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Master the Legal Interview

Law student interviewing.

By Anna Stolley Persky

For law students, there is a typical interview process. First, there are the on-campus interviews, usually with one or two lawyers from the firm. And then there’s the callback, when a series of lawyers conduct interviews on their territory.

Meanwhile, other law students are going through their own interview process, hunting down job prospects with or without the benefit of their school’s career services.

In all situations, there is one element in common: Law students must answer interview questions in the hopes of impressing someone enough to get a job offer. There is fear, anxiety, and, overall, the need to impress.

“My biggest concern is that I’m a real, very upfront person,” says Nicole Martingano, a 2L at Stetson University College of Law in Tampa Bay, Florida. “I don’t know if I need to put on a different face every time I go into an interview. People say you’ve got to fake it to make it, but I’m not like that.”

And law students really just want to know: What is the best way to prepare for interview questions and what are interviewers looking for in a candidate?

Jennifer Queen, chief recruiting and development officer at McKenna Long & Aldridge, says that, simply put, interviewers are looking for a good fit for their office environment.

Be genuine. Be self-aware. And, by all means, make sure you have done the basic research on the position and what it entails.

“I’ve seen candidates come up from behind the pack based on their responses to interview questions,” says Queen. “They were really thoughtful about them.”

Bullet Points

Certainly, most interviews contain standard “soft-ball” questions such as “What’s your favorite law school class?” and “Why do you want to be a lawyer?” Every law student entering the interview process should have answers to these questions already in their heads.

“Students should know what they are going to say,” says Cagle Juhan, a 3L at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville. “They should not have canned responses, but more bullet points in their heads.”

And, as anyone who has been through the interview process knows, a successful interviewee has to establish a connection with the interviewer and create a lasting impression.

David H. Botter, a partner in the New York office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, says his initial questions are intended to give him a feel for the student in front of him.

“I like to ask questions that will give me a sense of a person’s commitment to practice, interest in our law firm, and ability to present,” says Botter. “I also ask questions to give me some insight into who this person is as a human being.”

The best way to prepare for standard questions is to practice. Matthew L. Pascocello, director of career development and alumni counseling at American University Washington College of Law in D.C., advises law students to get help from their school career counseling center. Take school-sponsored seminars on how to handle interview questions and also go through the mock interview process.

As for tips on specific standard questions, Pascocello offers a suggestion for the typical, “What is your biggest weakness?”

“People are always afraid of the weakness question,” says Pascocello. “Disclose that weakness and show that you are aware of it, doing something about it, and overcoming it.”

And then there are the open-ended questions, like “Tell me about yourself.”

“People think they are so loaded with trap doors. But really they are simple inquiries into whether this person is prepared, self-aware, and mature enough to have this conversation, and to have given it enough thought to control the message,” says Pascocello. “If you are off guard on this, it shows me everything I need to know about your due diligence skills.”

Research, Research, Research

Law students and recruiters alike agree that an interviewee should have thoroughly examined the firm, company or office, and the specific job opening.

Margaret Harker, a recent graduate of the University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia, went through a number of job interviews and ultimately landed a position as a law clerk to the Honorable Judge Randolph A. Bales, Court of Appeals of Virginia. She credits her research skills with helping her find the right fit.

“In any interview, I would research the place and know as much as I could about it,” says Harker. “I would talk to people who had worked there before the interview to get an understanding of the position that was open and what it entailed.”

Law firm recruiters say they get frustrated when it becomes evident that the interviewee knows little or nothing about the firm’s profile.

Botter says he looks for answers that show “the person sitting on the other side of the desk is well prepared and particularly interested in Akin Gump and what we do.”

He also says he doesn’t like it when a law student gives a “10-minute dissertation” about a type of law that his firm doesn’t practice.

“That’s a big red flag,” says Botter.

To take the research a step further, interviewees should, whenever possible, look up the profiles of the attorneys conducting the interviews.

“If you can, find out what law school they went to, anything that can contribute to small talk,” says Juhan. “Also find out things like recent cases and general practice areas.”

Types of Interviews

Every interview is unique in its own way. Interviews at large firms may be different from those at a nonprofit because the interviewer is looking for specific qualities pertinent to that field or office.

For example, Harker says her interviews for prosecutorial-type positions ended up with her on the hot seat, answering a series of questions about hypothetical situations. Harker says she was also badgered into taking a position on an issue and arguing it out.

“They want somebody who is going to take a position and stick with it,” says Harker. “They want to know if you can hold your own and not lose your cool.”

In other types of interviews, the questions could focus on discovering if you are a person who, in addition to meeting the basic qualifications, is able to get passionate about your work.

“Who you are and that you are passionate need to come through in a genuine way,” says Harker. “Before an interview, think about the experiences you have had and how they can show that you really, really want to be doing the work that they do.”

If, after researching the place, you don’t actually want the job, or are even questioning whether it is right for you, think twice before bothering to go to the interview.

“These lawyers read people on a daily basis for their career, whether they are taking a deposition or talking to opposing counsel or a colleague,” says Juhan. “They can tell when people are just going through the motions, and they can tell when someone really wants to be there.”

The Unanticipated

While law students can practice for the standard questions, they tend to worry about the unanticipated questions, the so-called “curve balls.”

“I anticipate being asked about my strengths and weaknesses, how I work with others, and about how I research,” says Kira Rosenfeld, a 2L at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville. “But I know that sometimes people get asked unexpected questions and they can get caught off guard.”

Rosenfeld and others mention questions such as, “What book did you recently read for pleasure?” How do you prepare for that?

Botter admits he asks questions an interviewee wouldn’t necessarily anticipate to see how good that person is on the fly.

“I’m not looking to derail them, but I do want to find out their ability to answer questions they weren’t expecting,” says Botter.

Queen says each law firm or office has different criteria for the type of applicant that will meet their needs.

“At our firm, we’re looking for people who are team players,” says Queen. “We’re trying to figure out who will be the best fit for our culture and environment.”

Queen says her firm uses what’s called behavioral interview questions. While the questions can surprise the interviewee, they are intended, she says, to help discern whether that person has specific characteristics, such as determination.

“We really want to know what motivates them, what drives them, and when they have taken initiative,” says Queen.

For surprise questions, career counselors advise using the “Star Method,” especially in behavioral interviews. The Star Method involves giving examples of a situation with a positive outcome and then describing the tasks involved in that situation, actions taken, and the results that came from your actions. But giving such a detailed response requires a moment of reflection before answering. If, for example, you are asked about your experience working on a team, describe your involvement in a group effort, what that entailed, what exactly you did for the group, and how your contribution made the team stronger.

“When you just spout out something that’s not thought through, it’s weak,” says Queen. “We’re OK if you want to take a minute to think through the question.”

Awkward Situations

There are certainly dos and don’ts for the interview process. Some are obvious, like dress professionally and don’t chew gum. And what about those questions you should never ask?

“I would definitely not ask about vacation or pay,” says Rosenfeld.

But sometimes an interview can get a bit more complicated. For example, what should you do when an interview becomes strange or uncomfortable? Pascocello describes a situation where a woman had been flown to a big city for a callback interview. It was raining on the day of the interview. When she arrived, a partner at the firm asked her if her hair always got that frizzy in the rain.

“She said something about how she was confused about how that related to the interview at hand and then asked if they could get on to something more substantive,” says Pascocello.

If you are asked an illegal or offensive question, Pascocello advises that you give the interviewer an opportunity to reconsider and either rephrase the query or drop it.

First, give the interviewer a subtle signal, such as changing the subject, that this is a red-flag area. If that doesn’t work: “Answer the question that you want to be asked instead of the question that you were actually asked,” says Pascocello.

Pascocello points out that an inappropriate question also presents the interviewee with an opportunity to reconsider applying for the position.

“Yes, they are interviewing you for sure, but recognize that there is not a complete imbalance of power. You too are interviewing them,” says Pascocello. “You are seeing if their values match yours. In a tight legal market, that tends to get lost.”

Getting You Across

Pascocello advises law students to be proactive in getting their message across.

For example, in her interviews, Rosenfeld emphasizes her participation in the moot court honor board.

“Every school is different, and ours takes moot court seriously,” says Rosenfeld. “So for us, if you are in moot court, it means that you have skills in writing and speaking.”

And, if you have a blemish on your résumé such as a gap in work history, don’t hesitate to raise it yourself and tell your own story around it.

“If there is a 900-pound gorilla, own it,” says Pascocello.

If you don’t do that, the interviewer will raise the issue, and rather than being on the offensive, you’ll be on the defensive.

In other advice, Botter says law students shouldn’t be “overanxious” and should answer questions to show that they are passionate about their interests.

Interviewees should be able to answer questions about any of the experiences they’ve listed on their résumé and be able to talk fluidly about their law school studies.

And, above all, recruiters and law students agree, exude confidence and don’t pretend to be someone other than who you are.

“Do be confident no matter what,” says Harker. “Don’t be afraid to say anything that is bold or different if it’s what you believe.”

Sample Behavioral Interview Questions

  • Tell me about a situation in the past in which you had to deal with a very upset client, customer, or coworker.
  • Give an example of a time when you had to be quick in coming to a decision.
  • Describe a time when you didn’t meet a goal and how you handled it.
  • Have you ever dealt with company policy you weren’t in agreement with? How?
  • Have you ever made a mistake? How did you handle it?
  • Describe a time when you had to negotiate to achieve a desired outcome.

Illegal Questions

  • Which religious holidays do you observe?
  • Have you had any recent or past illnesses?
  • Do you have or plan to have children?
  • How far is your commute?
  • How much longer do you plan to work before you retire?


Anna Stolley Persky is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C

Vol. 40 No. 4

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.