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Interview Tips for Lateral Associates

By Vivia Chen
Ready for the interview.

Ready for the interview.

Vivia Chen is a Senior Columnist at The American Lawyer and is Chief Blogger at The Careerist

The good news is that firms are on the hunt for lateral associates–at least that’s what hiring partners are telling me.

But don’t kid yourself–it’s still a buyer’s market, so if you’re trying to switch jobs, this is not the time to make blunders in the interview process.

Now that you know about proper etiquette for the interview lunch, let’s focus on the interview itself. The Wall Street Journal’s FINS (a career site for the financial sector) offers a refresher on the seven most frequently asked questions. Let’s see how those questions play out in the legal profession:

1: “So, tell me a little about yourself.”

FINS advises against talking about “anything remotely related to your place of birth, experiences in grade school, or your bad relationship with your parents.” I’d agree with the parent stuff, but I think you should use what you can to set yourself apart from the crowd. So talk about your childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia. But if your background is a bit more prosaic–say, Ohio or New Jersey–I’d fast-forward to your more recent accomplishments.

But “don’t get [too] personal or delve into items that suggest weird personal details,” advises recruiter Barbara Mayden, a former associate at Skadden Arps and White & Case.

Prepare for the open-ended questions, adds legal recruiter Dan Binstock: “Some associates will just start rambling on for quite a long time and use this rope to hang themselves.”

2: “Why do you want to leave your current job?”

The real question is: How much should you reveal about why you want out of your current job? Some obvious but often overlooked advice: Don’t bad-mouth your firm–or that lunatic boss who’s driving you batty.

But for the law firm, the question has a different subtext, says Binstock. The firm is wondering whether you are leaving “on your own accord or have you been asked to leave? . . . Are we landing a star or inheriting another firm’s problem?” Binstock advises candidates to communicate that they are in good standing. “Of course, the trick is not to appear too contrived, defensive, or arrogant.”

3. “What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?”

I have a hard time answering this type of question with a straight face, but I’d advise you to handle it with earnestness and modesty.

It’s key to identify a weakness, but also how you overcame it, Gorman told FINS. Moreover, try to avoid clichés, like “I work too hard.”

4. “How would your current or former colleagues describe you?”

This is a bit like the previous question–a trap for the braggart or the overly modest.

Try not to describe yourself as “the only employee who did things right,” or “a great guy to hang out with after work,” said Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA career center at Northeastern University’s College of Business Administration, to FINS.

At the same time though, don’t underplay your impact. The better response is to describe how peers look to you for certain skills and qualities, writes FINS: “Your subordinates, for example, might say you’re fair, and are always looking to pass along useful knowledge and opportunities to gain

5. What is your goal for the short term?

Find out what your interviewer means by “short term,” advises FINS. Historically, firms love to ask what you see yourself doing in five years.

The correct answer used to be that you see yourself as a partner in that time–but who has those lofty aspirations these days? Much better to put the emphasis on achieving “skill sets”–which has become the polite way of saying, “I’ll work hard, learn something, and move on.”

6. Are there certain tasks or types of people you don’t like?

Search consultant Steven Raz told FINS that candidates should “steer clear of any answer that is abrasive to authority figures.”

At the same time, though, many firms pride themselves on being civil and cooperative these days. So I think it’s perfectly fine (and flattering to the firm’s self-image) to say that you’d like to work in a collegial environment.

7. Do you have any questions?

“If there’s a question that’s a guaranteed game-changer, it’s this one,” writes FINS. “Coming up blank is a good way to show that you aren’t thoughtful or interested in the job.”

Legal recruiter Mayden also warns candidates not to ask questions indiscriminately. Contrary to what your teachers told you, Mayden says there are indeed stupid questions. For instance, don’t ask about information that’s readily available on the Web site, she advises.

And what else you shouldn’t say? Mayden advises steering away from issues that suggest you’re leaving for work/life balance reasons–unless you’re interviewing for a non-partner-track position. Another no-no, says Mayden, is for law clerks to ask: “How long do I have to stay [here] before I can keep my entire clerkship bonus?”

Readers, what questions do you get hit with during the interview?

Do you have topics you’d like to discuss or tips to share?

E-mail The Careerist’s chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].