Firms: Finding the Right Fit

In my legal career, I spent countless hours interviewing candidates trying to fish the good from the bad, and, in other instances, trying to “sell” them on the firm. Maybe we needed their specialty, maybe I wanted a fellow alumnae at the firm, maybe I just wanted another woman or a diverse candidate, or maybe I just really liked the person and wanted to hang out. Listen, hiring partners and committees make hiring decisions based upon a whole host of dumb, subjective reasons. Human beings will typically gravitate towards others like themselves and law firms are no different. Having worked at both a national law firm and a smaller, mid-size corporate firm, as well as handful of small 2-3 person shops, I have experienced countless strange interviews and had my fair share of bad hires. While I certainly don’t have the silver bullet for ensuring a good hire, I have more thoughts on what candidates should be doing to vet law firms. When I was teaching in a law school, the students often asked me how to know if a firm was a good fit.

How do you get your interviewer to pull back the curtain and tell you how things really work without all the sales-ey pitching?

Here are few suggestions from my own experience and from those candidates who successfully got me to “spill the beans”, so to speak.

Ask about diversity and exit rates

If diversity and inclusion are important to you, and they should be, that is something you need to sort out before you take the job. Law firms are notoriously terrible at diversity and inclusion. Law firms are also notorious for having plenty of smart people who will devote time and energy into dressing up their warts. Most firms can easily tout their diversity awards and achievements and minority representation and show you a long list of “diverse” organizations they support and how much D&I training they spent loads of money on. That means absolutely nothing. Do not be fooled by the smoke and mirrors. The only way you will truly know whether a firm is a dinosaur promoting only like-minded individuals from the same demographic group is to start asking questions. Here’s a few examples:

In the last 3 years, what percentage of your attorneys who left the firm were women or minorities?

These numbers do not lie. If the rate is abnormally high, run. People leave firms for all sorts of reasons. In my experience, if there is a significant percentage of women leaving a firm, it is not because they all just “found the opportunity of a lifetime” or found an in-house opportunity they “just couldn’t pass up” or their partner found a job in another city. Those excuses and explanations are all break-up speak–“it’s not you, it’s me…” Those are things attorneys tell leadership when they are fed up and leave, because at that point, what good will it do to tell them the ugly truth? Besides, by the time you get to that point, you’ve probably already had the conversation 100 times and they ignored you each and every time. Why would they listen now?

Here are a few questions that might assist this evaluation:

Where do most of your candidates/new hires come from?

What law schools do you recruit at? Why or why not?

Where did most of your current attorneys attend law school?

See if you can find someone who used to work there.

You will have to lean on your network or your law school career center for this one. People who have left will be the only ones able to tell you if they truly took off because they found their “dream job.” Take them to lunch and explain your situation and any concerns you might have. If they know you are picking up on some of the firm’s true underlying issues, they will likely confirm or deny your impressions.

Meet separately with attorneys you can relate to

If you are still interested in considering the job, ask to take some of their female/minority associates to lunch or, ideally, drinks. Get them away from the firm and away from the partners/supervisors. Use this opportunity to see what their life is like, how the partners work, and how the firm operates. Ask them for recommendations as to who else you should meet with – other attorneys who have left or other attorneys currently at the firm. Get them talking. Questions to consider:

If you had the opportunity to work in (whatever practice group you are applying to), would you do it?

 Law firms are like small fiefdoms. Each practice group or office location likely operates pretty independently and according to its own norms. Most firms have a few practice groups that are notorious for destroying associates and churning through staff. Figure out which groups those are and ensure you don’t get stuck in one of those, unless you really want to learn some unnecessarily hard lessons.

Questions to consider:

In your experience, why have others chosen to leave the firm? Do you see any trends or common reasons?

What is one thing you think the firm needs to improve upon?

Have you found that people are willing to help you learn and guide your development?

Tell me about your typical day/month? When do you arrive at work and when do you leave? What about weeknights and weekends?

Do your diligence

Check online AND AROUND TOWN  for any reviews—social media or on other websites. Negative reviews of law firms likely signal a larger issue. Be sure to take all complaints with a grain of salt, but if your social media searches and casual inquiries reveal a barrage of negativity, be wary.

Check out the firm website. Is it up to date? Are the postings 3 months old? How about blog postings? How important is it to you to be part of a firm that has a sophisticated online presences? Not only will the website be your first introduction to your clients when you join the firm, but for now, it may indicate how much support you will get to market yourself and your business. Does the firm appear to have a strong marketing department and marketing presence? It may also indicate how much of your time you may be required to spend preparing blog posts for yourself or your partners (read: nonbillable time burdens).

Look at the attorney profiles. What is the attorney demographic like? Do they all look the same? Did most of them attend the same law schools? Do not be fooled by this. If the attorneys all seem to be the same person with only minor variations, and none of those attorneys are similar to you, take it as it is. No matter what they say they are doing on the D&I front, it is obviously not working. That indicates a MUCH bigger, underlying issue and that is likely a general lack of buy-in by the firm about D&I. Do not be persuaded otherwise and give some long and serious thought about whether you want to be the “other” and whether you believe this homogeneous group will truly be open to you (as a person) or your ideas (as an attorney).

In the end there is no perfect law firm and you will always find room for improvement. The key is being able to identify those shortcomings before you start so that you aren’t blindsided. The goal should be to find a firm whose shortcomings are ones you are willing to tolerate. In summary:

  • Ask the hard questions
  • See if you can find someone who worked there
  • Isolate candidates that you can relate to
  • Do your diligence:
  • Check their reviews — online and around town
  • Check out the firm website
  • Do not seek perfection!

Are you looking for a new firm or your first legal position? Coach with me and lean on my years of experience working in and recruiting to large corporate law firms. Let my past mistakes benefit your future.

Recommended Articles