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Getting Tough and Testy

Vivia Chen

May 18, 2011

Panel You're sitting in the cavernous reception area, and you think you're hot stuff. You've got the grades, the journal experience, and the firm handshake. You dazzled them during the on-campus interview, and now you're waiting for your callback and the start of the engine to Serious Money.

When the job market was sizzling, it used to be that simple: If you survived the initial screening, your chances were pretty good that you'd get an offer from Big Law. The callback interview, while exhausting, was nothing more than a pro forma screening to make sure you're the "right" sort--someone who won't clash with the culture and decor of the firm. You'd probably talk about your undergraduate days at Amherst, your travel to Bhutan, or some other tidbit that has little to do with your job as an associate.

Well, kids, those easy, breezy callbacks may be disappearing. Besides the "behavior" interview (a psychological assessment that measures your work style) that's been embraced by firms like McKenna Long & Aldridge, there's now an even more grueling interview--one that, shockingly, focuses on legal acumen. Pepper Hamilton now vets recruits using "a three-pronged interview," reports U.S. News and World Report (hat tip: ABA Blog):

After an initial 20-minute session, which is largely still based on the traditional model, students move through interactive interviews discussing their writing samples and arguing a fact pattern with firm attorneys—a "hot seat situation."

Frankly, just reading that description made me anxious--especially that stuff about "arguing fact patterns with firm attorneys." I'm not sure what that entails, but it brought back memories of  Socratic drillings in law school. Would the firm's lawyers blast a series of hypotheticals that'd make you sweat like a 1-L in Civ Pro?

Of course, Pepper Hamilton told U.S. News that there's no real "right" answer; rather, "the firm's unique, hands-on scenario gives attorneys a chance to evaluate a student's analytical and communication skills . . . as well as their abilities to listen and work as part of a team."

That puts a nice, soft edge on the process, but I'm not sure I buy it. My advice to candidates: Treat the firm's interview as a test and study for it!

But do I think it's an unfair burden on the candidate? Not at all. Frankly, I think it's high time that employers look for a bit more substance beyond grades and journals. I mean, don't we all know someone with awesome credentials who flopped as a practicing lawyer?

So why the shame in testing for practical skills? Other professions do--why not law?

Take journalism: When I first tried to break into the field, I remember I was startled that I had to take an editing/writing test. At first, I was a bit insulted because I thought my resume should speak for itself. After all, didn't I go to the right schools, earn honors in English, and have decent writing experience under my belt? But looking back, I think it was a perfectly sensible exercise.

So here's my proposal to firms: Put those recruits in a room for an hour and ask them to draft a section of a complaint or contract. Or give them some unreadable legal gibberish, and ask them to clean it up. Seriously, is that asking too much?

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If big law firms were run properly, they'd be hiring experienced attorneys, which they can easily get for the same or less money as newsbies.

I'm all for more rigour in interviews. However, I think its appropriate to give an indication as to what's being tested. I'm just entering second round interviews at a big firm and I've been told there's 'technical testing' but I've got no idea what that means.

I actually don't think its enough. They should move this type of interview front and center. Keep the initial interview as the interview that matters and rely more heavily on interview performance than on a candidate's educational resume.

We all knew people in law school that could game the system. Where you went to school and what your grades were definitely don't necessarily correlate to your work product quality or your ability to handle the job.

Round two interviews should be in a networking setting. I can't tell you how many times I've heard hiring partners complain that new attorneys think they are just going to get a book of business handed to them.

People have commented that its not fair and that there should be advanced notice. There is no advanced notice of what the other side is going to throw at you in a court room. Your ability to work well under pressure and handle the unexpected are exactly what make you valuable or just like every other graduate with a JD.

As a law student who interviewed with Pepper Hamilton, I can tell you that you need to prepare for this interview in a different kind of way. As a result, it helps IF THEY TELL YOU ABOUT THIS IN ADVANCE. I am not sure if this is common, but no one told me in advance about the new format. I did my best to think on my feet, which I presumed was what they were testing, but honestly it was a very unpleasant experience. Oh and your first year of law school doesn't prepare you for how to answer the situational scenario--mine was all focused on tough ethical situations mixed up with how to interact with clients. Not like Civ Pro or Torts prepares you much for that.

Support staff is tested also. It used to be only temporary agencies that tested, but in my current search my computer, math and typing skills have been tested by 3 employers so far.
Unfortunately some people lie on their resumes, so the employer has to check.

The problem is not the interview, its the law schools. What were we doing for three years and for all that money, if when we come out firms still doubt our ability to be functioning lawyers? Law schools need major reform and they are way too expensive.

Let me get this straight: you think it's cool that law firms want to test law students on skills that they haven't been taught in order to obtain jobs?

I'm all for more practicality in legal education, but until that day comes and the general expectation is no longer that new hires will learn primarily while on the job, such interview techniques are not just questionable from an HR perspective -- they aren't very fair to the prospective employee.

Of course, the obvious objection to my line of reasoning is that changing legal institutional mores, such that law students will learn practical skills before getting hired, will require action on someone's part. Why not action by law firms?

And I agree. With a strong qualification. The interaction that needs to take place is between the legal business establishment and the legal education establishment. Firms need to pressure law schools into having a more practical curriculum. Instead of having firms pressure law students, who could theoretically pressure law schools into teaching practical skills, why not eliminate the middle man in this system, avoid putting law students between a rock (law firms) and a hard place (law schools), and simply allow the rock to remold the hard place directly?

Vivia I totally agree with you.

And, as we all know, law school didn't teach us how to be lawyers... only how to think like em.

Great article!

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About The Careerist

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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