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The Who, What & When Of Asking Questions In An Interview

When I prep candidates for interviews, I always ask them what they plan to ask their interviewers. Many candidates are surprised that we are covering this topic in our prep. “I’ll just wing it,” they say, “you know, ask a couple of questions on the fly based on what comes up in the interview.” Now, imagine me taking a deep breath and shaking my head. No, No, and No. The bottom line is that the questions you ask in an interview say a lot about you and how you think about the world. Likewise, the answers you receive can give you some valuable insight into the interviewer and the firm and how/whether you might fit in.

The Who

Know your audience. You should consider your interviewer when planning what questions to ask. This applies both to the interviewer’s position in the firm and the specifics of their background. The questions you ask a partner will differ from those you ask an associate. As a general proposition, a partner or a more senior associate is going to be assessing you through the following lens, “Can this person come in and exercise good judgment and complete the work in a thoughtful manner?” On the other hand, an associate is going to be assessing you on more of a peer-to-peer level. In other words, “How will this person be as a teammate in the trenches?” If you ask a partner, an associate-appropriate question, you risk coming across as non-deferential. Conversely, if you ask an associate a partner-appropriate question, you could come across arrogant or even threatening.

The What

You will likely have a very limited amount of time with a partner or associate. Given this, do not squander an opportunity to learn something valuable about the firm or interviewer or to showcase your thoughtfulness and preparation. Additionally, it’s OK to ask the same questions of different interviewers. It may feel repetitive to you, but it will not to the person with whom you are speaking.

The following are some questions you may consider asking associates:

  • How did you choose to join this firm?
  • What does a typical day/week look like for you here?
  • When a case/deal comes in, how is it staffed/work distributed?
  • How would you describe the personality of the firm and what type of people do well here?
  • What do you do when you have questions on an assignment/case/project?
  • What is the firm’s practice for providing performance feedback to associates? How have you received feedback?
  • What type of training have you had at the firm (i.e., on-the-job versus formal training sessions) and what has been the most useful to you?
  • Does the firm have a formal or informal mentoring system for associates? What has been your mentoring experience?

The following are some questions you may consider asking partners:

  • What are your expectations for me?
  • What are you working on now that I can be assisting you with?
  • I read your article on x/heard about the award from y, can you tell me more about that?
  • Can you tell me more about the x part of your practice?
  • How would you describe the culture of the firm and what types of associates are likely to be successful here?
  • What qualities do you appreciate most in an associate?
  • How do you assign matters to associates?
  • What responsibilities do you assign to associates at my level?
  • What is the most rewarding part of your practice?

Whether you are interviewing with a partner or an associate, you should be very careful not to fall into the “Firm Bio Trap.” While it is very important to do your research in advance of the interview, it is equally important to remember that an attorney’s firm bio is a marketing tool. For example, an attorney may list “Trademark” in his/her bio as an area of practice. However, this may mean that the attorney worked on one Trademark case four years ago. The attorney and/or the firm may list this particular area of practice to further bolster capability and attract additional work.

This is a common practice and I am certainly not criticizing it. I just want to bring it to your attention so that you don’t overcommit to a particular area of questions based on an attorney’s firm bio. Instead, you should focus on asking a thoughtful question based on doing your homework without painting yourself into a corner based on a marketing sell in a firm bio.

In this case, you can see how the following lead-up and question might be problematic, “I was very excited to see from your bio that you do Trademark work. That is an area in which I definitely want to practice. If I were to join the firm, what types of cases can I expect to work on in that area?” If you’ve ever seen the cartoon The Road Runner, you can imagine the interview coming to a screeching halt like the Road Runner at the edge of a cliff.

A better question might sound something like this, “I saw that your firm bio lists IP as one of your areas of practice. How does that area fit in with the rest of your practice?” This question is specific enough to show that you’ve done your homework, but open-ended enough to let the partner take it in a direction where he/she is comfortable. Based on their answer, you can then start to get more specific in your follow up. Imagine that a natural-flowing interview is like the turn-by-turn sharpening of a pencil.

The When

Most associates go into interviews expecting the following format: Small talk followed by resume-related questions from the interviewer and then concluding with the candidate asking a few questions at the urging of the interviewer. This format remains the norm. That said, you should always be ready for the interviewer to start off with “What can I tell you” or asking if you have any questions shortly after the interview begins. Being prepared for this scenario will prevent you from being caught off guard. Your nimbleness may even give you a competitive edge over other candidates who aren’t ready to respond to this non-traditional interview format.

On the stylistic side, it is generally preferable to integrate your questions into the flow of the interview whenever possible. In so doing, the interview will feel more like a conversation and allow you to form a better interpersonal connection with the interviewer. If you have the opportunity to do this, never use all of your questions during the interview. Always have one final question ready in your back pocket for when the interview asks the obligatory “Do you have any questions for me?”

The truth is that you probably do not—especially if you’ve done a good job weaving in your questions to the interview. Even so, you should still ask that final question. One question which works well as a wrap-up for both associates and partners focuses on the qualities of a successful attorney at the firm. Interestingly, we often receive negative feedback from interviewers when a candidate does not have at least one question at the conclusion of the interview. Does it necessarily make sense? No. Do you care why it doesn’t make sense? Again, no. You just want to put yourself in the best position to succeed.

The Do Nots

There are a few questions that you should avoid asking in an interview. These include:

  • What are the firm’s billable requirements?
  • Will I have to work weekends?
  • What’s the work/life balance like at the firm?
  • How stable/strong is the firm’s financial health?

Questions 1–3 tend to send a message of lack of commitment. At the end of the day, law firms are businesses and they are interested in what you can do for them. If you ask about work/life balance, the person interviewing you will likely interpret that question as you do not want to work hard. Along those same lines, be careful about asking too many questions about the firm’s pro bono work. Question 4 is too sensitive a topic and will not be viewed as appropriate coming from a law student or associate.

Certainly, the information contained in the answers to the types of questions listed above may be important for you to know in making a decision about whether to join a firm. However, that is all information which you can learn AFTER you get an offer and often from a recruiting professional rather than a partner or attorney with whom you will be working.

The Bottom Line

The more time you invest into your research and preparing thoughtful questions in advance of an interview, the greater your chance for success. This preparedness will place you in a position of being ready for anything that comes your way, either by way of timing or substance. And, as the tennis great Arthur Ashe said, “One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.” 

This article was originally published to Northwestern Law School’s Career Strategy Center Blog on April 6, 2018

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