Career Services Blog
The Legal Interview: Answering Common (and not so common) Questions
by Devra Sigle Hermosilla, Assistant Dean of Career & Professional Development,
and Jessica Peterson, Career Services Graduate Assistant
The good news is that whether in person or virtual, the core of the legal interview remains more or less the same and, chances are, you are already familiar with many of the recommended guidelines for preparing and conducting yourself during the interview. For instance, it is still important to research the employer so you are familiar with the employer’s work and culture, look-up the interviewer’s bio so you can find commonalities, refresh your topical knowledge about the position and practice area, be familiar with your own application materials, dress professionally, and take the time to set up your video interview space.
As such, the focus of this article is to assuage the nerve-wracking uncertainty about what questions the employer will likely ask during the interview – and help you develop good answers to the most common categories of questions:
Self-Descriptive Questions. Self-descriptive questions are open-ended questions asking you to describe or characterize yourself so that the employer can get a feel for what kind of person you are, and to assess why and how you answered the way you did. Your answer will reveal desired qualities based on the characteristics, traits, or experiences you choose to discuss over others. Some examples of self-descriptive questions are “Tell me about yourself,” or “How would others describe you?”
Attributes. Questions regarding attributes are designed to illuminate your strengths and weaknesses in ways that are relevant to the employer. The purpose behind them is to see if you have the skills the employer is looking for and to get a sense of your honesty and realism. In your answer, tell the employer that you have the skills they’re looking for. Acknowledge your weakness and tell them how you’ve worked to overcome it or have found a way to use it as an advantage. Be honest and confident, but not boastful or arrogant. You may be asked things such as, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” or “How do you handle difficult people?”
Career Path. When an employer asks about your career path, they’re asking about your goals and your desire to pursue law—this includes the path that lead you here, as well as what you see or hope for in your future. They want to know if you have the mindset to not only do the job, but be part of their organization and the legal profession at large. They want to see a logical progression in your career with an arc toward law, and to see that you are goal-oriented. Your answer should tell the employer why you want to practice law, and especially their type of law. Since career paths are rarely a straight line, explain your variances in a logical way that leads to your decision to pursue a career in law. It may help to imagine your answer as a (very) short story with a beginning, middle and end, with more to come. Just be sure to keep consistent with the employer’s setting and practice. Career path questions can sound like, “How has your education and experience prepared you for the practice of law?” or “Why did you switch from your prior career to law?”
Qualifications. Because questions about job qualifications verify you have the education, experience and skills to do the job, most interviews tend to spend more time on these questions. But, the employer is also gauging to see if you are a good fit for their particular type of work and expected work ethic. This is where doing a bit of research on the employer and interviewer ahead of time will serve you well. Your answer should demonstrate an understanding of the job and employer, as well as your confidence that you can do the work. Be sure to highlight your interest in the relevant areas of law by talking about your prior experiences, classes, and organizations. Show that you not only want to work for the employer, but that you’re qualified to do so. When asked about qualifications or experience you do not yet possess, be sure to quickly point out similar skills to assure the employer you can easily make up the difference. For example, if asked about your (nonexistent) litigation experience, point out that you are a good persuasive writer, participated in debate in college, and will be taking a moot court competition course next semester. Some other examples of questions about job qualifications are “What can you bring to this organization?” or “Why do you want to work here?”
Values. Employers may ask questions about your personality, values, and views on the law to ensure you’re a good fit for the employer’s work and cultural environment, as well as to assess your soft skills, cultural awareness, and for some types of positions, your passion, politics, and ability to advocate particular issues. The answer you give will demonstrate your emotional intelligence such as ability to interact with others. Your goal is to show you would be good to work with – that you are reliable, personable, capable and confident – and to highlight your commitment to the employer’s cause and vision. Be authentic, but also know your audience and demonstrate good judgment. Questions about your personality and values could be things like, “What qualities do you think a good lawyer should have?” and “Describe how you would handle [hypothetical scenario].”
Accomplishments. When asked about your specific accomplishments, the employer wants to learn more about you through your choice of accomplishment and to see if you’re a winner. Be precise when answering, and use concrete details to bring your accomplishment to life. Show how you can set and achieve goals and the process you take to achieve success. Take this opportunity to show the employer something new and exceptional about you, and show that you’ve done well in the past and will bring those same accomplishments forward. If you achieved something extraordinary that’s outside of your professional life, this is a great opportunity to mention it! You may be asked, “What is your biggest/proudest accomplishment?” or “Tell me about a challenge you’ve overcome.”
Law School Experience. Questions about your law school experience are designed to highlight how well (or not) you did in law school, how much (or not) you like law school, and your favorite (or not) experiences in law school. Remember that the purpose of these questions are to assess your love of the law and the process of law, in general and in ways specific to the employer. The employer wants to see that you are intellectually curious and to find commonalities. In your answer, keep it positive and focus on what you liked. Talk about the classes and experiences you enjoyed and the classes you did well in – do not complain about your professors or schoolwork. If asked about a less than favorite class, point out how much you learned in the class even though it was difficult. Demonstrate your involvement and engagement in your classes and the law school community to indicate that you will be similarly involved in your new profession and the employer’s business development efforts. These questions sound like, “What do/did you like most about law school?” and “Do you think your grades are a good indication of your academic achievement?”
Outside Interests. You may also be asked about your hobbies and interests outside of work. These are ice-breaker questions meant to jumpstart the conversation and ascertain that you are a balanced person who will be pleasant to work with. They also can be an indicator of whether you would be good at client business and development. In your answer, show that you’re a well-rounded and interesting person that has their priorities straight. Be cautious, though, that you do not lead the interviewer to believe there is anything in your life to keep you from being productive. Questions about your hobbies could be something like, “What is something interesting about you that’s not on your resume?” or “How do you spend your free time?”
Behavioral-Based. Behavioral-based questions focus on how you handled work/life situations in the past or questions about how you would hypothetically handle certain situations. The purpose is to reveal your judgment, your problem-solving ability and process, your ability to handle common situations within the workplace, and your personality in that past behavior indicates future behavior. When answering, use the STAR Technique to show how you previously handled similar situations successfully with a brief anecdote that illustrates your judgment and skills:
S – Situation
T – Task you were asked to complete
A – Actions you took
R – Results
Using this as a guide will help you articulate the scenario in an easy-to-follow and concise way. Remember that you can use the STAR Technique to answer any question, whether presented as a behavioral-based question or not. Examples of behavioral questions are “Give an example of a time when [a certain situation happened],” or “Tell me about how you worked effectively under pressure.”
Project/Test. Especially in the final stages of post-graduation legal jobs, employers may ask you to complete a legal project to demonstrate your skills. Sometimes these assignments will be on the spot and sometimes you will have some time to complete it. It is obviously important that you put your best effort forward, follow instructions, and stay within the guidelines.
Be sure to bring your own set of questions to the interview that demonstrate your knowledge of the employer, your interest in the practice area, and your curiosity in both. Have more questions than you think you’ll need because many of your original questions may be answered along the way. Finally, don’t forget to follow-up with a thank you note, which may be sent via email in these virtual times. The core of any interview is truly to see if you are a good fit for the position and the employer so above all, remember to have fun. Yes, there are stakes and it’s important to stay professional, but try to enjoy the opportunity to talk about yourself in a positive way and make a new connection.