Survive and Advance: The Lateral Partner Interview Process (A March Madness Allegory)


March has always been an active time of the year in legal recruiting. And, while the market is heating up again, there is still an abundance of caution in the air. Invariably, as the end of the first quarter nears and bonuses get paid, the curiosity level of partners thinking of making a move increases. With the post-COVID sea change impacting work-from-home, office politics and the like, candidates new to making moves and veterans considering their options are asking more questions than ever about the interview process itself.


If these candidates happen to be college basketball fans, I first tell them to watch the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about North Carolina State’s improbable 1983 NCAA basketball championship victory over the University of Houston titled, “Survive and Advance;” for, that’s the perfect allegory for the process.


In case you are not familiar, here’s the summary of what transpired that fateful year as described by ESPN: In 1983, the NC State Wolfpack, coached by Jim Valvano, stayed alive in the postseason by winning nine do-or-die games in a row — seven of which they were losing in the final minute. The unlikely squad made it to the national championship game against No. 1 Houston, a team featuring future NBA Top 50 all-time players Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. NC State was one of the biggest underdogs ever in the final game, one that went down as possibly the best college basketball game in history-ending with one of the most well-known buzzer beater plays of all time. [NC State won 54-52.]


So, what does this have to do with lawyers interviewing? A lot!  “Survive and Advance” actually says it all. Top law firms today are more cautious than ever in their recruiting. Gone is the frenzy from two years ago, when demand so far outpaced talent that firms were actually hiring lateral attorneys who lived in foreign countries.  The process now seems longer and more daunting, from an initial screening to multiple follow ups to the lateral partner questionnaire (LPQ) to management committee business cases. (The nice carry-over from the last two years is that still, most interviews can be done via video, which saves everyone a lot of time.)


By comparison, March Madness starts with the first round, which pairs the field down from 64 teams to 32 teams. Subsequent rounds, of course, lead to the Sweet 16, Elite 8, Final 4, and ultimately, the championship game. If you’re a player thinking about all those steps at once, it’s truly overwhelming – similar to the experience of lawyers about to embark on the interview process, who may find it equally dauting and time consuming, especially if they have a practice to run and clients to whom they are accountable. But by taking the “survive and advance” approach, the process can be more manageable, at least from a piece of mind standpoint.


The “survive and advance” approach has three stages:


Stage 1: Set your goal to be to advance to the next stage.


Coach V would tell his players that if they hung around long enough, perhaps they’d be able to steal a victory at the end.  In the interviewing process, by analogy, you want to “hang around” as long as you can and stay positive. You’ll meet a lot of people, and sometimes it will seemingly drag on forever.  Some of those with whom you meet you’ll gel immediately and others you may not. Don’t worry if you don’t feel an immediate connection with any one person, and don’t read anything into any one conversation. Remember, Derek Whittenburg’s last-second air ball was converted into a championship winning basket.


Stage 2: Keep putting yourself in the best position to succeed.


NC State’s second game in the NCAA tournament was against UNLV, led by Sidney Green. The night before the game, Green was quoted in the newspaper saying, “Yeah, I watched the game last night [NC State vs Pepperdine], and Baily [Thurl Baily, forward for NC State] didn’t impress me. I ain’t worried about Baily.” NC State beat UNLV the next day 71-70, with Baily having an amazing game and scoring the winning basket over Green at the buzzer.  In interviewing parlance, this means being mindful of what you are saying. Are you projecting the image you want? The “rejection folder” is filled with resumes of attorneys who made disparaging remarks about other firms and other attorneys.  Remember, you never know who people know, or how they will react—just ask Sidney Green and Thurl Baily!


Stage 3: Devise a winning game plan for each meeting.


The facts and circumstances and where you are in the process will dictate how you craft your pre-meeting strategy, just as Valvano’s strategy against North Carolina and Michael Jordan differed from that against Houston and Olajuwon. Key to formulating your game plan is (1) know who you are meeting and learn as much about them as possible, and (2) be mindful of where you are in the process what it will take to get to the next stage. If you are at the early “get to know one another” stage, having an LPQ in order is not so important.  However, if you are meeting with a practice chair, you want all your financial statistics at the tips of your fingers.


As it pertains allegorically to interviewing and advancing your legal career in today’s changing world, the moral of the 1983 NC State championship story is to “survive and advance.” And as a parting salute to Coach Jimmy V., “Don’t give up; don’t ever give up.”


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