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Avoiding "Law Dorkery": An Insider's Guide to Landing Your Summer Clerkship

Part 2: The Initial Interview and Staying Sober

If you are fortunate enough to make it past the preliminary resume test, it is likely that you will have an initial interview on your campus. As you are probably aware, most schools have an on-campus interview process that takes place in both the fall (usually interviews for 2's) and spring (usually interviews for 1's, with some open spots for 2's and/or 3's if the firm has the capacity) semesters. As with most things, the number and quality of firms will depend on your schoo's ranking.

As I discussed above, if a law firm has one interview room, they will probably be interviewing about 15 people that day. Given the size of the firm and the number of clerkships that they are offering for the coming summer, a firm will generally pick about 5-7 of these people for a trip to the firm's office for a second and (usually) final round of interviews before the job offers go out. From my experience, if a firm is willing to give you an interview, you have met their grade cut-off and therefore you are on a relatively level playing field with everyone else that they are interviewing that day. Of course, all things being equal, the candidates with the higher GPA/class ranking still have a small advantage, but that can be overcome. In light of the foregoing, the General Rule applies here. Since the playing field is fairly level, you need to do something to set you apart from all of the other law dorks you are competing with.

Although much of the advice that I have to share applies to both the Initial Interview and also the Callback Interview (discussed below), I am going to discuss it all here for the sake of brevity: The first premise that you need to understand is that most law firms don't send their biggest dorks to interview, unless of course that is all they have. As a quick aside, if you are confronted with a couple of real dorks, you should ask yourself some serious questions about who they are hiding back in their office. With this basic understanding, the intelligent interviewee should realize two things. First, your ability to discuss the law itself doesn't really matter. Second, a bunch of canned responses to questions won't get you beyond the initial interview. Although I didn't keep exact stats, I would conservatively say that I received callbacks on about 75 percent of the on-campus interviews that I attended. Of these, I would estimate that I spent about 90-125 percent of the interview talking about things other than law school. Often times, the people that the firms send are alumni of your law school and/or university. I attended both law school and undergraduate school at The University of Texas at Austin, and when I was faced with other Texas Exes as my interviewers, I often brought up the topic of football in a casual manner. Doing this was easy. If I was asked how I liked law school, I would reply with something like, "It isn't all that bad, but I wish I could go to Lubbock this weekend for the Texas Tech game instead of studying". I recall several interviews where all we discussed were outside common interests. And guess what? I got callbacks with all of these. Why, you ask? Here is a big secret: given the fact that you have probably already made the firm's grade cut-off, there is a 99% chance that the interviewers aren't hoping for you to wow them with your "law dorkery", but instead are looking for someone that they would be willing to have a beer with outside of the office. There is nothing worse than being in an interview room for thirty minutes with some loser who wants to talk about a really funny thing that happened when they were discussing Hawkins v. McGee in his or her Contracts class. What is really hard for my law students to understand is that we all have finished law school, and don't want to relive it. The only reason we are showing up at your school is because it gets us out of the office (which means we have to make up lost time that we could have been billing). There is some actual logic to all of this. If I am interviewing you, I am asking myself, "Is this someone that I would be willing to take along when I bring a client to play golf, or go to dinner, or a ballgame?" If the answer to this question is "no", then you might as well get up and leave the interview room now. Obviously, talking about college football or a website you own called ihatelawschool.com isn't going to work for everyone, but I trust that you get the overall message. In case you don't, here it is again. Find a couple of areas of common interest with your interviewees and don't be a law dork. This sounds easy enough, but a disturbingly large percentage of law students that I have been forced to interact with in the interview situation with have the social skills of a lamp post.

Another piece of savvy advice I can offer is that you should to try to find out the names of the lawyers that will be interviewing you in advance, and then look at their biographies on the firm's website to see what they actually do all day long. It seems simple and instinctual, but most people don't bother to do that. This can be a helpful supplement to the strategy I discussed above, but also can save you when that strategy doesn't work out as planned. One thing that always impressed me as an interviewer would be a question from a candidate such as, "I saw on your biography on the firm's website that you represented Company X in a multi-billion dollar financing transaction. What was your role as an associate in that transaction and what do you think that I would be doing as a young associate working on a similar transaction?"

Let's dissect this question.

  • What you said: "I saw on your biography on the firm's website"
  • What this means:"I didn't just roll out of bed this morning and show up at some interview where I know jack-shit about you or your stupid law firm. Unlike most of the other carbon copy morons that you have met with today, I actually took the time to figure out who I was interviewing with"
  • What you said: "that you represented Company X in a multi-billion dollar financing transaction."
  • What this means: "I know that as a lawyer, you are an egotistical asshole who wants people to know who he/she is. I am not kissing up to you, but am instead inquiring about one of what I am sure are many accomplishments. I know that you will treat my like crap when I am a young associate, and I would like an example as to how you would have done so in the transaction I have just referenced."
Although laced with sarcasm, I am sure you get the point. Obviously, it is important to sell yourself in an interview, but it is true that most lawyers are egotistical assholes who like to talk about themselves. By asking a question like the one above, you have given your interviewer a chance to brag about their work, and also have shown that you are actually interested in how you would fit into the puzzle. It is important for you to have some idea what your role at the firm would be. Some firms are of the philosophy that all young lawyers are useless (which philosophy, admittedly, has some merit), while others adopt a trial-by-fire approach. The question above can hopefully shed some light in this area.

Eventually, most interviews come to that inevitable point where the interviewer has gotten tired of listening to you boast about your many accomplishments in moot court, but they realize that they are obligated by law (i.e. firm policy) to spend a few more minutes talking to you despite the high probability that they are moments away from taking their own life in lieu of the foregoing. Usually, at this point, the interviewer will ask if you have any questions about the firm. Here is a golden opportunity for you to blow the interview if you aren't careful. One way to be sure is to do what a friend of mine did by asking, "How do you like working at the Smith Law Firm?" Although a question like this, although generic and unimaginative, is common and is generally fine, this person wasn't interviewing with the Smith Law Firm, but instead the Harry Law Firm. Oops. You have just turned your interviewer into the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. "No soup for you! Next!" Aside from this obvious blunder, telling your interviewer that you don't have any questions isn't the way to go either, because this shows the interviewer that you could care less about their firm, or even worse, that you are equally as tired of talking to him or her as they are talking to you. Not a good idea. On top of this, it also makes the interviewer think, "I am freaking miserable at this firm and this moron doesn't want to find out what sucks about this hell-hole." As discussed above, questions that at least give some perception of thoughtfulness or foresight by the candidate can go a long way. I tended to ask questions like, "If you were in my position, would you come to work for your firm again?" or "What is the thing you hate the most about your firm?" These questions generally either made the interviewer laugh, or think, either of which is a check-mark in your favor. You will be very surprised what answers come back to you. Once you have bumbled your way through your allocated time slot, be sure and ask each of your interviewers for their business card and thank them for their time. Again, every minute they are out of the office, they are not billing, and that means that those minutes have to be made up. Since those minutes have to be made up, this means that they have traded some of their free time to come and talk with you, so let them know that you do appreciate it (whether you actually do or not).

A decent percentage of students have taken to running home and sending thank you cards to their interviewers. I highly recommend that you do not do this for a couple of reasons. First, I have always felt that this was kissing up. I don't need a fancy calligraphy-addressed thank you card full of corny "I really enjoyed meeting you" crap. More importantly, the decision on your future with the firm will in all likelihood have been made long before Mr. Postman delivers the pretty little card you scribbled out. The solution I pose isn't recommended by all but solves both issues above. Send a quick email. Some people think that this is too informal, but those people are idiots. Time is of the essence and I have never met a lawyer who was offended by receiving an email from an interviewee. This is the computer age and damn near every lawyer has a Blackberry. Decisions on which candidates to bring back from on-campus interviews are often made the same or the next day, so timing is of the essence. Just send a quick note – not your bio and not another copy of your resume (yes, this happened to me once), but something that the interviewer will remember you by. Something as simple as, "Dear Bob Lawyer. I enjoyed talking with you earlier today about Your Lousy Firm, LLP. Hopefully Texas won't lay another egg and lose to Nebraska this weekend. Take care, Joe Candidate."

In many cases, the initial interview can also include a somewhat secretive "Part B", which is a reception hosted by the firm the day before or the day of their on-campus interviews. If you have any desire to work for a firm hosting such an event, and you are invited to said event, it would be very wise investment of your time to attend the event. In fact, I can tell you from experience that firms pay more attention to who did not attend, than to the list of those who actually did attend. It can, however, kill you if (i) you get trashed, (ii) act like a complete ass, and/or (iii) you don't show up. I realize this seems ridiculous, but most firms assume you don't care about them if you don't show up. A token appearance usually is best. Show up, pick up your name tag (VERY IMPORTANT), shake a few hands, have one (not plural) cocktail and leave. In and out in an hour seems like a good plan. Staying too long makes you look desperate. On top of the brownie points you receive for your attendance, these receptions generally allow you to meet a larger sample of lawyers from the firm, thereby allowing you to gauge the non-dork percentage at said firm. Also, never be the last one to leave the reception, and as a general principle, don't take members of the firm up on an invitation to go out after the reception. This can backfire in more ways than I can describe. If you can't make the firm's reception for some reason, one trick is to find someone else you know who is going and have them pick-up your name tag. Again, it is far worse for them to think you didn't show up then to not remember if you were there. The parties are usually crowded, and they will assume they just didn't see you.
Please check back soon to read Parts 4, 5 and 6 of this article, which include, How to Accept or Reject Job Offers, I Didn't Receive Any Offers - Now What? and The Clerkship: How NOT To Get a Permanent Offer

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