As on-campus recruiting season hits top gear, potential law firm hires might not notice anything unusual about the questions they are asked, but the underlying goals of law firm interviewers have shifted.
No longer does the ability to quickly analyze a court opinion or a lawyer's status on law review earn a guaranteed spot in a summer program. Though still important, intertwined with questions about GPA and resumes are ones that probe how attorneys will handle tough or unexpected situations. They are pretty typical for a job interview, but the goal for law firms now is to see how new attorneys can handle the sometimes stressful law firm environment and, even more, whether they can provide real world value to clients beyond just handing in strong work product.
The concept is called behavioral interviewing and helps interviewers gauge future job performance on how interviewees handled previous situations. It is also called competency-based interviewing, which falls right in line with law firms' move toward competency-based advancement.
Back in the heyday of law firm hiring, when firms were scrambling to get the best talent, some firms like Orrick and DLA Piper implemented behavioral interviewing techniques, according to a 2007 article from The Legal Intelligencer affiliate The American Lawyer. The goal was to help improve acceptance rates and retention figures by giving firms a better understanding of the attorneys they were hiring and vice versa.
Now that the tables have turned, the same technique is being used to help firms be more discerning in their hiring by more quickly identifying top talent that can provide added value to clients already balking at paying for entry-level lawyers.
Law firm interviewers are being trained to ask questions like "How did you handle the last time you received an unexpected project?" or "What was an innovative idea you came up with in the workplace?"
Christopher Boyle, hiring partner at Drinker Biddle & Reath, said behavioral interviewing is a concept that has long been used in the corporate world, but one that is relatively new to law firms as the firms try to figure out why some associates make it and others do not.
The firm has been working with its core interviewers to get them more comfortable with behavioral interviewing. The concept isn't rocket science, he said. It's just about digging deeper into a person's resume to see if examples can be found of how he or she exhibits the characteristics of an attorney the firm is looking for. Do they have the ability to deal with adversity and can they handle the repercussions when they make mistakes? Were they put into situations that were unexpected?
"We've seen some young associates coming out of school are missing some of that resiliency," Boyle said. "But a lot is stuff they've learned outside of law school."
Maybe they have handled tough situations when working in retail or at a pizza shop. If the interviewer knows what he is doing, these questions just become a natural part of the conversation, Boyle said. This means the interviewers have to read the resumes beforehand. In a 25-minute interview, there aren't going to be five behavioral questions, but maybe just one, he said.
Interviews have to be about more than just whether the person is nice, Boyle said.
"Law firms, especially in an era where it's more of a buyer's market, you try to distinguish people," he said.
Morgan Lewis & Bockius is being more discerning this year. After taking a year hiatus from their summer program, they are back to interviewing, but are doing so at fewer law schools. The firm is looking for summer associates who not only are good lawyers, but who are ready to provide client service from the outset.
This isn't a new concept for the firm, but there is a renewed emphasis on it in the current market. Earlier this summer, hiring partner Eric Kraeutler met with the hiring partners in all offices for a day-long training on behavioral interviewing. The hiring partners in each office are personally conducting training for any attorney who will be interviewing on campus and for a core group that will be conducting interviews at the firm's offices, he said.
"We have used behavioral interviewing for a number of years, but we have refocused our effort this year because we think that in light of lessons learned through the recession, we're particularly focused on hiring associates who will be able to deliver client service on day one," Kraeutler said.
The technique, he said, is a way to talk with students about the important decisions they've made in their lives and why they made them in order to better understand their decision-making abilities and their orientation to characteristics the firm believes are important.
In addition to an excellent academic record, Kraeutler said, Morgan Lewis is looking for team orientation, client service potential and communication and interpersonal skills. He said clients have appreciated the strong academic backgrounds and quality of attorneys the firm has traditionally hired, and that remains part of the equation.
"On the other hand, we've taken to heart the comments that we've received from clients that they want a certain level of maturity and experience from the people that are doing their work," he said. "So we're hoping to hire people from law schools who have all the normal things we look for and also bring something special."
Kraeutler said he views the traditional goal of behavioral interviewing -- increasing attorney retention -- to be in line with the refocused efforts of bringing on those who can add more for clients. Those attorneys will be the most successful at servicing clients and will then likely look to stay on with the firm because of their professional success, he said.