Are the Lawyers Interviewing Me Telling the Truth?

In today's frenzied legal market, law firms are desperate for bodies. Associates and law students are being wooed like never before. Candidates are promised huge salaries, guaranteed bonuses, weekends at the firm condo on Maui, a festive, stress-free work environment and, of course, the chance to do top-quality legal work. But how can you know if the lawyers trying to sell you on their firms are telling the truth?

Ask the Right Questions

A job interview is not a one-way street. You can - and are expected - to ask questions too. To get the real scoop, steer the lawyer away from canned firm information by asking probing and unusual questions. Ask, for example, about that attorney's least favorite case or deal. Ask what that lawyer would change about the firm. (And you know the lawyer's not honest if the response is "nothing.") Ask the attorney where the firm will be in five years. Ask about the firm's business model and how it plans to distinguish itself from similar firms.

Conduct Independent Research

When picking your next home away from home, you'll want to square the interviewer's puffing with your own independent research. Look beyond the firm's website, CD-ROM and other promotional material. Instead, use Lexis to look up past articles about the firm. Is the firm suffering from partner defections? Is the practice group you want to join expanding? Did the firm lose a big client?

Similarly, get in the habit of reading your local legal newspapers. You'll learn a lot about a firm's personality and reputation through regular news coverage.

Also, pick up the phone. Call that friend of a friend who's a secretary at the firm or your long lost cousin who practices law for a competing firm. The legal community is remarkably small, and reliable law firm dirt lurks in its crevices.

Ask Around

If you're interviewing with a law firm on campus, then your fellow students met with the same lawyer. Maybe you got a funny feeling from the attorney or maybe the firm's facts and figures just don't ring true. If so, mention this to a colleague whose judgment you trust. If that person had a similar reaction, then you'll know to follow up with more questions for the firm and further research.

See For Yourself

Perhaps your best opportunity to test what the interviewing lawyer told you about the firm is the call-back interview. When visiting a firm, apply that old kindergarten motto "stop, look and listen." Did the interviewing attorney tell you that the firm was a friendly, social place but everyone's office door is closed? Did the interviewer promise that the firm is not a sweatshop but you're seeing attorneys racing around the halls like chickens with their heads cut off? If so, take everything the lawyer said with a grain of salt. And continue asking those probing questions of each attorney you meet.

Take a moment to look at the firm's décor too. One Silicon Valley firm, for example, uses the engineering code of the world's first transistor for its lobby art, showing visitors that this is one serious patent firm. What publications are in the reception? If it's Wired and Red Herring, you'll know that firm caters to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

Go With Your Gut

Of course, you'll never truly know whether an interviewing lawyer is honest about the firm until you start working there. So in the meantime, the best approach is to trust your instincts. If you get a vague sense, for example, that the lawyer is just going through the interview motions without being truly enthusiastic about the firm, then you're probably right.

Importantly, though, don't walk into an interview expecting to be misled. These attorneys aren't consciously trying to deceive you. Rather, they're working hard, need some help and think you should work there too. It's up to you to determine if they're right.

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