Legal Rebels

Career Conversations: Michael Subak, Pepper Hamilton

Posted Sep 7, 2011 1:56 PM CDT
By Stephanie Francis Ward

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Photograph by David A. White

The interactive sessions of Pepper Hamilton’s summer associate interviews are exactly what they sound like, says hiring committee chairman Michael P. Subak. Done during callbacks, the discussions are not meant to be a test or come off as argumentative.

But the sessions are also more than the usual elevator-speech chatter of on-campus interviews. In the sessions, candidates are presented with legal fact patterns and expected to discuss legal issues with the firm’s interviewers.

“Rather than ask someone what kind of team player they are—which is like a lot of the questions you get—we said, ‘Let’s listen and observe them,’ ” says the construction litigation partner who in 2010 convinced his partners to add the interactive sessions.

The idea came from associates who from their recent experiences thought the interview process should be more substantive. “The sentiment was the interviews were predictable—you put on a suit and smile,” says Hedya Aryani, a Philadelphia associate in the firm’s health effects practice group.

She participated in one interactive session as an interviewer. Aryani and a partner developed a fact pattern, brief enough to explain in minutes, about handing over trial evidence. They asked the candidate for a response.

“Overall it was fun,” she says. “My sense is [the process] has been enough to keep you on your feet during the interview.”

The firm also uses interactive sessions for lateral associate interviews.

“I had one where I felt like I was taking notes,” says Subak, who hired the young lawyer. “He largely laid out a theme of a case that was better than what I already had.”

Partner feedback also prompted the interactive sessions. The firm was hiring “incredibly bright” associates, says Subak, 45, but too many did not seem to enjoy a BigLaw environment.

That being said, he allows that some colleagues initially were dubious. Partners feared the interactive sessions would scare away top candidates, and other firms they compared themselves to weren’t doing them. Alternatively, clients wondered why they hadn’t made the change sooner.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that this actually helps differentiate us from other firms,” says Subak, who practices in Philadelphia. “It will allow people to say they know what it’s like to work here. This place isn’t for everybody.”

If a candidate doesn’t do well in an interactive session, that doesn’t exclude him or her from a job offer, according to Subak. Likewise, someone who shines may not get hired. And a few times summer associate candidates decided after the interactive sessions that BigLaw was not for them and removed themselves from the running.

The first summer associates to go through the new process started in June.

“I think there are some core characteristics I’m more confident about,” Subak says, “in terms of ability to work in a collaborative environment and understand more the problem-solving side of things.”

Donna Gerson, a Philadelphia lawyer who writes books about legal career issues, notes that many large law firms say they’re looking for a fit, but that is elusive if solely based on academic work and first impressions.

“I hope that Pepper Hamilton’s hiring committee has the courage to reach deeper into the candidate pool to find those hidden stars who have the skills, drive and temperament, and [put] less emphasis on class rank,” says Gerson, a former career services adviser.

“They might learn that the students in the middle of the class have the practical, day-to-day problem-solving skills to be a great lawyer and rainmaker,” she adds, “and the law review editor with the stellar academic credentials might be better suited to an academic career.”

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