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Why Law Firm Interviewers Are Asking ‘Tell Me About a Time’ Questions

Posted Oct 7, 2009 9:47 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Law firms with fewer spots for new associates are getting serious about on-campus interviews, sending more senior people to meet with potential new hires and using behavioral questions to learn more about students’ personalities.

The American Lawyer covered the more rigorous approach to recruiting in a story on the ways the recession has changed law firms.

Bruce Elvin, director of career and professional development at Duke University School of Law, is one observer who has noted a change. "We're seeing better-prepared interviewers, more senior people" coming on campus, he told the American Lawyer.

“As for the interview itself,” the American Lawyer says, “it's no longer about whether you like the same sports teams, at least not at places like Vinson & Elkins and McKenna Long & Aldridge.”

These firms continue to rely on law school rankings and grade point averages, but they are also using behavioral interviewing techniques to learn how students have performed in specific situations.

Behavioral questions often begin with the words “Tell me about a time” or, “Give me an example of a time."

Law firms that rely on behavioral interviewing have identified the characteristics of successful associates and are using the behavioral questions to find out whether the person being interviewed has those traits, according to a 2005 article in the NALP Bulletin (PDF).

Law firms are often looking for these four behavior patterns, according to the NALP article:

1) Decision-making and problem-solving skills. An interviewer might ask: Tell me about a difficult decision you had to make.

2) Motivation. An interviewer might ask: Tell me about a time when you failed to meet expectations.

3) Communication and interpersonal skills. An interviewer might ask: Describe an unpopular decision you made and how you dealt with the aftermath.

4) Planning and organization. An interviewer might ask: Tell me about a time when you were too busy and had to prioritize your tasks.

V&E hiring partner Thomas Leatherbury told the American Lawyer he believes law firms will rely on behavioral interviewing more often in the future. "It's much more substantive," he said.

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