Are you a law firm associate preparing for lateral interviews? If there’s one thing I can guarantee, it’s that your interviewer will ask at some point: “Do you have any questions for me?” This article will help ensure you don’t meet that invitation with an awkward silence.
Asking thoughtful questions has two benefits. First, you score points with the interviewer by demonstrating your genuine interest in the firm. Second, you can elicit useful information to help determine whether the firm is the right fit: don’t forget that you are interviewing the firm, just as the firm is interviewing you.
Asking questions helps create a genuine dialogue
Before delving into what constitutes a good question, it’s worth pausing to talk about the overall interview dynamic. The most successful interviews are dialogues, not depositions. Your goal is to establish a natural back-and-forth, with both parties eliciting and conveying information, building on each other’s points. Don’t feel you need the interviewer’s permission to ask a question. Instead, play your part in making the interview a genuine conversation.
Naturally, you want to leave space for the interviewer to ask most of the questions in the first part of the interview. But there’s no reason to hold all your queries until the end, especially if you have a question that follows directly from something the interviewer has just said. The more seamlessly you weave in questions throughout the interview, the more likely your interviewer will leave with the impression that it was a great conversation and that spending more time with you would be enjoyable.
Formulating intelligent questions
Whoever said there’s no such thing as a stupid question must not have been talking about law firm interviews. Taking the time to learn about the firm and formulate some informed, targeted questions is an important part of preparing for your interview.
Speaking generally, good questions tend to invite the interviewer to elaborate on their perspective about a topic that arises in the interview or to share insights from their personal experience. These questions help build rapport. Conversely, asking questions that seem overly formulaic or divorced from the interview conversation will tend to damage rapport: you risk giving the impression that either you weren’t listening closely or you weren’t interested in what the interviewer had to say. Whatever you do, don’t ask for information that is readily available on the firm’s website!
Law firms and in-house legal departments want to hire lawyers who are genuinely excited to join their team. Asking specific, informed questions that show you’ve diligently researched your interview panel and the firm will demonstrate real interest. Questions that suggest an appetite to stay for the long haul are especially favored. Asking about topics like performance reviews, feedback, mentoring, training, and business development signals to the interviewer your interest in building a career at the firm.
Keep in mind that most people — and especially attorneys — love to talk about themselves. So be sure to ask questions about your interviewer’s practice. In particular, this is an opportunity to communicate your interest in the firm by asking about information you’re able to find from the interviewer’s web bio, firm website, LinkedIn page, or even public records such as PACER for a litigator or Pitchbook for transactional lawyers. For instance, if you’re interviewing with a litigation partner, check out the representative matters section of the partner’s web bio and ask about a recent case or investigation they handled. If the interviewer is ranked in Chambers or Legal 500, mention that you saw the write-up and ask about a deal referenced there.
A particularly savvy form of question, when executed well, is one that both highlights something you bring to the table and confirms that that attribute or experience will be valued at the interviewer’s firm. This could be a skill, an achievement, or an aspect of your personality. You can both ask an intelligent question and simultaneously steer the conversation toward a point you wish to make about your interests or qualifications. An example: “I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to take a handful of fact witness depositions at my current firm, which I really enjoyed. Would the team consider giving me the opportunity to handle more senior tasks if I prove I’m ready for them?”
Remember that your time is limited, so you want to be strategic about how you allocate questions across interviewers. For example, partners will likely be better equipped to answer questions about the matters and clients you will be staffed on and the firm’s growth trajectory, while associates will be better equipped to answer questions about the firm culture, training, mentoring, and reviews.
What to ask
Below is a non-exhaustive list of sample questions to use as a starting point. In addition, you should feel free to ask the hiring partner (or the recruiting coordinator) about the next step in the interview process and when the firm anticipates deciding who will advance to the next stage.
Role, Team, and Nature of the Work
- Is this a growth position or are you replacing someone?
- What are your (or the team’s) biggest staffing needs right now?
- What are you looking for in this role? For example, what qualities do you think make for a successful mid-level corporate associate at this firm (or on this team)?
- Will I be working primarily with a particular partner or team?
- If not, how are associates staffed on matters?
- If yes, who makes up the team? Are there particular clients/matters/cases/deals that I will be working on immediately? Over the next year?
Firm Culture, Clients, and Growth Plans
- How would you describe the firm’s culture generally and the culture in this practice group?
- [If interviewing outside of the firm’s main office] Do you think the culture in this office aligns with the culture firmwide?
- Who are the firm’s biggest clients?
- Does the firm have institutional clients in [your practice area]? Or is developing business from new clients emphasized?
- How does the firm support and encourage cross-selling within the firm?
- What can you tell me about the firm’s future plans? Are there plans to grow, and if so, how do you think the firm will look in the next 5 or 10 years? Any specific growth plans you can share relating to our practice area?
- If the firm has recently merged, acquired a firm, or expanded into a new market, work that into your question. For example, you could say, “I read that the firm recently opened offices in Texas and Miami. Does the firm have plans to continue expanding in the Southeast?”
Integration, Training, Mentoring, Evaluations, and Promotions
- How does the firm handle integration of lateral associate hires, both here in this office and firmwide? Is there a formal integration program or is it more informal?
- Do you have any recent lateral hiring success stories you can share?
- [If the interviewer lateraled to the firm] How was your experience as a lateral hire?
- How did the firm support your integration?
- Were there formal events or was it more informal?
- [Ask about success stories for other lateral hires, such as lateral hires who have made partner at the firm. If you’ll be working with a particular team, consider asking if any lateral hires have made partner from that team or in that practice area. However, if you get the sense that your interviewer isn’t prepared to answer these questions, don’t put them on the spot. You can always ask to speak to successful lateral associate hires after you’ve received an offer and are evaluating it.]
- What training opportunities are available for associates in my practice area? Is there a formal training program or is it more informal? Does the firm offer access to outside training resources, such as litigation skills courses offered by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA)?
- How does the group/office/firm handle mentoring (formal and informal)?
- Does the firm do formal evaluations on an annual or semi-annual basis? Will I receive more immediate feedback on my work product in between?
- What is the typical path to partner for a lateral hire?
- Are there objective criteria/benchmarks that I’ll be expected to achieve to make partner?
- [If you are a senior associate] When will I first be eligible for partnership consideration?