UV’s Guide to In-Firm Interviews

“Know thyself, know thine enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.” – Sun Tzu

In-firm week is a bastard. There’s no way around it.

But you don’t have to face it alone. Because UV is here for you. Which is why we spent the past month badgering the upper-year brain trust until they threw garbage at us and told us to go away. And then we went home, took a shower, and created the ultimate, definitive, and exhaustingly exhaustive guide to in-firms. (We’re pretty sure this is the longest piece UV, or indeed any newspaper, has ever run.)

In fact, we’re so confident that this guide will help you succeed that we’re going to make you a deal. By reading this article, you give Ultra Vires the right to 10% of your future earnings if you are hired on November 6, 2013.

Yes, that’s the deal. Take it or leave it.

Time to put on your favourite workout playlist, lace up your greaves (you do have greaves, don’t you?), and put on your lucky undies.

Let’s do this.

Step 1: Preparing for Battle

Fortune favours the prepared.

You wouldn’t ride off to war without packing some sandwiches, and you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of preparation for the in-firm-athon. Not all of these are crucial, but you’re going to want to make things easy for yourself where you can, and that means planning and provisions. Be Sun Tzu today, so you can be, uh, a winner tomorrow. The Karate Kid. Rocky. Remember The Titans. Whoever. Whomever? Whatever.

Visualize your entire day in as much detail as you can before it happens. Plan your route. Do you know how to get from one office to another in the PATH? Or, if you’re a certified PATH moron, like me, have you decided to stay above ground for safety? Do you understand how the elevator banks at FCP work, or have you left yourself ten minutes to figure it out? Have you worked out when you’re going to eat, recharge, and attend to other, er, creature comforts? (The two minute space in between interviews is not when you want to learn that you can’t pee when you’re nervous.)

Think about what you’re going to bring with you. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. (Actually, don’t bring a knife or a gun. What the hell’s the matter with you?) Bring your cell phone, in case you need to look up addresses, take or review notes, send thank-you emails, or even meet up with other in-firm warriors to relax during breaks. If you promise to email a lawyer this great article you saw in Wired magazine about how moronic the Empire’s military tactics were during the Battle of Hoth, do that shit right away, so you don’t forget. Bring cash. Bring extra pantyhose. Possibly a pair of flats, Band-Aids for blisters, a hairbrush, a little makeup kit, a locket-sized picture of your kitten, whatever it takes. Anything you can’t buy in the underground. After that, there are two different philosophies. If you’re carrying a bag (ladies and fashion-forward dudes only; definitely don’t bring your shitty MEC backpack), you can bring everything you could possibly need, stuff that will seem like overkill until it isn’t–Advil, Clif bars, Purell, dental floss, Tide to Go, whatever–or you can skip it and trust that you can pick up what you need when you need it. If carting that shit around is going to make you feel safe instead of nervous, go for it. YOLO.

You’ve already sailed/scraped through OCIs, so you’ve thought about the firms you’re going to visit. You know how to research the people you’ll be meeting. You’ve asked a friend at the firm for the inside scoop on who loves cats, who’s allergic to melons, and who has got a surprising physical deformity you should probably try not to stare at. You’ve practiced forcing a look of thoughtful surprise onto your face as though you haven’t already heard this question 15 times this morning. You have some good questions, some good answers, you know your stuff, and you’re ready to kick ass. So what’s next?

Step 2: Game Day

All right, champ. Here’s the deal. You can expect each in-firm to last somewhere between ninety minutes and two hours. Each one will usually involve four or five conversations with one or two lawyers each. These will be about 15 or 20 minutes long, just like your OCIs were. An articling student or junior associate will shuttle you from one conversation to the next, and they may sit with you. They’re meant to help out and make you feel comfortable, but don’t let your guard down too much. A bad blunder with the babysitter can sink you.

If you’ve booked your in-firms at two-hour intervals, it can be a tricky thing to get from one to the next in time if the first firm is taking longer than expected to free you. Actually, let me rephrase that. There is no way to leave an interview abruptly to get to the next one in time without losing the first one. I don’t care if you shit gold bricks with the letters “MPG” stamped into them. It can’t be done.

What you may be able to get away with is to be very clear up front, as gently and politely and regretfully as possible–with your babysitter and with the last person you’re meeting–that unfortunately you have to leave at a certain time. The tone you’re going for is, “I really hate to go, but I have to rescue my infant from a burning building.” Sometimes the people you’re meeting with will give a shit. Usually they won’t. If things are coming down to the wire, you may have to call an audible and jump in a cab–although, of course, that won’t always be faster than walking. This is basically the worst thing about in-firms, and at the end of the day you’re just going to have to pray it all works out.

Of course, the opposite thing can happen as well: sometimes you’ll block two hours with Example LLP, expecting to need 90 minutes, and they’ll only take an hour. (Love those guys.) This is the in-firm equivalent of an extra life, or maybe a fire flower. Take the time to eat something, decompress, play some Angry Birds, call your (hopefully non-law–but that’s an article for another time) significant other, and listen to “Eye of the Tiger” 5 or 6 times. If possible, find a non-law person who loves you unconditionally and meet them for lunch. You don’t want to eat alone in a food court with 300 other stressed out law students. You don’t want that at all.

You may also find there are some surprises that weren’t in the schedule–offers to lunches, dinners, and drinks that weren’t part of your Call Day conversation. Obviously this is a good sign; equally obviously, you won’t want to cancel anything else unless you’re sure you’re comfortable losing the firm you’re cancelling. Most of the time, the best answer will be “That sounds great, but unfortunately blah blah bloo blah, can we do it at time X instead?” As they say in Texas (or someplace), you gotta dance with the one that brung ya.

Step 3: Talking the Talk

When you’re actually sitting down with a lawyer, let these two mantras guide you: first, Read the Room; and second, Be a Human Being.

Reading the room means remembering that, contrary to popular belief, lawyers have personalities and they’re not all identical. That means a big part of your job is to listen. By paying attention to what kinds of questions someone asks, when they look interested, and when they’ve been asleep for two minutes, you can get a sense of who you’re talking to and how you can impress them by showing them what they need to see. Some interviewers are going to want to make sure you’re a stone-cold business genius, and others really just want to talk about your shared love for One Direction. (Someone is going to get hired in this cycle because of a conversation about whether Harry is hotter than Zayn. I guarantee it. In case it comes up, the answer is “OBVIOUSLY”.) Both are important, but it’s on you to figure out which one you’re dealing with. That doesn’t mean pretend to be someone you’re not, but luckily your feelings for 1D don’t mean you’re not a stone-cold business genius. It’s all about knowing what to bust out when. If you’re having trouble getting a read on somebody, you can try asking them a question that’s an invitation to spell out what it is they’re looking for–without being too obvious, of course. For example, “What makes somebody excel here?” Opinions are like assholes: people like to think you care about theirs.

Speaking of the uncomfortable silence I just made, reading the room also helps you improve for your next conversation. Don’t underestimate how schtick-y this process is. Pay attention to which of your jokes, lines and stories are working and which aren’t, so you can improve as the days progress. This will be especially important for the obviously interesting things about you that everyone wants to know about. (“So, how did you wind up working on a chinchilla farm in Guatemala?”) If your joke about how you decided to become a lawyer because everyone else in your family is a doctor doesn’t work twice in a row, drop it, because it’s not funny. Sorry.

The second part of your job–being a human being–sounds easy, but it’s not. Not being total assholes by nature, a lot of us aren’t all that comfortable talking about how terrific we are for ten hours in a row. Throw in about a pint of raw adrenaline, and this can make you quiet and forgettable (bad) or brash and manic (also bad). The important thing to remember is that, by making it this far, you’ve already proved a lot of what you have to prove. You’ve got the grades; those are forgotten, don’t ever bring them up. You’ve impressed at OCIs; these people already agree with your mom about how smart and interesting you are and they are actually pretty stoked to meet you. That doesn’t mean the job is yours to lose (although it might be), but it does mean you can trust the groundwork you’ve already laid, relax, and be your charming self.

One good way to think about these interviews is as some kind of trial run for when the shit hits the fan. The lawyers you’ll meet are trying to decide, among other things, how they’ll feel about you at 11 PM when they’ve missed their kids’ birthday parties for the third year in a row trying to get everything together for a closing. Ideally, you’re going to be making that terrible time more tolerable, and not less.

Step 4: Don’t Stop/Can’t Stop

If your first rounds go according to plan, you’ll be invited back for more facetime as the week goes on. Don’t stop hustling, because this is primarily a chance for you to impress more people, and you need to do that. But it’s also a chance for the firm to take another shot at impressing you. If there was someone you wanted to meet but didn’t get a chance on Monday, they might arrange it for Tuesday. It’s also another round of signalling, and if you’re lucky enough to have more repeat invites than you can schedule, realize that “It was great meeting you and you’re definitely my number one firm, but I don’t have time to come back tomorrow and spend any more time talking to you guys” is not gonna be super credible. In other words, don’t turn anything down flat (“Lunch doesn’t work for me but how about X” is an option) unless you’re sure you don’t want an offer. And if you are going to turn something down, be a mensch and do it as early as you can.

The opposite is also true. If you get invited back for a second day but they don’t arrange for you to meet anyone you asked to meet and you find yourself staring across a desk at a confused-looking articling student instead, that might be a sign it’s not going to work out and you should think about putting some of your eggs in some other baskets.

Step 5: Sealing the Deal

OK, home stretch. If things have gone according to plan so far, you’ve got some decisions to make and some new information to make ‘em with. Your top choice may not be who you thought they’d be going in, and that’s a good thing. It’s because of learning.

Maybe you’ve found that elusive, lightning-bolt quality they call “fit”. Maybe fate has led you to that special firm that gives you butterflies and makes you feel like you’re leaping in hi-def slow-mo from cloud to cloud amidst a sky of fireworks. Maybe you’re even ready to close the deal on a little horizontal merger action, if you know what I mean.

But hopefully not. Law firms aren’t supposed to generate those kinds of feelings in people. That’s weird. Get a life.

Instead, look at the students the firm has previously hired. Think about the people you met, especially the younger ones, who will be giving you most of your work. Is this the kind of person you would want to be stuck with in that scene from The Princess Bride with the quicksand and the panicking? If so, that’s a good thing. Does every student you meet make you think LPPE is a hootin’ hollerin’ good time? That’s a bad thing. Consider not returning to that firm. Unless you liked LPPE. In which case, well, see “get a life”, supra.

Beyond “fit,” you might want to take a last look at hireback rates if you care about sticking around after articling. (And if you don’t, maybe you don’t like the firm so much after all?) Think back to any sticky points you were ignoring before, because it matters now that you have a real proposition in front of you. It’s one thing to lie about how much you’d love doing a lot of Zambian strip mining deals during OCIs, but make sure you don’t lie to yourself. It’s easy to get swept up in the hustle, but sometimes it’s better to walk away. Similarly, don’t let your ego make this decision for you. After the 16th straight hour of doing a thing, you won’t care whether the firm you’re doing it for is in Lexology’s top whatever. What the thing is and who’s doing it with you is going to seem a lot more important. (That’s a lie. After 16 straight hours, nothing is gonna seem important. Nothing at all.)

Once you’ve found the half that makes your whole, do you need to explicitly tell them they’re the wind beneath your wings? It’s probably not a bad idea to be as clear as you can be. When that dreaded 5 PM rolls around on offer day, nobody wants to be wasting time offering a spot to someone who might not accept it. In most cases, the we-want-you-do-you-want-us-too will be hashed out in advance. There’s so little about this process you can control, but this is one you can. Imagine how good it’s going to feel to be able to say, “Is there anyone else I need to convince, or are you guys comfortable going ahead?” Having The Conversation can mean major relaxation for everybody.

But you don’t want to tell them you’d accept an offer before you’re at least pretty sure they’re ready to make one. Remember, this is The Bachelor, and coming on too strong is a one-way economy-class ticket into that that dreaded limo, no matter how great of a match you are. Never drop the line until they prompt you to tell them where they stand with you. Ever. Desperation isn’t cute, even on pandas.

Also, don’t lie. Don’t tell more than one firm you like them best. Lots of people have gotten offers without saying it, and even if the prospect of pissing off somebody in this very small community doesn’t make you itch, it’s still a dick move.

Step 6: Offer Day

Hopefully, that special firm will return your affection and call you at 5 pm. If you have other suitors (hello, popular!) who come knocking on your door, let them down quickly so that they can call in their B-Team. Try this: “Thanks, but I’ve accepted another offer. It was great to meet you.” Congratulations, you dog.

No calls? Don’t get down on yourself. The firms got it wrong. They were blind, like Ron to Hermione. You’re smart, you’re interesting, and you’re a stone-cold fox. Other great 2L jobs pop up like Jennifer Aniston in rom-coms. Like, non-stop. You’ll win ‘em over then. And someday this will all seem funny.

Anecdotes

The strangest question received by past students:

“What is it about the legal field that you are drawn to, philosophically?”

“what are you least looking forward to in your legal career?”

“What was your favourite case in 1L?”

“Explain a legal concept to me as if I was a 5-year old”

“Are you a leader or a follower?”

“What kind of animal would you be?”

“Are you a good salesman?”

“Do you have a girlfriend?” (NB the correct answer is not “it’s complicated”)

In-firm Inside Baseball

(gleaned from student experience)

  • Aird & Berlis: 1 hour total. Students meet with articling students in one room. Interviewer picks student up and brings to their office. That interviewer then takes student to next office for next interview. 3 interviews total. Interviews last approximately 15 minutes each. If called back, process similar except only with members of student committee.
  • Bennett Jones: 1.5 hours total. Students stay in 1 room and lawyers rotate in. Tour of firm with articling student after interviews.
  • Blakes: Just under 2 hours. Young associate “host” that walks you between offices and sometimes sits in depending on what interviewee and interviewer prefer. Interviews typically 1 v. 1. “Host” introduces interviewee to employers at reception. Dinner is 3 v. 1. Tuesday interview was shorter. Tuesday reception. Wednesday coffee with a partner.
  • BLG: Approximately 1.75 hours. Articling student “host” who sat in on interviews on first day but not following days. 3 interviews (1 v. 1) with partners on each of the 3 days of in-firms. Each interview is approximately 20 minutes long.
  • Cassels Brock: Just under 2 hours. Articling student “host” brings you to offices. Approximately 5 interviews of 2 v. 1 or 3 v. 1 (each 15-20 minutes long). Fairly informal. If invited back, Tuesday is similar.
  • Davies: Just under 2 hours. Articling student “host” walks students around to each office. Most interviews 2 v. 1. Tuesday lunch 3 v. 1. Wednesday breakfast.
  • Dentons: Just under 2 hours. Articling student “host” walks students around to offices. Mix of 2 v.1 and 1 v 1. interviews. “Hosts” didn’t sit in on interviews.
  • Faskens: Approximately 1.5 hours. Associate “host” sits in on most interviews. Most interviews are 1 v. 1 but sometimes 2 v. 1. Approximately 3-4 interviews that last 20-30 minutes the first day.
  • Goodmans: Just under 2 hours. Associate “host” takes student to interviews and sometimes sits in on them. Approximately 5 interviews on the Monday. Tuesday interview approximately 1 hour.
  • Gowlings: Approximately 1.5 hours. Associate “host” takes students between interviews and sometimes sits in on interviews. 1 v. 1 usually. About 4-5 mini-interviews. In past, no dinners or lunches, only a Monday night reception.
  • Heenan Blaikie: Approximately 1.5 hours. Articling student “host” who takes interviewees to a 2 v. 1 interview that lasts about 1 hour. “Host” takes you to chat as interviewers deliberate. Tuesday and Wednesday involve 3 or 4 mini-interviews.
  • McCarthys: Approximately 1.5 to 2 hours. Associate or partner “host” sits in on most or all of interviews. Approximately 4 mini-interviews that are 1 v. 1 or 2 v. 1 and last about 20 minutes each. Interview style is more behavioural than other firms. May not be as picky about face-time as other large firms.
  • Miller Thomson: Approximately 1.5 hours. Starts with informal coffee/snacks with student coordinators and other interviewees. 3 interviews (2 v. 1 and 1 v. 1), approximately 20 minutes each. Interviewers come to meeting room where student stays put. Firm tour followed. Tuesday reception.
  • Norton Rose: Approximately 1.5 hours. Interviewees sit in room with 2 people (including “host”) while lawyers rotate into room. Approximately 3-4 mini-interviews. Interview followed by brief firm tour.
  • Osler: Just under 2 hours. Associate “host” accompanies students between interviews. “Host” stayed for some interviews depending on what interviewer preferred. Dinner was mix of interviewees, associates, and partners. Wednesday was coffee out of office with an associate and a partner.
  • Stikeman Elliott: Just under 2 hours. Articling student “host” takes you between interviews but doesn’t sit in on interviews. There are 5 separate 1 v. 1 interviews.
  • Torys: 1.5 hours total. Articling student “host” took interviewee between offices but didn’t sit in on the interviews. Typically 3 interviews that are 2 v. 1. Conversational and relaxed. Dinner with 3 lawyers and 3 students. Second interview lasts approximately 1 hour (2 interviews of 2 v. 1).

Sample Questions that YOU can ask:

  • What do you like about working at Firm X?
  • What makes a great Firm X lawyer?
  • How does Firm X support young lawyers in their development beyond the summer/articling program?
  • What did you do yesterday/what are you working on this month?
  • What role did students play on your last file?