Interviewing Tips for Young Associates
By Heidi Dalenberg
Heidi Dalenberg, a partner with Schiff Hardin LLP in Chicago, may be contacted at
Interviewing as a first, second, or third-year associate is not the same experience as interviewing as a recent law school graduate. You now have experience practicing law, and employers will have different expectations of you during an interview. Below are some interviewing basics that still hold true and further suggestions for the young associate preparing for a new round of interviews.
Don’t stumble out of the gate. You must be on time, and you must dress like a professional. It is almost invariably best to wear a suit.
Spend time on your résumé. Your legal experience should be the primary focus of your résumé. Include nonlegal experience only if it demonstrates something of significance, such as prior business experience in your chosen practice area or your ability to succeed academically while supporting yourself. Listing your personal interests on your résumé to fill space or demonstrate that you are well rounded can backfire—you may find yourself having repetitive discussions about an unusual hobby when you would rather be discussing your professional abilities.
Choose an appropriate writing sample. If you are asked to provide a writing sample, provide one that primarily reflects your work. A piece that was extensively edited by others is not helpful to the interviewer.
Demonstrate your discretion. Show that you can give an intelligent description of a matter and the issues involved without naming names. It is a fatal mistake, and unethical, to disclose nonpublic information about a client’s matters either in your writing sample or in your interview.
Talk about the law. Take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to showcase your ability to cogently discuss legal issues. If your interviewer begins discussing his or her own practice (rather than yours), show an interest, ask questions, and try to engage in a dialogue. No one can evaluate your analytical ability if you do not display it. It may sound like common sense, but talking about the law is critical. If you conclude an interview without discussing a single point of law or legal experience you’ve had, the interview was a failure.
Be ready to explain why you are looking for a new opportunity. You are ready to interview only when you know why you are unhappy in your current position. If you can calmly and dispassionately explain why you have decided to make a change and why you think your target employer will be a better fit, you will display your good judgment, professionalism, and your ability to recognize that different people thrive in different environments. Above all, avoid the temptation to “trash” your current employer during an interview—it is unprofessional and unwise. Even in large cities, legal communities are surprisingly small, and your interviewer may have personal or professional connections to the lawyers you are criticizing.
Doing your homework on a firm’s Web site and literature is not enough. If you are targeting a law firm, it is always a good practice to review the firm’s Web site and marketing material—but don’t stop there. Those sources merely give you background information. If an interviewer asks if you have any questions about the firm, it is never a good idea to respond by saying, “No, I read your Web site.” You could ask how your targeted practice group is managed and for examples of matters that the group is currently handling. You could ask how attorneys’ responsibilities change over time as they become more experienced in your area of practice. Just ask something.
Research, but don’t frighten, your interviewers. You may be told in advance who your interviewers will be. When I interview a candidate, I am impressed when the person has found reported decisions for matters I have handled and is interested in discussing those cases. I am unnerved when someone brings up my place of birth, the names of my family members, or my home address.
Consider the culture of your target employer. It is understandable for law students to be at sea about the “personality” of different firms. An associate who has been in practice can, and should, be better informed. Talk to other lawyers you trust and learn what you can about the employer you are considering. Your goal should be to gracefully communicate to the interviewer that you understand your target employer’s culture and want to be a part of it.
Show a long-term interest. Young associates’ questions are often limited to such immediate concerns as an employer’s system for handing out assignments and for providing merit reviews, feedback, and training. Questions about possibilities for advancement (and for a law firm, the necessary steps toward partnership) make a more positive impression, as they suggest that the associate is serious about his or her career and hopes to make a long-term commitment.
Ready Resources
  • Changing Jobs: A Handbook for Lawyers in the New Millennium, Third Ed. 1999. PC # 5110425. Law Practice Management Section and Young Lawyers Division.

  • Objection Overruled: Overcoming Obstacles in the Lawyer Job Search (Manual). 2000. PC # V00OOOB. Career Resource Center.
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