It’s getting to be that time of year – law students around the country participate in OCI interviews, which tend to focus on big law firms. When I decided to go through OCI, I knew almost nothing about law firm life, and absolutely nothing about how to assess law firm culture. That made it difficult when I was trying to distinguish one large firm from another, all of which looked the same to me on paper. Ultimately, I joined a firm where I felt like the best fit based on the people I met.
Figuring out the best fit, however, can be a challenge. While you’re focused on putting your best foot forward to make a great impression, firms are also working to scoop up the “best” talent and find the law students they think will best fit into their teams. Getting the real read on a firm can be difficult.
Over time, I developed some strategies to distinguish firms and learn about their work cultures. Here are my best tips so you can figure out which firm is for you:
Investigating Law Firm Culture: Know Yourself
Above all, fit is personal. One person may hate an office culture you love. So before you go to a single interview, sit down for a few minutes and think about your ideal work environment, including:
- Would you be working in person, remotely, or a combination of both?
- Do you want to be able to shut an office door and work uninterrupted, or would you rather be sitting in an open environment, bouncing ideas off your colleagues all the time?
- Do you want to keep your personal life entirely separate from your work life, or are you hoping to hang out with your coworkers socially?
Keep these preferences in the back of your mind as you get to know each firm and its lawyers.
Investigating Law Firm Culture: Pre-Interview Research
We all know you’re supposed to do some research on each firm before you interview, right? You want to be able to answer the question “why this firm” with something specific. For research on culture specifically, I relied heavily on NALP and Vault. Company review sites like Glassdoor may have entries for each firm but after reading through many of those, they struck me as mainly attracting the really disgruntled employees.
Other resources to read up on particular firms where the participants are anonymous and thus may feel free to speak openly: reddit (check out subreddits biglaw and lawschool) and top law schools (an online forum). And take most of what you read with a big grain of salt; remember that people tend to leave reviews when they’re at one end of the happy/unhappy spectrum. Your day-to-day working life will likely fall somewhere in the middle. These sources are mostly helpful for giving you some food for thought as you observe and interact with these firms and firm lawyers during interviews.
Investigating Law Firm Culture: During Interviews
If you’re interviewing in person, take a look around the office. Are doors shut or open? Is the office super quiet or chatty? There’s no right or wrong answer here; the question is whether it feels right for you.
If you are interviewing remotely or just not gleaning much from a walk around the office, your interview questions can also help uncover the true culture of a biglaw firm. My favorite interview questions to ask to suss out a firm’s culture are:
- What do you like best about your colleagues?
- What do you like best about working here?
Then listen to their answers. Is the thing they like best about their colleagues that they work really hard? Is it that they can all have a laugh at work or get a drink after work? Do they have an answer quickly, or do they really have to sit and think about something – anything – they like about their job or colleagues? (If so, no matter what your culture preferences, stay away!)
Sometimes the things a firm lawyer views as a positive might strike you as a negative. For example, I interviewed at a firm with a reputation as a bit of a sweatshop. I asked a partner these questions and his answers confirmed that this was not the place to try to maintain a good work/life balance. He told me how the lawyers in the office are super collegial. He illustrated that by noting that when he leaves the office every night around 9 or 10, he checks in and invites the associates to grab a drink. Friendly colleagues sounded great to me, as did occasional work happy hours. I wasn’t totally oblivious to the time expectations of big law firms, but I did not expect those happy hours to routinely start at 9 or 10pm. At the same firm, lawyers talked up office perks that made it easier to bill hours, like a gym that provided workout gear. You never even have to leave the building, they cheered! Again, to me, this was not a positive sign. I want to leave the building! I want to feel like I can take some time to myself without trying to get back to billing hours in as little time as possible. If these were the best things these lawyers could tell me about their workplace, then I knew it wasn’t for me. But it might be for you. Different strokes.
The questions and comments lawyers make unprompted can also be very telling.
When I was interviewing, my resume was full of public interest work. Some firm lawyers I interviewed with obviously viewed that experience as a negative and were not shy about telling me. One partner nearly rolled his eyes out of his head while reading my resume before asking, “Why on earth would we hire you when it looks like you have zero interest in corporate work?” It wasn’t the fact that he was wondering that question that bothered me—it made sense looking at my experience, especially if he’s trying to hire associates who stick around for a while rather than paying off their loans and skipping out after a couple of years. It was the dismissive, almost contemptuous way he expressed himself that put me off.
In contrast, at the firms I liked (including the offer I accepted), the lawyers were positive about my experience while still asking about my corporate law intentions. They asked open questions like, “Why are you interested in corporate law?” Or they volunteered information about the firm’s pro bono work and acknowledged the elephant in the room in a positive way, like, “I see you have a lot of nonprofit experience. That’s great – the firm highly encourages pro bono work. Can you tell me how you think your experience can translate to our corporate clients?”
You may note that a super obvious question I did not include here is, “could you describe your firm’s culture for me?” You can certainly ask that, but I think it lends itself to canned responses.
Investigating Law Firm Culture: Post-Interview Research
After you have some callbacks or even offers in hand, do a little more digging. For this, I liked to use LinkedIn to find former employees of a company who went to my law school (or undergrad if you strike out at the law school level).
First, in the LinkedIn search bar, type in the name of the law firm you’re interested in. A drop down menu will appear showing you some results – scan to the bottom of the menu and click on “see all results.”
Second, in the next page of search results click on the “all filters” button at the top of the screen:
Third, set your filters to only “People” in the search window that appears and then scroll down and select any other filters that apply. For this search, I would pick “past company” and enter the name of the firm I was searching and “school” and then select my law school.
Fourth, take a look at the results and select one or two people to get in touch with through your alumni directory or LinkedIn. Let them know you’re considering an offer from or interviewing with their former firm and ask if they have a few minutes for an informational call. Ideally you would find someone in the same office where you plan to work who left at the associate level within the past few years. Those people are going to have the freshest experience, and they may be a little more candid than the current attorneys you’re interviewing with for the simple reason that they don’t have a stake in hiring you. They’re probably not going to trash the firm, even if they thought it was the worst place in the world to work. The legal world is a small one and reputations are paramount. But just like your interviews of current firm lawyers, you can read between the lines.
Are they full of positive things to say about the work and their colleagues? Or are they very careful, saying only vague things like, “it wasn’t a good fit.”
Are they still in touch with anyone at the firm?
Would they recommend working there and why?
Why did they decide to leave for their current job?
This is a bit of a time investment for you and the attorneys you’re contacting, so I found it most helpful for me and respectful of their time when I had narrowed down my choices to a couple firms. Don’t do this for every single firm for which you do a screener interview.
Above all, remember that culture is about fit, and what works for one person may not work for you.
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