Stephanie Friese article on "Is the Grass Really Greener? Interview Tips/Techniques to Learn More During the Interview Process"
Reprinted with permission from the February 2, 2022, edition of Daily Report © 2022 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lawyers are changing firms at higher rates than at any other time during recent history. “New data from legal data company Decipher, which provides firms with due diligence on lateral hires, reports that there were 13,987 associates who moved to new firms through September 30,  a 51% increase over the previous four-year average for that time period,” according to a recent ABA Journal article. Some will end up happier in their careers as a result; some will later regret their moves; some will keep jumping firms until they land on their feet. How can attorneys be more certain they are making the right decision? Aside from understanding basic economics such as the firm’s compensation system, which is of course essential, leveraging the interview process is a good start, and asking questions in a strategic way is a key skill to enable us to make the right decisions.
Genuine Interest in the Firm’s Work and Client Base is a Prerequisite
The most surprising aspect of recent interviews from my perspective lately has been the lack of questions from candidates about the firm’s expectations, the type of work to be done, and the type of clients with which the candidate will interface. In these interviews I am distracted by thoughts of how committed the candidate is to the practice of law and whether he or she is genuinely interested in what we are trying to accomplish for our clients. When I am distracted, I tend to stop sharing information.
Then there are other interviews where I find myself doing all the talking (which is against my #1 rule as the interviewer). What makes the difference? In retrospect, it’s much easier to share information about our firm when the interviewee’s questions show a genuine curiosity in the firm and our practice. The interview becomes a conversation where both parties are sharing information freely.
Our days are filled with the substantive work and grind to meet client expectations, so understanding those demands and opportunities should be a priority when considering switching firms. Without this information, we have no way of knowing whether we are jumping from the frying pan into a fire.
Focus on Learning What is Expected of You
One way to make sure you are interviewing at a firm that is aligned with your personal goals and values is to ask questions to learn about what is expected of you. Based on the answers, you can decide whether the firm is the right fit for you.
For example, you may not know exactly where you want to focus your practice, and it’s important to you that you will have the opportunity to work on a variety of different matters. In that case, you could ask a question such as “I know you have clients that have many different legal needs, from corporate, to real estate, to litigation, and I have heard that clients are more loyal to firms that serve needs in a variety of areas. Does the firm find it more beneficial for a new attorney to take test drives in a variety of different practice groups, or does the firm find that it prefers associates to focus its efforts in one group?”
Or you may prefer to develop a niche practice area in an area about which you have always been passionate, in which case you could ask “Last week I met another attorney who works here, and she gave the firm a lot of credit for helping her develop a specialized practice. I was inspired by her story, and wondering what advice the firm would give an associate who wants to find the right practice area early in her career to add value for the firm’s clients?”
Ask About Specific Facts and Past Examples
If it is important to you to work on a cohesive team where co-workers generally love going to work each day, a prudent question would be designed to figure out whether the firm is effective at retaining talent. Instead of a direct question about the firm’s retention rate, you might get more information if you ask about specifics, such as “Can you recommend any lateral hires in the firm that have been particularly successful here? How would you describe their contributions to the firm? What are their traits that have contributed to their success here?” If the answers pique your interest, ask for an introduction to the attorneys identified and follow up with them to learn more.
The Golden Rule of Interviewing: Without Demonstrating What You Can Do For The Firm, You Will Not Find Out What The Firm Can Do For You
In the words of JFK, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. Keep this in mind when asking questions, taking care to frame questions in a way that demonstrates your ambition. This will also make it easier for the interviewer to give advice, which they generally like to do. If they aren’t excited about your ambition at this point, they never will be, so it’s best to understand that now.
For example, if business development is an area of interest for you, consider asking a question such as “What are some traits of the most successful business developers at the firm?” Or, “What partners have the best reputation for business development, and why”? Instead of “What resources does the firm provide to help me with my business development efforts”? While the last question is more direct, the first two questions will result in better information that will actually help you understand successful business development efforts and how the firm contributed to the success of those efforts.
To learn more about the type of work you will be doing, or team dynamic, open-ended questions are a great tool. For example, a question such as “What was your favorite case you worked on last year?”, followed by “How did other attorneys contribute to the matter to make it both successful and rewarding for you?”, or “How do you anticipate the next person you hire will contribute further to that effort?” shows that you are curious about the type of work and are committed to contributing to a team. You will likely get information from the interviewer about what they expect of associates and exactly how each person fits in to the overall team.
Ask the Right People Throughout the Process
Since questions regarding mentoring, work-life balance, and firm culture are designed to learn more about what the firm can do for you, they are better asked in second round interviews, or even more optimally to other attorneys that work at the firm. You are more likely to get better information since the answers will be from those who share your perspective. If possible, ask for introductions to the other attorneys at the firm identified in the interview as successful contributors, and talk to them about the culture, expectations, and work-life balance. Or search your network for attorneys who have left the firm and ask them why. Therein will lie the most honest answers.
Stephanie Friese is co-managing shareholder in the Atlanta office and chair of the Real Estate Practice Group of Chamberlain Hrdlicka. She can be contacted at (404) 665-1220 or Stephanie.Friese@chamberlainlaw.com.