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Pepper Hamilton's Hiring Partner Chats About Extreme Interviews

Vivia Chen

May 23, 2011

Last week we reported on Pepper Hamilton's new interview regimen ("Getting Tough and Testy"), where recruits have to think on their feet during the callback-and-answer questions about how they'd tackle a legal issue. Today, we're putting the firm's hiring partner Michael Subak (below) on the hot seat to get more gory details about how the process works. Here's what Subak had to say to The Careerist:

Subakm_color Since last fall, Pepper Hamilton has been putting recruits through the paces with its "three-prong" interview, where candidates are expected to participate in an "interactive" simulation, defend their writing sample, plus answer the usual interview questions before a panel of lawyers. That sounds draining. Are you trying to scare off recruits?

That's not the intention. The idea is to make the interview more substantive. The idea is not to weed out the weak, but to elevate the discussion.

Do you think Pepper Hamilton's interview technique is radical? 
Well, I can tell you it was quite contentious within the firm because it sounds intimidating and harsh. Some people felt we were abusing our powers.... But if you look at consulting firms and investment banks, they've been doing this [type of interview] for years.

Where did you get the idea for this three-prong technique? 
We had a brainstorming session last year with our summer associates and junior associates, and I was surprised at the extent of their frustration with law school interviews. As one of them said, firms would ask questions about sports instead of their work. So we got out the whiteboard, told them to come up with a different way to recruit, and then I and another partner left the room. Some were a bit nervous about it, because [the summer associates] didn't have offers at that point. But we wanted them to be very candid.

So these poor summer associates had to critique how your firm and others were doing a crummy job on interviewing. I hope after spilling their guts, they all got offers.
Yes, they did. [He laughs.] And they're all coming back, except for the ones who are clerking. 

Tell me about that "interactive simulation," which sounds really scary.
We'll say to the candidate that this is the type of call we get from clients. Then the partner and the associate will lay out the facts [about the hypothetical]. For instance, the issue might be how to deal with texting at schools. If you had to advise parents or a school district on setting a policy, we'd ask about what issues might come into play.

Sounds like you need to do homework. How should candidates prep for these interviews?
We're cognizant that we're dealing with law students, and we're not trying to test them about security law or anything technical. They should relax, really.

It's easy for you to say to relax. What happens if your mind just goes blank--like when you get called on in first-year property class? Do people ever freeze when you present them with a fact pattern?
Yeah, it happens. I've frozen in court, too. It happens in conversations; some discussions do go flat. It's happened with some of our best candidates. Some do well in interactive interviews, and some don't. We don't pound away at them.

Thank goodness. What about laterals? Do you put them through the same drill? 
Yes, but you can get more practice specific. In one interview, I asked about a pro bono case I was doing. I gave [the candidate] the facts, and asked him what kind of themes we should hit, and he nailed them. And we hired him.

But you've said that you're not looking for "right" answers, so describe what other kind of qualities that impress you.
Enthusiasm and passion for discussing legal issues [demonstrated through] the writing sample and [how they handle] hypotheticals and problem solving during the interview.  Also, a palpable spark of interest. [I'm also] looking for creative, active minds, which can be revealed as much by good questions as by good answers. 

And what kind of candidate turns you off? 
Lack of preparation--primarily relevant to writing sample interview and general interview, and difficulty or unwillingness to engage in the interactive session.

It sounds like the interactive session is something you can't turn down. Aren't you concerned that good candidates will be turned off by this type of extreme interview? 
If it scares people off, this is probably not the place for them. If you give it a shot, it's not an intimidating process. I've heard that some people have withdrawn [because of the three-prong interview] and that's fine.


Are there hiring partners from certain firms you'd like to hear from? Let us know!  E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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