Today we welcome guest writer Jeremy Richter to discuss what firms are looking for when interviewing a potential future hire. Jeremy is an attorney at Webster, Henry, Bradwell, Cohan, Speagle & DeShazo, P.C. in Birmingham, Alabama. He blogs on insurance defense and law practice management topics at jeremywrichter.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @richterjw.
When interviewing job candidates, law firms are generally interested not in the particular skills that you’ve acquired at law school, clinics, or clerkships, but rather in your inherent personal qualities.
No one reasonably expects you to come out of law school knowing how to practice law, take an effective deposition, or draft a motion for summary judgment. Typically, it makes no difference if your other hands-on experience was in the areas of practice the firm or your anticipated practice group is dealing with on a daily basis. We can teach those things. What firms are most concerned with are your character traits, your work ethic, your natural inclinations. Here are some areas that firms are looking for in clerks or associate candidates.
Are you Teachable?
You and I know plenty of people who believe they’re the smartest person to occupy any given room. Those folks are often incapable of taking instruction, unwilling to learn new methods, and unable to adapt or be malleable. They are going to have a tough time growing and becoming the best lawyers they otherwise could be.
Teachability is one of the most important aspects of being successful. It involves balancing pride and humility. You need to have a pride about yourself that motivates you to want to improve your craft, and the humility to be able to internalize and implement criticism and instruction. Nothing will turn off a firm’s interest in a candidate quicker than perceiving they are aloof to criticism or a have propensity for disregarding suggestions.
You are entering a profession in which a “practice” is a continuous evolution of accumulated knowledge and applied wisdom. You cannot afford to walk in the door with more ego than introspection.
Do you Play Well with Others?
A few years ago, my firm hired a new associate. Within the first couple weeks, three of us were standing around trying to decide what to do about lunch. No one wanted to drive, so I joked with the new guy that since he was lowest on the totem pole, he’d be driving. He totally lost his head! Bowed up on me, yelling that he wasn’t going to be picked on like that and no one should be treated the way I had treated him. I thought I was about to get punched. You don’t want to be that guy!
Most of you are going to practice in relatively small legal markets. You’re going to be working with and against the same people for the next forty years. There are plenty of lawyers who are inclined to make every case personal and want to fight about everything – whether they have to accept service of documents by email, whether they have to supplement discovery – and just generally make the lives of the people around them more difficult. Some act this way because they think it’s the best avenue for getting their way and others because it’s the precedent that was set for them by older lawyers. But it does nothing to establish good will or functional working relationships.
Your reputation is going to be established early in your career. And if that reputation is one of being difficult and unreasonable, it’s a reputation that’s going to be tough to shed. During the interview process, firms are looking for evidence that a candidate knows how to collaborate with others and communicate effectively (which isn’t to say there aren’t times when being ornery is necessary and proper).
Are You Willing to Put in the Hours (and not Just the Billable Ones)?
During law school, I clerked with a district attorney’s office, a municipal judge, a couple of civil solo practitioners, and a real estate attorney. But I didn’t have any experience in trucking defense litigation, which is where I have spent most of my time practicing. I had virtually no knowledge of the insurance and trucking industries, and certainly no familiarity with the regulations governing them. And I had no expectation that over the course of the next five years, I would peruse hundreds of thousands of pages of medical records.
That is to say, you’re likely going to enter a field with which you’re largely unfamiliar. That’s to be expected. So you’ll need to be a quick study. Depending upon the firm that hires you, your billable hour requirements may be hefty. But there’s going to be knowledge you must acquire that you’re going to be unable to bill to obtain. It’s going to require perseverance and dedication to develop the base of knowledge necessary to be proficient in your practice area. Your interviewer is looking for cues that you are not only willing to meet your billable requirements but also put in that extra time it takes to develop your craft and become a truly good lawyer.
How can you Exhibit these Qualities in an Interview?
Just be you. If you’ve been clerking at a place that is now looking to hire you as an associate, you’ve already got a body of work that speaks for itself. The firm will know whether you have the qualities they’re looking for. If, on the other hand, you are in a blind interview, you have about an hour to impress upon your interviewers that you have the characteristics they’re look for in a candidate. The personalities of the people that are interviewing you and types of questions being asked will be indications of whether you’re a good fit for each other, as will the firm’s reputation amongst other lawyers. Remember, the interview is a two-way street. As much as they are sizing you up, you ought to be doing the same with them, because the firm’s reputation and perceived qualities will become yours, just as soon as you’re associated with it.
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