time so you can talk about it coming in, and you can have a much more substantive conversation and I can get a better feel whether this is somebody who’s going to contribute value,” said Stancil. “If I have to first explain what I do, it doesn’t really leave a lot of time for that next level of conversation.” Being prepared and knowledgeable has always been important, Stancil noted. But it’s even more critical in what he feels is currently a more difficult and demanding job market than ever. “The industry as a whole is getting more competitive, and it’s more competitive for associates as well, not just because there are fewer jobs out there, but because those doing the hiring are expecting more,” he said. “We expect people to be invested in our work and invested in the client’s success from day one.
People who don’t show an interest in that, I think, will have a hard time finding a job today. “I think 15 or 20 years ago, it was easier for someone who was smart and talented just to find a niche in a firm, and that was perfectly fine,” asserted Stancil. “I just think it’s harder for people now to do that.”
Informality is a killer
Another troubling trend pointed out by hiring professionals was a lack of formality when it comes to the interviewing and hiring process. Charles A. Volkert, a former litigation attorney with more than 20 years of experience, is the executive director of Robert Half Legal, a legal staffing company based in Menlo Park, Calif. Volkert gets feedback from more than 300 recruiters, conducts regular interviews with firms regarding candidates, and also asks hundreds of lawyers who make hiring decisions to participate in surveys to provide even more detailed feedback. No doubt you’ve heard this from your career services advisors, but Volkert says it bears reiterating: Be mindful that the legal field is a conservative one, slow to adapt to the fast-paced generation of lawyers comcoming out of school. “It’s always better to err on the side of professionalism,” Volkert said. One particularly glaring example of a gaffe made by would-be candidates is getting too casual with an interview “thank you” note. “A lot of people, and I’ve seen this personally, will send a thank-you note by text message,” Volkert said. “Or they’ll send a very brief thank you by email, and it’s way too casual; it isn’t a professional email.” Instead, take an “old-school” approach to interview follow ups.
“Taking some time to send a wellwritten, professional email, as well as a hand-written note thanking whoever you’ve met with for the opportunity to interview, is important,” said Volkert. “That goes a long way.” Volkert said he’s noticed a marked increase in legal firms looking for candidates not only with good grades but also with what he calls “soft skills,” or good social and interpersonal skills. “It’s great to be first in your class or to do quite well in law school,” he said. “But somebody who’s done well in law school but has great interpersonal skills? We’re seeing them actually being viewed as a ‘hotter’ type candidate than a person who graduated number two, number three, number four in their class who doesn’t have those skills.” Improving social skills takes work, Volkert stated, and he recommended getting outside feedback. “Most of us always can use improvement with our interpersonal skills,” he said. “Ask for help. Identify a mentor for an objective perspective and constructive feedback.”
Lose the attitude
Firms have also been noticing candidates going into interviews with a certain level of arrogance and entitlement, noted Volkert. He recommends you be willing to learn from others while doing more listening and less boasting. “Being a great team player is key— not coming in with any preconceived notions that because you went to a great law school or because you did so well in your class that you know more than anybody else at the firm,” he said. “There’ll be plenty of time to speak your mind and state your opinions. But coming in, putting your nose down, realizing there’s a lot of knowledge in the four walls around you at whatever firm or company you’re at, and being collaborative and team-oriented is the best way to engrain yourself.” Today’s sense of privilege among some candidates also hasn’t gone unnoticed by Lauren Stone, director of lawyer recruiting and development at Morris, Manning & Martin LLP. Stone has been in legal recruiting for nearly a decade and has been involved in the summer associate programs and on-campus interview process her entire career, in addition to being in charge of lateral associate and partner recruiting at the Atlanta-based firm. “Some candidates come in with a strong sense of their own personal needs, and that can stand out—and not in a good way,” she said. Stone recalled one recent recruit who felt the company should pick up the tab for a bounty of souvenirs he accumulated on his trip. “A few years ago, we had someone come in from a law school in California and spent nearly $900 at the gift shop at their hotel and asked us to reimburse it,” she said. Stone echoed the idea that being collaborative and willing to take on difficult projects can make the difference between a first-year flop and a superstar. “Someone who comes in, listens to feedback, and demonstrates that they’re going to take the initiative and work hard really stands out,” she said.
Do we have to say this?
Stone offered additional simple advice for job candidates—get the basics right. “Make sure you put your grades on your resume because people will automatically assume you don’t have very good grades if you don’t,” she said. “Be on time, do your research, be prepared—know the people you’re going to meet with. When you really do your research on the firm you’re interviewing with, it goes a long way with the partners. “It’s really the simple things that you almost feel silly having to say,” she added. “But people still make those mistakes.” That was also a sentiment echoed by Mark Jungers, who’s been in the recruiting business for more than 15 years and is the co-founder of global legal recruiting firm Lippman Jungers LLC based in Los Angeles. Jungers cautioned that while the newest crop of law students and attorneys are more generally progressive and open than their predecessors, those previous groups are the ones who’ll be interviewing today’s candidates. “The law firm is still a conservative place,” he said. “The partner who’s interviewing, he or she has probably had a very different experience than you.
So think about the background of the people you’re talking with. There are things that are important to the interviewee that aren’t going to be important to the people they’re interviewing with, so it’s important to pay attention to that.” Certain topics that may offend the senses of an interviewer—even something as seemingly benign as flexible work schedules or working from home—probably shouldn’t be asked in a first interview. “Just because something may be important to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should ask the partner about it during your interview,” he said. “Ask about the work, ask abouthow it’s assigned, and ask about how they help foster the development of the associates.” Two other areas where Jungers says he sees candidates slipping up: Dressing inappropriately and not knowing more than just cursory information about the people they’re interviewing with. “Short of wearing a tuxedo,” he said, “you can’t overdress.” The little details like being sharply dressed make a big impression on those doing the hiring. “It shows, ‘I’ve thought about this. I care. I have some sense,’” said Jungers. “It’s subtle, but it’s very important. Pay attention to the dress code. The people doing the hiring will pay attention.”
This bears repeating
Perhaps because candidates may be taking opportunities for granted, like the other legal hiring pros, Jungers can’t stress enough that doing your homework on the firm and the people you’re interviewing with is critical. “Do your research, and be prepared,” he said. “There’s this amazing thing called Google. You can learn a lot—where did they go to law school, what have they done, what are they posting on Instagram? Googling is a brilliant thing to do. Go beyond just looking at the firm bios. Google people. Do some real research.” Research yourself, too, added Jungers. He also hears about candidates who still make the mistake of not being familiar with their own resume. It’s a simple thing but can be a candidatekiller. “Know your resume,” he said. “If you put something on there, be prepared to talk about it. Don’t say, ‘Oh, that was a long time ago. I don’t remember much about it.’ Remember much. You’re interviewing to be a lawyer—remember much.”
ERIK BADIA is the deputy student editor at Student Lawyer and a second-year student at Georgia State University College of Law. He was previously a journalist, most recently with The New York Daily News.
Vol 45, No. 1