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Law Firms Dig Deeper in New Interviews

Interactive, probing sessions let students showcase their skills.

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For Noor Najeeb, a law student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, job interviews at law firms sometimes left her without a clear way to gauge her odds of landing a position.

"I remember walking out of some interviews thinking, 'How far did I get? How will they know whether or not to hire me, because we spent the entire time talking about our favorite restaurants?'" says Najeeb, who just finished her second year at Penn Law. "That happens at interviews sometimes, and you don't know how to take it."

Though the interview process for second-year law students is often the initial step toward their first legal jobs after graduation, it's frequently dominated by pleasantries and superficial questions that don't stretch beyond transcripts and résumés, some law students say. In several short interviews, prospective summer associates meet one on one with lawyers to talk, in many cases, about favorite law school professors, courses, trips abroad, and a shared love of law school. It can be a frustrating process for students, who feel unable to distinguish themselves in a meaningful way, and for firm attorneys, who can't substantively separate students for the same reasons.

"It's the same 20-minute interview after 20-minute interview," says Derek Hines, a recent graduate from the Villanova School of Law. "Half the time, you're just praying you can keep [an interviewer's] name right, keep their law school right, and find something in common with them."

[Use these 4 tips to ace any job interview.]

But small tremors of change are starting to ripple at firms that seek to dig deeper into the qualifications of students, according to Kristin Archibald, director of recruitment at the Villanova School of Law. "With the change in the economy and certainly with the change in the legal market, firms are becoming more aware of their interviewing, and trying to be more careful of who they select as candidates," she says. "They're looking to implement new tools to do so." 

[Read about other ways the legal market is shifting.] 

The most extreme revamp so far might be at Philadelphia-based firm Pepper Hamilton, where Najeeb and Hines landed summer associate positions in 2010. Until last fall, the 500-lawyer firm—like many firms its size and larger—hired summer associates based on results of traditional, short interviews. But last year, hiring chair Michael Subak—who says he was hired at the firm in largely the same fashion 20 years ago—decided change was overdue. He went to the firm members he felt might know the interview process most intimately: the summer associate class. 

"The idea was, 'Let's all come at this the way we work our cases, which is together,'" Subak says. 

Over the course of several days, the summer students, along with some junior associates and the hiring and recruitment committees, brainstormed a new hiring model. Their suggestions were molded into a three-pronged interview, debuted in fall 2010, that offers students an almost instantaneous opportunity to showcase their analytical abilities and legal prowess. After an initial 20-minute session, which is largely still based on the traditional model, students move through interactive interviews discussing their writing samples and arguing a fact pattern with firm attorneys—a "hot seat situation," as Najeeb describes it. Though arriving at the "right" answer is not crucial, the firm's unique, hands-on scenario gives attorneys a chance to evaluate a student's analytical and communication skills, Subak says, as well as their abilities to listen and work as part of a team. 

The interview sessions are still just one component in the hiring decision, but the new model is more substantive and revealing, Subak and summer associates say, both for summer candidates attempting to display their qualifications and firm hiring chairs hoping to convey a sense of the firm's ethos, as well as trying to filter through the applicant pool. 

"One thing I learned in meeting with the recruitment committee is that attorney interviewers were really frustrated, too, for all the same reasons we were," says Melissa Hatch, a recent Penn Law graduate who took part in the Pepper brainstorming as a summer associate. "They couldn't separate candidates in any logical way; they felt like their interviews were going the same again and again and again."