One of the most important questions an interviewer can ask is whether the candidate has any questions. Your answer should be an emphatic “Yes!” Being ready with good questions demonstrates your interest and insight and can increase your chances of getting an offer. This is your opportunity to not only show you are the best candidate for the job but also to determine whether this is the right career move for you.
First, ask yourself
Before you walk in the door for your interview, you must know what you want. Once you have a clear vision, it’s easier to frame questions to elicit information you need to make the best decision. Consider the kind of practice and people you prefer, any training and support you need, whether you and your practice are a better fit in a large or small firm, and what sort of culture, management structure, and style best suit you. Money shouldn’t be the determining factor. It’s more important to match interests, priorities and values, and to find a situation that helps you attain your career goals.
During your interview, ask yourself whether you’re comfortable in those surroundings and with how the lawyers there treat you, each other, and the support staff. Pay attention to your gut feelings.
Do your homework
Asking informed questions during an interview demonstrates sincere interest in the firm and position as well as your thoroughness and resourcefulness—all qualities valued by employers. Interviewers frown on questions easily answered with an Internet search, however. Check out the prospective employer’s website, social media, and anything available online. If you’re working with a recruiter, or know someone who previously or currently works for the employer, ask them for the inside scoop before your interview. Use information thus gleaned to ask relevant, insightful questions.
What to ask
Your questions should show what you know about the prospective employer, express interest in the opportunity, demonstrate your intelligence, resolve any of your or the interviewer’s concerns, and define the next steps. But don't be so focused on what you plan to ask next that you stop listening to the answers. Asking a follow-up to a point made earlier by the interviewer is a good indication that you are listening and processing the information, rather than passively absorbing it.
Even though you want to gather information to help you choose the right job, the purpose of an interview from the employer's perspective is to determine whether you are the best person for them. Therefore, begin with questions that demonstrate your interest in how you can help them achieve their goals. Then, ask about subjects more focused on your needs, such as training, advancement and culture.
Decide which questions are most important to you. You might want to bring along a notepad with the questions you plan to ask, grouped by topic or order of importance, in case your time is limited.
Who to ask
Interviewers have different priorities and viewpoints depending upon their role in the organization and their relationship to the position they seek to fill. Specific questions about the job, its responsibilities and challenges, and the kind of candidate they seek are appropriate to ask someone in a position of authority over that particular job. You also can ask management-level interviewers about the future of the firm and its position in the marketplace. Show off your industry knowledge!
Ideally, as the hiring process progresses, you can request meetings with attorneys at your level for a frank discussion regarding life at the firm. A potential colleague and peer may be most candid about the particulars of the job, its plusses and minuses, and the work environment. Don't expect them to divulge confidential information, however, and certainly don't ask for it. If you have particular concerns regarding diversity or parenting issues, request a meeting with gay, female, minority, or lawyers at the firm with small children. It may be a good idea to meet, also, with attorneys who joined the firm laterally to discuss how laterals are integrated and advance within the organization.
When to ask
There are some questions you should NOT ask, at least at the early stages of the interview process. A good time to address questions about quality of life and diversity issues would be on a second or third interview. Focusing on compensation, benefits, or hours during the initial interview is an immediate turn-off and is best left to negotiations once an offer is extended. Once you are discussing the compensation package, however, it’s appropriate for senior candidates to ask what criteria are considered when dividing partnership profits (seniority, hours, business generation, etc.) as it indicates the qualities that the firm values.
Never ask an interviewer—even a peer—what he or she earns.
Remember that a successful interview is a two-way street. By asking intelligent questions, you can obtain the information you need to make an informed career decision while demonstrating to the employer that you are the best candidate for the job.
Valerie Fontaine is a partner in Seltzer Fontaine Beckwith, a legal search firm based in Los Angeles (www.sfbsearch.com). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 842-6985. The second edition of her book, The Right Moves: Job Search and Career Development Strategies for Lawyers was published in March 2013 by NALP, The Association for Legal Career Professionals.