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Showing your best side

Law firm recruiters share some of their secrets for what makes a good impression
|Written By Robert Todd
Showing your best side

You’ve worked your tail off on coursework, likely finishing in the top third of your class, and it’s time for an interview at that big, shiny firm you’ve been dreaming about. There’s only one problem — you break into a sweaty mess at the thought of sitting before a panel of interviewers who will determine if you’ve got what it takes to make it in Big Law.

Lucky for you, 4Students has done some digging with talent management gurus from top firms across the country. Each has a slightly different slant on what the recruitment process should entail. But all agree that preparation is a must, and nailing the interview is obtainable for those who spend a little time up front.

First of all, it’s important to know what type of candidate these firms are looking for.

Kelly Callon-McLean, director of student and associate programs at Aird & Berlis LLP in Toronto, says her firm is looking for “smart, well-rounded students who have interesting work experience.” She notes that a history working in a law-related field is not necessary. Candidates with experience volunteering or who have shown a passion for sports or music, for example, are also appealing. “We want to see that the students know how to balance their work and their play and are still able to do well at both,” she says.

Mary Jackson, chief officer of legal personnel and professional development at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP in Toronto, puts her firm’s stance on this issue very succinctly: “It’s a mixture. Integrity and judgment are key,” she says. “Practical intelligence and the ability to present oneself — in writing and in person — also are important. A bit of bravery helps too.”

Léna Taylor, director of student programs for the Quebec Region with McCarthy Tétrault LLP, says her firm looks for future lawyers who are “excellent team players, smart problem solvers, and have a sincere interest in learning about our clients’ businesses.”

The firms also want candidates who are excited about their future in the industry. “Being passionate about the law is something we look for,” says Marketta Jokinen, director of professional recruitment for Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Vancouver. “Most firms are looking for students who seem to be excited about the law and being a future practitioner.” Kara Sutherland, director of professional resources for Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP in Toronto, says her firm has straightforward criteria. “We are looking for students who have a demonstrated interest in business law, who are engaged by their environment, and who are creative thinkers with exceptionally good judgment.”

So you’ve got those traits and are prepared to use them. Now what type of questions are you likely to face from an interview panel? “Students should be prepared to answer questions related to anything that appears on their resume or supporting materials,” says Sutherland. “This may include specific questions about their grades, work experience, interests, and extra-curricular activities.”

Callon-McLean urges students to figure out why they want to work for the firm they’re interviewing with. It’s also important to be able to point out why you hope to work in a specific practice area, and what you have in mind for your summer or articling term. “Anything you put on your resume that tends to be more personal — like your interests,” says Jackson, “often interviewers will use that as a point of connection with you, so you should be prepared to talk about that.”

Taylor says it’s also important to know how to answer the questions thrown your way. “If you want the interviewer to distinguish you from other candidates, do more than simply answer the questions. Try to go in depth and give concrete illustrations to support your accomplishments,” she says. That will let the recruiters better establish your ability to communicate well.

What about that point of the interview when the interviewer looks back at you and says, “So, is there anything you would like to ask us?” It’s best to have a few relevant queries in hand to shoot back with at this point. “Don’t ask us what kind of car our firm would be if our firm were a car, or what our greatest weakness is as a firm,” says Callon-McLean. It’s also a good idea to avoid asking questions that could have been obtained though your own research. “Don’t ask us for basic information that is on our web site or in our profile in the Canadian Directory of Legal Employers, although you can ask for further details or for clarification on information contained there,” she says.

Sutherland recommends taking the time to consider your career objectives before shaping what questions to ask. Things such as practice area, work environment, and firm culture are good areas for brainstorming, she says. “Students should not ask questions regarding information that is available on firms’ web sites, but rather use the interviews as a means of determining if the work experience being offered aligns with their goals and personality,” says Sutherland.

Jackson suggests students ask about the type of work they will be assigned and the team they will end up with. “I think the questions should pertain to future orientation, and not just the articling student period. Law firms have a tendency to describe themselves very similarly — you need to ask questions that make people give you individual examples of that.”

The recruiters offer a slew of other helpful advice as you prepare for what could be  the biggest interview of your life.

Callon-McLean recommends chatting with other students at firms that will be interviewing you. “This is the best source of information, and when you can talk about your discussion or e-mail exchange with one of our students, it shows me that you were interested enough to do your research,” she says.

Sutherland recommends searching in addition to research on firms’ web sites — both the student and client pages. It’s also a good idea to get to know the people who will be interviewing you by reading their bios. “In addition, students should talk to their friends and colleagues who may have summered at a firm to determine if the firm seems like it offers the type of practice and work environment they are looking for,” says Sutherland.

Taylor suggests some introspection before starting the search. “When preparing this self-assessment, you may want to think about the following: What areas of practice do I think I might be interested in and why? What kind of work environment do I think is best suited to my personality?”

She also says it’s vital for students to get as much information as possible on the firm before applying, and make sure you won’t be caught off guard by questions about your background. “Know your cover letter and resume inside-out and be prepared to talk about everything that’s on them,” she says.

Jokinen advises students to find a way to get in touch with either a law student or lawyer at the firm they’re applying to, and agrees that it’s important to research the people interviewing you. It’s helpful to know who these people are and what areas of law they practise, she says. “That may also help them prepare some questions they may want to ask.”

Jackson, meanwhile, says researching your interviewers will also give you a sense of their “age and stage and background” — important contextual information when meeting anyone for the first time. “You need to try to get as comfortable as possible,” says Jackson. “That means you’d better not wait until the last minute to figure out what you’re going to wear.”

She adds that it’s important to avoid an awkward, dead-fish handshake. That’s no way to make a first impression. “If you’ve never shaken someone’s hand before, I would practise that. I once had somebody here who had the worst handshake ever — it took me about two minutes to get over the bad handshake,” says Jackson.

And while you may be entering the recruitment process from a different place in your life than other candidates, she says it’s essential to find a way to stay calm.

“I think you need to think about how to best control your nerves, keeping in mind that we’re not all the same and some people have a lot more life experience that lets them do this more easily,” she says.