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New-style interviewing

|Written By Jeremy Hainsworth

The current stack of articling applications at Vancouver’s Farris Vaughan Wills & Murphy LLP is about 45 centimetres high, says Ludmila Herbst, the firm’s recruiter, who was herself an articling student at Farris 13 years ago.

She says the process for applications, interviews, and offers is more formalized and more business-oriented than when she went through it. “It’s now more strictly regimented,” she says. “Stricter deadlines for applications, stricter deadlines for interviews. The first three days are when interviews take place. You’re only allowed to make offers on a certain day of the week. You’re not supposed to be winking at candidates suggesting, ‘You’re going to get an offer.’” And, she adds, as bigger firms have larger numbers of associates as well as professional development people on top of the high volume of articling applications, things have, by necessity, become more businesslike.

While Herbst says Farris was reluctant to move to the more businesslike approach, the stack of applications and the need to be competitive in hiring make it a necessity. “It’s a bit less rough and ready on both sides,” she says. At the same time, lawyers say firms are still looking for a fit when choosing candidates. But the definition of fit seems to have changed.

A holistic approach

Now, according to recruiters and law schools, firms are looking at the potential articling student in a more holistic way. As a result, they want candidates who bring life experience as well as the ability to do the job and contribute to the firm’s business to the table. In addition, firms are now also asking questions to test a prospective articling student’s behavioural compatibility and to find out what areas of the law a student might be interested in to see if there is a fit with its business or practice groups. But, Herbst says, this approach is “a little more cookie cutter . . . a bit more corporate.” While she’s not keen on the word “fit,” she concedes it’s a key consideration. “It’s important to get enthusiasm and dedication.”

Therein lies a key piece of advice from many recruiters. Their suggestion is to do your due diligence on the firm, know where you want to go with your career, and, most importantly, be yourself. But, adds Anne Mundy-Markell, director of student and associate affairs for Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Ottawa, a formalized process does not mean firms are looking for a specific type of person. “I would encourage students to be themselves and let that shine through the process,” she says. “Perceive this as a great opportunity to invest in themselves. The student who is not doing that is misrepresenting themselves.”

However, says Mundy-Markell, the level of formality in the process depends on the employer. Firms in smaller markets are likely less formal than big-city ones, while government employers have much stricter guidelines to follow. “Government would have a very substantial set of questions that would be asked in exactly the same way.” But, no matter the level of formality, students need to be “engaged and engaging.”

Indeed, while interview questions about marks and a connection between firm recruiters and articling students are still integral, the system has shifted as the concept of fit has expanded. Herbst says marks and academics are definitely a part of the process but holds out a warning that students shouldn’t rely on them. “They really are indicative that you take exams well and you’re able to repeat what the prof says. They’re not necessarily the be-all and end-all of a good lawyer.”

“It’s not just about marks. It never has been. It has been a holistic approach taking into account a lot of factors looking for a well-rounded lawyer,” says Gowlings’ Vancouver partner John Leckie.

Beyond marks

Volunteer work in the law and other areas may earn a gold star from interviewers.  Herbst cautions that while volunteer work is highly commendable, she is concerned that young lawyers might feel pressured into doing it in order to sell themselves. “We don’t overlook people who have done volunteer activities . . . but we try to get a whole range of personality characteristics as well,” she says.

Another aspect of preparing for articling interviews is taking advantage of law school advisers. They know the shifting territory and the demands on students. “Career development officers turn themselves inside out [to help],” Mundy-Markell says.

Pamela Cyr, director of career services at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law, says one shift in the process involves probing for behavioural issues. As she points out, those doing the interviews generally have baseline behavioural points they want to explore to determine how the prospect fits at the firm. “What is your greatest accomplishment? Talk about a challenge you faced in the past five years and how you accomplished it. You’re given a file that a lawyer had before. How would you handle it?”

Other areas firms will now look at include behaviours such as demonstrated leadership, how a student deals with conflict, and teamwork. Cyr suggests having three stories ready to cover various aspects of your resumé. And, she says, be ready to talk about your least favourite job. “The most common mistake students make is not giving enough detail,” says Cyr. “Touch not only on legal experience but also real-world experience.” And, she adds, “It’s normal to be nervous, but don’t let your nervousness incapacitate you.”

The kiss of death in an interview is not to have questions prepared for the interviewers when they ask if you have any. “If you say no or ‘I don’t have any,’ that demonstrates disinterest in the employer. Mention knowing someone at the firm or dealing with them. Ask about pro bono work,” says Cyr. “Don’t ask about benefits, pay, and social events, hours of work.”

Gowlings’ director of student programs Natalie Zinman notes Gowlings takes a consistent approach in all interviews but says students should be prepared to speak on a wide range of topics. Leckie agrees. “We are looking for people who are academically and intellectually strong,” he says. “Someone who is multi-dimensional,” adds Mundy-Markell, who notes interviewers will be probing for demonstrations of leadership and entrepreneurialism. “Will these people be ambassadors for our firm?” asks Zinman. “Will they have a strong sense of client service and leadership?”

Further, Herbst says, law schools will do mock interviews, often with lawyers from large firms. “Students find it really helpful,” she notes. So that’s worth taking advantage of.

Reach out

Zinman says interviewers know a lot about their firm and what it can offer students. Recruiters, however, stress the need for students to do their homework not only about the firms they are interviewing with but also the process so they are comfortable with it. “We really encourage people to reach out to our current students,” says Zinman. “They really are a great resource. Find former summer students.”

She adds that the Internet has had an effect on the articling process in that firms can post more information about their professional dealings. “Students should really know about the place and that should be reflected in their written materials,” says Zinman.

Leckie says if students have an interest in a particular practice area, they should research it and ask about the firm’s lawyers who practise in it. A chance to meet practitioners in that area can often be arranged, he says. “The more engaged with what we do and how we do that, it facilitates a healthier process.” The evolving marketplace has also led to the creation of recruitment and student departments at firms that focus on dealing with articling and summer placement positions.

The situation with summer positions is a conundrum for Herbst. She says it’s fine for students to take a summer position and then proceed to regular articles. But, at the same time, she says she’s looking for people with a breadth of experience, something that going from summer positions to regular articles isn’t necessarily going to provide as students move into the profession. “I’m not a particular fan of this trend,” she says while noting that those who have summered are not overlooked in the articling interviewing process.

In addition to taking in the suggestions of recruiters and law schools, prospective articling students may want to read the articling handbook available through the Canadian Bar Association. It provides sample interview questions, tips on qualities interviewers may be looking for as the process moves along, and questions the student could ask.

Further, it offers criteria a student may wish to consider once an offer has been made. The handbook also highlights possibly discriminatory behaviour that students should be aware of. “Students need to know . . . they wouldn’t go into a firm and face a barrage of difficult or inappropriate questions,” says Mundy-Markell.

More formalized process

Leckie notes the process is more structured than it has been. In the case of Vancouver, he says, it’s governed by the guidelines of the Vancouver Bar Association. Zinman says students need to take the time to understand those rules as well as the marketplace in order to have an impact in the interview process. “If they understand that, it will take a lot of ambiguity out of the process.” Ontario too has very strict guidelines.

For her part, Herbst says recruiters are looking beyond marks when they take applications and decide to move to interviews. They want to see life experience. “They get some life to them,” she says. “There’s quite an element of bedside manner in being a lawyer. If somebody comes across in an interview that will have a great bedside manner for law, they will be noticed.” However, she notes, much of the process involves student committees at firms. Those committees may include associates, partners, business development people, and others.

But while the process itself has become more formal, Herbst says that does not change the need for students to do some due diligence around a firm before their interview. It’s a demonstration of behaviour that the firm can put to use in business development. Herbst suggests students call firms they are interested in and ask to speak to someone in a practice area or in professional development. Go for a firm tour. And in the interview, use the information gleaned to ask more questions.

Their overall suggestion to students as they approach the interview process, then, is to be themselves. The decision they and the firm make will affect the rest of their lives and their happiness in a fulfilling career in law.

Law societies and bar associations across the country have also contributed to the more formalized process. There are set periods for calls for interviews and also for offers. Herbst says that while it can create for a rather stressful situation, it has levelled the playing field. Most lawyers add that the formalized process does not exclude the students from the decision-making part of it as they, too, have an important final decision to make.

Weighing the offers

In the meantime, recruiters stress that when the offers come, they should be weighed in terms of what the student took from the process. After all, they say, it’s an experience that will shape a young lawyer’s career.

“The interview process may decide where you spend the next few years of your life,” Herbst says. “It’s good to find the firm that responds best to you.”

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