With the end-of-year bonus season upon us and a lateral hiring market that remains exceptionally strong, it’s a safe bet that many law firm associates will soon be preparing for lateral interviews. What can you do to maximize your chance of a successful interview?
To get some pointers, I spoke with Mike Blankenship, managing partner of Winston & Strawn’s Houston office, and Randall Clark, corporate and securities partner in Gunderson Dettmer’s New York office. Both have extensive experience with lateral hiring and were happy to offer their advice.
- Be prepared to talk about your representative matters.
The biggest difference between on-campus and lateral interviews is that, as a lateral candidate, you’ll be expected to actually know some law! But before your imposter syndrome intensifies, rest assured that technical questions are almost never asked. The way partners assess your skillset is by probing your resume and, most importantly, your representative matters. “The deal sheet gets more attention from us than the resume,” says Randall, so you must be prepared to discuss any of your listed matters. Take time to reacquaint yourself with the basics of each matter and prepare some talking points about your specific contributions.
- Assemble an effective deal sheet or representative matters list.
There are three dimensions to bear in mind when preparing a deal sheet: format, substance, and length.
- Format: Most partners prefer deal sheets organized by type of transaction, not chronologically. Use this to your advantage by placing your most impressive deals at the top of each category.
- Substance: Include enough detail to convey the essence of the deal. For example, instead of writing “client,” write “a national supplier of widgets.” Emphasize aspects that align with the interviewing firm’s practice strengths. Additionally, indicate your scope of responsibility. This can be as simple as describing your overall role (e.g., “lead associate”) or as detailed as listing your primary contributions.
- Length: Don’t let the term “representative matters” fool you—it’s important to go beyond a small sampling of matters and submit a deal sheet that reflects a high volume of work. The ideal number of matters will vary by firm, practice, and class year, but it’s generally a good idea to consider including all of your matters, even those in which you played a smaller role.
- Look professional.
Yes, the world is changing, Goldman Sachs no longer requires a suit and tie, but despite this trend, it’s better to play it safe for law firm interviews. “Most law firm hirers still expect professional attire because their clients still expect professional attire,” says Mike.
- Do sufficient background research and prepare informed questions.
“While we’re all large law firms, there are distinguishing factors, areas where a firm is great at something,” Mike observes. Look into both overall firm platform as well as the strengths of the specific office or group.
Even if a firm’s top strengths don’t align directly with your practice area, it’s important to demonstrate that you are interested enough to have learned about the firm on your own time. Partners want to be able to quickly identify that you’ve done your homework and start convincing you that you should choose their firm. When conducting screener interviews, Randall “know[s] within a few minutes whether or not [he] like[s] a candidate.”
It’s also advisable to briefly review your interviewers’ biographies. Referring to an interviewer’s background is a great way to avoid awkward silences. And simple questions like “What made you decide to retool into x practice?” or “How is it working for x industry clients?” can surface valuable insights.
- Speak clearly and concisely.
This is important in any interview, but it is essential at firms like Gunderson where associates are expected to interface early with price-sensitive clients. “I want to see whether we can put you in front of founders,” says Randall, and that means being clear and getting to the point.
- Prepare a tight answer for why you think the firm is the right fit.
Never tell a firm that you want to lateral in order to work less. Mike explains that, although he understands “a lot of law firms out there ask a lot more of their attorneys than they probably should,” the risk of an interviewer misinterpreting comments about workload is too high.
Good reasons include wanting to specialize in something not available at your current firm, wanting a change in the type of clients you represent, or simply that you’ve heard great things about the firm and believe you would be a strong match for the culture.
- Assess whether your interviewers would make good mentors.
Finally, remember that you are also interviewing the firm and its partners and associates. Especially for more junior attorneys, mentorship is an important factor to explore. As Mike observes, “that doesn’t mean a formal mentorship program, because every law firm has that.” Instead, try to determine whether your interviewers are the kind of lawyers who would be gracious in helping junior colleagues expand their toolkits.
Why Winston & Strawn? Why Gunderson?
Of course, I also wanted to give Mike and Randall the opportunity to explain why an associate on the market should consider their firms!
“We’re young, entrepreneurial, and we’re growing,” Mike says in relation to Winston & Strawn’s Texas operations. The firm also prides itself on providing excellent guidance to young attorneys. “You are never left on an island,” Mike promises.
Randall sees Gunderson’s culture and the opportunities it affords associates as major selling points. The culture is shaped by Gunderson’s young tech clients, making it an exciting place to work. Conscious of the importance of preserving that culture, the firm is strongly committed to promoting partners from Gunderson’s associate ranks. And given the tech sector’s growth, Randall projects: “we are going to have to make a tremendous number of partners.”