The second year of law school presents students with many new challenges, but for most 2Ls, no challenge looms larger than securing a high-quality internship or employment opportunity for next summer. If you are a 2L, then by now you have polished your résumé, submitted some applications and, if you’re lucky, earned an interview with a would-be employer. (Throughout this article, for the sake of simplicity, we will refer to legal “employers.” But the interviewing techniques outlined in this article are applicable in all legal interviews, whether the applicant seeks a summer position at a law firm, a judicial externship, an internship at a nonprofit organization, a government position, or anything in between.) The interview process is the last obstacle between you and that summer position you’ve been striving to land. This article provides you with important information and a few tips and tricks to guide you through the process and maximize your chances of success. Each heading below analyzes a different key to success in an interview. The more of these aspects of the process you can master, the greater your chances of securing an offer will be.
Prerequisites: Master Interview Etiquette
Begin by mastering the basics. Employers and individual interviewers are not all looking for the same qualities in their applicants, but interview etiquette is always a baseline expectation. Proper etiquette will not get you hired, but poor etiquette can immediately eliminate you from consideration. More importantly, mastering interview etiquette will give you confidence and allow you to focus on the more substantive parts of the interview process.
So, in your communications with the employer’s office prior to the interview, always be courteous, clear, and concise. Respond promptly to any voice messages or email communications from your interviewer’s office. Dress appropriately for the interview (usually in conservative business formal attire that is clean and well pressed). Treat everyone in your interviewer’s office with respect and professionalism; it is not uncommon for interviewers to ask their receptionists or assistants for their impressions of an applicant. And, should your interview take place over coffee or a meal, make sure you have a good grasp of table manners.
At the end of your interview, thank your interviewer for her time. Then, make sure to send a thank-you note within the next 24 hours to anybody who interviewed you. Your thank-you note, like all of your other communications with the interviewer’s office, should be courteous, clear, and concise—and should communicate your continuing enthusiasm for the position for which you applied. A couple of well-chosen sentences are sufficient. Many examples of proper post-interview thank-you notes are available online, but your note should always be personalized with a specific callback to your interview to reinforce the positive interactions you had with your interviewer. In most cases it is acceptable to send a thank-you email directly to your interviewer, but if your interviewer is particularly conservative or advanced in years, you should send a handwritten note.
Confident in your mastery of etiquette, you may now focus on the core of your interview: demonstrating to your interviewer that your substantive skills and personality traits match with the employer’s needs and wants.
The Core of the Interview, Part I: Know Yourself, Like Yourself
The success of your interview hinges on your ability to “sell yourself” to the interviewer. A successful sales pitch usually requires knowing and loving the product—in this case, you. Because your interviewer usually will not know much about you at the beginning of the interview, it is commonplace for legal interviews to involve a series of probing questions about the line items in your résumé. So, before your interview, examine each item in your résumé, and with respect to each one, make sure you can thoroughly answer two questions:
- First, at a basic level, what does the line item mean? If you’ve listed a prior job on your résumé, what specific responsibilities did that job entail? If you’ve listed a thesis, what specifically was your thesis and what did you have to do to write it? If you’ve included a personal hobby on your résumé, what is involved in practicing that hobby? Don’t just answer these questions in the abstract—come up with a specific story and example to illustrate your points. You would be surprised by how many interview candidates cannot provide a compelling description of the experiences and qualifications listed in their own résumés. Don’t be one of those people. We don’t offer them jobs.
- Second, what message does this line item send to your interviewer that will make them want to hire you? What skills did you learn at that job that will translate well to the position for which you are interviewing? What stories can you tell about your experience there that will demonstrate your competence, work ethic, maturity, or another positive trait to your interviewer? Be able to illustrate how difficult it was to earn that honor or award you’ve listed on your résumé. With respect to the “personal interests” portion of your résumé, how does what you’ve listed reveal about your individual personality, demonstrate a quality or skill that you otherwise would not be able to talk about in your interview, and/or provide an opportunity for you to bond with your interviewer? If you have difficulty articulating why a particular line item makes you a stronger candidate, consider removing that item from your résumé in the future.
If you do a thorough job of answering these two questions for everything in your résumé, you will have most of the raw material you need to answer any questions you are likely to receive in an interview. You will of course be able to articulately and concisely answer factual questions about your skills and experience. But you will also have the specific points and examples needed to compellingly answer more abstract questions you are likely to receive, such as:
- Why do you want to work for us?
- How would you describe your work style?
- Even a dreaded “behavioral” prompt like “Describe a time when you failed and your reaction to that failure.”
To craft a good answer to questions like these requires you to highlight specific examples from your past that show that the otherwise abstract qualities you are describing—e.g., your enthusiasm for the sought-after position, your compatibility with the employer’s work culture, or your maturity and resilience—are genuine.
In addition to knowing yourself, you must like yourself. You must believe that you have something valuable offer the employer. And you do! You have accomplished a lot just to make it this far. You may not attend an elite law school, or be at the top of your class, or have a prestigious internship to your name, but you have some experience and unique strengths. If given the chance, you could succeed working for this employer. Reflect on that, internalize it, and let it shine through in when you are answering questions about your skills and experience. The ability to authentically project confidence is the most important asset you can bring to an interview.
The Core of the Interview, Part II: Know Your Target
Knowing (and liking) yourself is only half the battle. You also have to know your target. This is true on an organizational level—you should know the organization to which you have applied—and on a personal level—you should know about the individual who is interviewing you.
With respect to the former, learn about the employer before your interview. Study its website, including any recent press releases. Review Chambers reports, and any other informational resources available through your law school’s library or career center. If possible, talk to someone who works there. Your goal is to understand the organization’s mission, the work that it does, its place in the industry, and its culture.
It will benefit you greatly to learn these things in advance of your interview. First, as a threshold matter it will help you to determine whether you really want to work for the employer. Assuming you do, knowing the organization well will help you to convey genuine enthusiasm for the opportunity during the interview.
Second, knowing the organization will help you to show your interviewer that you have done your research and are serious about the opportunity, and to avoid certain embarrassing mistakes, like not knowing basic facts about the organization available through its webpage. Many years ago, one of the authors made this mistake, telling an interviewer from a corporate transactions boutique of his desire to become a commercial litigator. Needless to say, he did not even get a call-back interview.
Third, and most importantly, studying the employer will provide insight into which aspects of yourself to highlight during your interview. For example, if the employer prides itself on its “entrepreneurial culture,” you know to emphasize your entrepreneurial spirit, and to identify specific examples of your entrepreneurialism beforehand so that you are prepared to relay them during your interview. A related point is that knowledge of the organization is necessary to allow you to ask the right questions of your interviewer—namely, questions that will provide you with useful information about the employer, demonstrate qualities that will be appealing to your interviewer, or provide the interviewer with the opportunity to tell you about features of the employer that you know she is eager to advertise.
In addition to knowing the employer, you should learn something about your interviewer, if you are able to know in advance the individual who is likely to interview you. To the greatest extent possible, learn about her education, experience, practice, and role in the organization before your interview. This provides all the same advantages listed above, and also provides you with the best chance of creating a genuine bond with your interviewer. Realize that your interviewer is selecting the person she will most enjoy working with in the future. Your interviewer wants to hire someone who will do good work, yes, but also someone who is enjoyable to be around. Interviewers tend to hire people who they want to be friends with, or who somehow remind them of themselves. Use these facts to your advantage.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Projecting confidence during your interview is crucial. Practice is the best way to develop confidence. Practice interviews will allow you polish your responses to common interview questions and learn to improvise effective responses to unconventional questions. They may also allow you to discover aspects of your personal presentation of which you are not aware—for instance, weak body language or verbal tics—and improve on them. Another benefit is that if you practice with a classmate and alternate in posing questions to each other, you will get to sit in the position of the interviewer. This will give you a better understanding of the types of responses that are compelling to an interviewer and the types that are not.
Take advantage of any practice interview programs offered by your law school’s career services office, and practice interviewing with your fellow classmates. You can even practice alone by filming yourself while you answer practice questions. Put in the time to hone your responses and demeanor, and by the time you are in a real interview you will feel prepared, poised and confident.
Keep Your Head Up
Nearly every 2L in the country will be searching for a summer position at the same time that you are. Even for qualified law students who interview well, rejection is the rule rather than the exception. The application process can be a numbers game. So, maximize your chances for success by following the advice in this article, but when rejection comes—and it will come—try not to take it personally. Keep your head up and keep putting in the work and you will eventually succeed. Remember, you will have many opportunities, but you only need to secure one 2L position that is right for you.