Minority law school graduates who are searching for a law firm position during this period of economic downturn will quickly learn that there is more to acing an interview than sprucing up the resume and wearing one's best suit. To stand out from the other pack of applicants who are also vying for top-paying positions, this diverse group of candidates must meet the demands of an interview, understand what hiring partners are seeking in applicants, and demonstrate that he or she fits the bill. What's the best approach to landing a high-salary firm position?
Bridnetta D. Edwards, an African-American attorney, is on the hiring committee at the Washington, D.C. office of Reed Smith, a national law firm with about 1,000 lawyers. According to Edwards, she goes out of her way to find minority candidates when the firm is looking to bring in its annual class of summer associates. "I specifically interview into a job offer. look out for minorities and make sure we have a broad pool," says Edwards. "I am proactive making that extra phone call."
But this type of outreach doesn't guarantee a position. In a series of candid conversations with minority partners at firms across the country, Diversity & the Bar® gained practical insights into minority recruitment and hiring. From interview skills, to building a network before you even walk in the door, minority partners at firms across the country have specific advice about turning the job interview into a job offer.
Educate Yourself About the Hiring Process
All law students grasp the value of study and preparation, but they don't always apply those skills to the job search. David A. Crichlow, an African-American hiring partner at the New York office of the 800-attorney law firm Pillsbury Winthrop, says all applicants for law firm jobs need to familiarize themselves with the way law firms operate to better navigate the interview process. For law students of color, this advice is especially important.
Others recommend that candidates get a feel for the history and the culture of a firm. Most importantly, minority job candidates need to overcome traditional barriers and make contact with people inside the firm who can guide them through the process. Several partners advised that candidates identify other minority attorneys on a prospective firm's web site and seek them out for advice. Working your minority bar association or alumni networks can also prove helpful.
Cathy Bissoon, a Latina partner at Reed Smith and the firm's director of diversity, says, "I've had candidates, particularly minorities, contact me directly because I am the director of diversity to just talk about what the process is for getting hired."
She encourages that practice not only because it shows initiative, but also because "It is important particularly with minority lawyers who lack role models in this area. I don't come from a family of lawyers; I never knew a lawyer. I had no interactions with lawyers," says Bissoon. "What might be obvious to people who come from families of lawyers might not be to first-generation lawyers," she adds.
When asked why minority attorneys are less informed about the hiring process, Bissoon puts the problem bluntly, "I think many minority candidates don't come equipped because they don't have access to people to whom they can ask those questions."
Putting Your Experience to Work For You
Hiring partners at several firms readily acknowledge an inescapable bias of the largest and most competitive law firms: Grades matter-especially for new lawyers for whom law school is their only "calling card."
But grades are not the only measure of a prospective hire and MCCA's research report, The Myth of Meritocracy: A Report on the Bridges and Barriers to Success in Large Law Firms, indicated that the majority of law firm partners did not graduate at the top of their class. However, several hiring partners suggest ways of standing out that have nothing to do with grade point averages.
"One thing that I do hear too often from minority candidates is that their grades or their academic performance in law school is not necessarily indicative of their ability to excel in a law firm environment or to perform well," says Crichlow.
Crichlow says he is willing to accept the premise, but then he'll look for something else that does demonstrate talent in the making.
"If you don't perform well on a three-hour exam, have you published an article in your law journal? I would look at an extensive scholarly piece. Have you participated in the moot court board, have you worked your first summer and received an offer?"
Todd Chandler, an African-American hiring partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, says his firm is "willing to be flexible. I'm particularly high on second-career people if there is something else going on there."
Reed Smith's Bissoon says job candidates should be open about their individual stories to help get a foot in the door. "We can only know so much from a person's transcript or grades," she says. "I feel it is important to look behind the numbers. Is this a person who worked through law school or a person who did not have professional mentors in their life," says Bissoon.
"Getting a job is important and some people are too proud to raise personal issues," Bissoon continues. But, she says, "There might be a perfectly legitimate reason, and I can be an advocate for your hiring."
Preparing for the Interview
Several hiring partners say a person cannot prepare too much for a critical stage in the hiring process, the interview with the hiring partner or committee. Nolan N. Atkinson, Jr., an African-American partner in Duane Morris' Philadelphia office, served on the firm's hiring committee for more than 10 years.
"Frequently a law student will come in, and they will sound as if they prepared a speech," says Atkinson. "That does not impress lawyers. Also, I find for many reasons young lawyers are afraid to have eye contact with the interviewer. They should look the interviewer in the eye and answer directly."
Atkinson and others emphasize that young attorneys should have a clear sense of what area of practice they prefer, where they want to live, and why they take each and every professional step.
Roberto M. Braceras, a Hispanic partner in the Boston office of Goodwin Procter, notes that interviewers and hiring committees are looking for more than just a quick mind. They want to get to know a person a little bit, get a feel for whether they will fit in well.
"Some minority candidates, especially if they are first-generation professionals, put on airs of being more mature and more serious than they have to be, and that can almost set up a wall in the interview," says Braceras. "They may be so serious about showing their maturity that they won't engage in the one-on-one conversation that really makes a good interview."
La Fonte Nesbitt, an African-American managing partner of Holland & Knight's Washington office, the firm's largest office, has been on the firm's hiring committee for nine years, and was the office hiring partner for several of those. He says he is not looking for answers that are rote or too well rehearsed, but he expects candidates to anticipate the topics that employers might raise and have well thought-out answers.
"If you spent as much time thinking about the interview as you have thinking about the exam, or thinking about moot court, or thinking about an article you are writing for a journal, you ought to do pretty well," he says.
Both Nesbitt and Crichlow indicated that candidates should have a strong writing sample on hand, and that lack of attention to detail on those papers or briefs can prove fatal to a job candidacy.
Additionally, as indicated by Crichlow, "I think minority candidates can least afford to show up unprepared."
From Summer Associate to Second-Year Lateral: First Impressions Matter
Summer associate programs can be trying-both for firms and for job candidates. While firms try to absorb a number of temporary employees and look for the ones worthy of a six-figure salary, second- and third-year law students compete for every chance to make a name for themselves in a short period of time.
Many firms have developed a structured and rigorous format for evaluating summer associates. Yet the critical factor at most firms is still the assessment of summer associates, which is made by the senior partners who work with them.
Reed Smith's Edwards says that a few missteps-such as not knowing how to prioritize multiple assignments, failing to check in with your supervisor about problematic deadlines, or being too cliquish with other summer associates-can derail a future at the firm.
Another key factor is showing the firm that you are truly ready to start a demanding career path.
Says Holland & Knight's Nesbitt, "More than anything else we are probably looking for maturity, and some level of focus of why people want to be lawyers-why they went to law school. Most of the people you see are almost by definition bright and capable and are fairly accomplished, and so you try to look for some discriminators. Some of the discriminators are: 'How much have you thought about what you want to do and how well can you articulate that in an interview and during a summer program?'"
The legal market has grown more dynamic in recent years, as law firms have engaged in waves of mergers and seen talent opt for other professions. One result of the volatility is that firms are more accustomed than ever to bringing in lateral associates as well as graduates directly out of law school.
But whether a candidate has been working in a prosecutor's office or a technology company, hiring partners say it is important to join a firm before too much time passes.
"I would say that it is critically important to get into a private firm after the second year of law school," says Charles J. Beard, who became the first African-American equity partner at a major Boston firm when he earned the promotion at Foley Hoag (now Foley Lardner) in 1979.
Once laterals come to the table, says Beard, the stakes will be higher than they are for law school grads. "If the person is a lateral, then it is a more sophisticated conversation or a higher level. In twenty or thirty minutes, I am trying to determine what this person can do, and how they can work into community. It is all very polite, but I am trying to get a composite."
We believe the American Dream should be open to everyone. So we started with our own doors.
Long ago, Fannie Mae realized that diversity was a driving force for both innovation and change. We saw that the more our work force reflected the shifting demographics of our nation, the more competitive we would be.
The energy of our diverse work force has been instrumental in helping Fannie Mae successfully meet the diverse housing needs of American families. And in 2002, we did just that by helping nearly 7 million families into homes of their own. At Fannie Mae, we are committed to breaking down the barriers to homeownership while opening the doors of opportunity.
Learning How the Game is Played
Across the board, hiring partners say that while winning the job is the immediate goal, understanding the crafts of interviewing and networking always brings its own rewards.
"Keep in mind you may not get that position that day," says Reed Smith's Edwards. "But you have made a contact with someone, you reach out and develop a relationship, and two years later that person may be in a position where they can hire you. That actually happened to me at Reed Smith."
It is beginning to happen to an increasing number of minority attorneys. Says Pillsbury's Crichlow, "As an African American and as a hiring partner, I think that I have a heightened responsibility to go out and make it happen. I don't buy into the theory that you can't find quality minority candidates out there. They are out there if we look for them."
Elisabeth Frater is an attorney and freelance journalist based in Napa, California.
From the September/October 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®