What recruiters are looking for

When you're sat across the table from someone at interview, what are they analyzing? What gets you there in the first place?


Schools & grades 

“Grades are important; it’s as simple as that. We are looking for the best and the brightest, and academic success is always critical,” a New York hiring committee cochair tells us. A decrease in summer class sizes has allowed firms to be increasingly selective when it comes to schools and grades.

Usually, the larger the firm, the more schools it will recruit from and the deeper it will look into classes for recruits. Many elite mid-size firms focus on the top ten or 15 schools. Others focus less on the Harvard-Yale-Stanford-Columbia-Chicago elite, preferring to hire students who are top of the class at other top-50 schools. These firms will often only look at the top 10-20% of classes. “At schools like that we focus on the very top of the class. Those people will have tremendous drive and personal characteristics, in a way that, say, the top third of a class in a highly ranked school does not.” The biggest firms tend to hire from all schools in the top 30 or 50. They often have a different 'grade cut-off' for different schools: for example, they might recruit from the top 30-50% of the top ten schools, but only from the top 10% of schools ranked 31 to 50 and the top 5% of schools ranked 51 to 100. Other firms use a mix of these strategies.

No firms will admit to having a solid grade or GPA requirement or a set number of schools which they exclusively recruit from. Each firm has a slightly different take on the grades it expects recruits to have and which schools it likes to recruit from.

Skills & experiences 

There are a number of basic competencies which recruiters from all firms look for during interviews. These include leadership, entrepreneurship, teamwork, communication, self-motivation, maturity, problem-solving ability, creativity, collegiality, writing skills and community involvement. During OCIs and callbacks recruiters will ask about these skills either explicitly or implicitly. Some interviewers might ask you things like: 'Tell me about a time you showed leadership skills.' Others might ask: 'Tell me about your law journal experience,' but they are actually likely to want to hear about your leadership or teamwork skills in response.

Mooting and working on a law journal or law review are increasingly part of the base-line expectation that recruiters have of successful candidates. To actually impress recruiters you have to do more. Community involvement is a big vote winner. The more exceptional and original the work on your resume the better. “I often ask interviewees what the greatest challenge they have faced is,” another hiring partner tells us. “The best answer I have ever had to that question was the person who told me about the time they were moderating a debate between pro and anti-abortion speakers and they ended up having to deal with a very explosive and nasty debating situation.”

Showing that your past experiences give you the skills recruiters want is crucial. Before interviews you should spend a lot of time looking at your resume and working out how each experience ties in with one or more skills that the firm looks for. That said, here's a crucial bit of advice: “Stay away from canned answers. Rather, have an interesting, intellectual, interactive discussion.”

Many recruiters tell us they look for candidates who they could imagine putting in front of one of their clients. “We want each associate to be someone you'd be happy to leave in a room with a client from day one.” In reality, it varies from firm to firm how much juniors are exposed to clients, but experience that shows you know how to provide excellent customer or client service is a big plus for recruiters.

Work experience 

Recruiters tell us that “we’ve found that those who go straight from law school into a firm with no experience have a harder time hitting the ground running. We value work experience that is transferable to legal work.” Luckily, the consensus is that “work experience doesn’t have to be law-related. It can be something that illustrates that a person is a team player or can provide excellent client service.” One recruiter admits to having “a soft spot for people who have done things like waiting tables. When doing that you are constantly prioritizing things, having to think on your feet and make your customers happy. And that is important to us.” Another emphasizes that “candidates need to show they have exercised good judgment in a previous work environment. It doesn’t matter whether that’s managing a Starbucks, being a paralegal or working on the Hill.” Still, think carefully about how you portray your experiences – recruiters are keen to know “was that summer surfing job just a bit of fun, or did you relish learning about small business opportunities intertwined with the challenges of working within a team?”

Although part-time or summer jobs are always a bonus, previous careers are catnip to some legal employers. One source finds it “interesting if someone has done something like working on Wall Street or in the movie business, has been an engineer or scientist, has a PhD or has done voluntary work for an organization like Teach for America.” However, other sources may expect your employment past to have close links to your planned legal career. “It’s not just enough to say you’re interested in globalization in the interview – we will look for markers on your resume like having worked overseas.” Getting a summer clerkship involves a whole, baffling process of its own. But the rewards are definitely worth the hassle. One recruiter told us that “clerks from the US Supreme Court are at the front line. We'd hire any of those we could get. Anyone from circuit courts would also be great. I'd say, almost without exception, any clerk on the federal system is someone we'd want.” As with other forms of work experience, it's crucial to be able to talk fluently about your experience, whichever court they might be with – a source explained that “if they have clerked I might ask them to talk about a case. That allows them to indicate they understand the nature of critical legal issues.”

Extracurricular activities 

Not all extracurricular activities are created equal. Law school journal membership and moot courts are traditionally the gold standards of lawyerly pastimes. Recruiters tell us that “we are looking for people who are excellent communicators, and who are very concise, clear written advocates, so having been on a law review is a good sign.” But simply getting the experience isn't enough – it's also about how you package it. As a recruiting source says, “I want the candidate to be able to present a detailed account of their experience. For instance, if a candidate has put down that they’re involved in a mooting society, I want to know which specific topics were discussed and disputed and what the various outcomes were.”

As well as doing journals and moot courts to demonstrate legal ability, one recruiter informs us that “we want people who are well-rounded, creative thinkers who have strong personalities and show leadership qualities.” This means that applicants should “do stuff that is interesting, and that shows you can adapt and stand on your own two feet.” And just joining every society on campus isn't enough; think about quality over quantity. Another source reveals: “When I look at extracurricular activities on candidates’ resumes I will look at what position they held with an organization. If they were on a varsity sports team, were they a captain? If they were in an association, were they the president?”

Legal recruiters are looking for extracurriculars to demonstrate applicants' “entrepreneurial qualities,” and “unusual interests or hobbies,” showing that they are “well rounded,” “self-motivated” as well as “strivers and go-getters, and have pulled themselves up in life.” Desirable experiences our recruiters mention include “being class president,” “being on a law review or otherwise published,” or “becoming an athlete.” Try to show consistency, too – one source tells us that “we want people who have demonstrated over time – and this could be reflected in activities at college or work experience – that they have sufficient drive.”

Social skills, personality and fit 

It's no secret that having great grades and extracurriculars isn't enough to make it into BigLaw firms; the art of successful lawyering is built on successful interpersonal relationships, and that means that firms want associates who can create and maintain bonds with clients and other fee-earners alike. As one source summarizes, “I'm not really concerned whether they liked contracts law or got the highest grade at law school. It's more about how they interact on a one-on-one level with me or my colleagues. How well do they communicate, write and fit in with others? Those are generally indicators of a successful attorney.” Our sources are looking for associates who are “excellent communicators,” and “who have initiative and leadership skills: people who will own the problem, and own their portion of it.” Another recruit tells us that “what we are looking for when we hire is how people think. You don’t need to have memorized arcane aspects of the tax code. You need to think logically and express yourself clearly.”

But although there are some basic traits that most firms look for, rest assured that there's no one BigLaw personality. While one recruiter emphasized to us that “we like outgoing people,” other firms are after people who “don't need to make a splash or stand out, but are simply really good at what they're doing.” Think carefully about the culture of the firms you're applying to –Chambers Associate profiles are the best place to start with this – and shape your application strategy accordingly. As one source told us, “if you are barely getting interviews, then you have to take what you can get – a job is better than no job. But if you can choose then lifestyle and culture are the most important things on the basis of which to choose. You have to be happy with your job.” Another agreed that “when looking for a workplace you need to find people who you are prepared to spend long hours with. You need to make sure you are a personality fit.”

Business mentality 

It's no secret that times are tough even for the biggest of BigLaw firms. One source told us that “years ago we used to just hire smart lawyers. Now we need people who have business experience, who can work with clients and bring in business.” One recruiter explained that “an increasing phenomenon is people doing between one and five years in the business world before going to law school. This is viewed as a positive thing.”

Still, even if you've gone straight through college and law school, recruiters “expect attorneys to understand the commercial aspects of our clients' businesses.” They explain that “we ask qualitative questions in the interview to discern interviewees' level of commercial thinking and readiness for commercial practice. We’re looking for thoughtful answers and if you come across as sincere, it’s a step in the right direction.” It's also important to think carefully about what courses you take in school. As one source advised, “you have to give some indication that you are interested in what the firm does. If you want to take the more fluffy courses – space law, law and literature, human rights law – that’s fine, but you need the nuts-and-bolts commercial stuff as well.”

Practice areas & cities 

In all interviews it's important to be conversant with and interested in a firm's practice areas. If they are ranked in Chambers USA for sports law that's great. But what you need to find out is if there are actually any juniors who do that kind of work. Firms are very unimpressed if you express excited interest in an area the firm hardly does any work in, or none at all.

Whether you should be seen to show an interest in working in a specific practice area at the firm varies from case to case. Some recruiters like it, some don't. Obviously, an IP firm will want you to be interested in that area of law and usually have a background in science, technology or pharma as well. Other firms look to recruit generalists or at least people who would be prepared to work in a variety of different practice areas.

If you interview for a job in a location outside New York or California, it's important to show a keen interest in the city or state in question. Recruiters at a firm in Arizona, Ohio, Minnesota or Pennsylvania won't be impressed if you are applying from an out-of-state school but have no ties to the state. In part this is because they want recruits who are committed to staying put and not “running off to New York or California,” as one recruiter put it. Perhaps more important is that candidates have a knowledge of the local business world and economy. “To get a job here, present yourself as a New Jersey person,” an associate at a Jersey firm told us. “They want people who will stay on and who they can keep. Not that there aren’t any out-of-state people here.”

Preparation and research 

Our recruitment sources are clear that “law students really need to bust their gut doing homework on firms” and recommend that “you need to know about a firm's practices, its history, its strengths and weaknesses. It’s also increasingly important to be aware of a firm’s business ideas.” As one hiring partner puts it: “Know the firm you're talking to. Knowing your audience will carry you far in this profession – it'll show that you've put some thought and effort into the place you're interested in working.” This is partly to ensure you can impress your interviewers, and partly for your own benefit – there's no point wowing a firm with a culture, practice strength or location which means that you just wouldn't fit in. Our Inside View profiles are designed to help you do precisely that, building on thorough, independent and honest research into the BigLaw firms. In addition, our Web Extra features, the legal press, Chambers USA rankings, and mining your law school contacts for personal insights are all good ways to make sure your firm knowledge is rock solid. You're in the right place – just read on!