What Do Firms Look For?

by the Summer Associate Hub Team

One of the most common questions from students is: “what do firms look for?”
Here at Summer Associate Hub, we cover that topic often.  For example, check out our very popular short video: Don’t Diminish Your Non-Legal Experience.  Our other interview advice also covers this.
But we decided to write this blog post to answer this question head-on.  When you are applying to and interviewing with firms, what do firms look for in candidates?
Of course, you are not a lawyer yet and are not expected to come in as a summer associate or first-year associate ready to run a deal or a case.  But, there are things that firms look for in students.  Here are our thoughts, from speaking with firms about this topic (including our very helpful Recruiting Director Q&A recorded in May 2023 found here).
  • Genuine interest in the firm – If you show that you are genuinely interested in the firm, for specific reasons.  Maybe the firm’s practice in a certain area, or unique aspects about its culture.  Not just because you got an interview.
  • That you are interested in things – This was mentioned to us by a Recruiting Director and is such an underrated point.  As a lawyer, you will need to learn new things.  Every day.  That is one of the best parts about being a lawyer.  If you are someone that is passionate about certain topics, that shows the firm that you are excited about things – you don’t just roll your eyes.  If you show particular interest/excitement in certain topics when they are brought up in the interview, that is a good thing.  It’s ok to nerd out.  All lawyers are nerds in their heart of hearts.  
  • Good judgment – Having good judgment is critical for a BigLaw lawyer, in managing teams and working directly with clients.  You can show good judgment with firms by: avoiding asking inappropriate questions, avoiding acting rudely to any attorneys or staff at the firm, communicating with the firm in a professional manner, conducting yourself in a respectful manner at networking events and other functions, etc.  One of the most common pitfalls for students in this category is answering interview questions by divulging confidential information — for example, when asked what you’re working on in your 1L job, don’t overshare client information!
  • That you are someone they want to spend time with – It is often written about that firms want to see if you are someone they want to have around at midnight, working late on a deal that’s lasted weeks, in a stressful situation.  Do you bring a positive attitude?  Maybe a little humor?  Can you make some conversation (even if it’s asking an interesting question to the attorney while they are walking you out of the office after the interview).  One of the biggest pitfalls in this category is being “the complainer” in the interview – when asked about 1L year, or specific 1L courses, or your 1L job, etc — it may be tempting to complain if you had a negative experience and you feel it would be funny.  However, this can imply that you bring a negative attitude – instead, try to present your answers in a positive light.  For example, “1L is difficult, but I enjoyed meeting new people and was able to adjust my learning style to this format, since the law school curriculum and style are very unique.”  
  • That you take initiative – The absolute #1 trait for a junior associate is taking ownership and initiative of a matter – seeing the bigger picture and offering to go a step further on an assignment (or asking the right questions based on the big picture).  Taking leadership roles in student groups, entrepreneurial endeavors, and other experiences can show that you take initiative.  Use your cover letter to add color to those experiences and make that point.
  • Attention to detail – Imagine you’re a client of a BigLaw firm.  You’re paying $600/hour for a first-year associate who graduated law school 6 months ago (I know..).  If you repeatedly get work with typos or missing certain points, you might get frustrated – you have high expectations!  These are some of the top law firms in the world, and the expectation is that you have superb attention to detail – not just for optics, but also because often the details are the difference of serving your client effectively.  (For example, imagine missing a zero in a loan document… or the word “not” in a contract… or being just one day off on a filing deadline.)
  • Your application materials are a big test on attention to detail, and one that is completely in your control.  Your resume, cover letter, writing sample, follow-up emails, and everything else should not have any typos.  Take a break, revisit, and proofread before you submit.  Have a friend read it over as a fresh set of eyes.  Use Word spell/grammar check.  Ask ChatGPT to proofread (but please, for goodness sake, don’t draft your cover letter with ChatGPT).
  • Team player – One of the most important traits of a BigLaw associate is working well with teams.  Almost everything you do will be as part of a team.  Use your resume and cover letter to highlight these skills.
  • Explaining things clearly – One of the most important traits of a lawyer is being able to distill complex information and explain it clearly and concisely.  Many firms will test this in the interview, when they ask about something you learned in 1L, something you are working on in your 1L job, or a specific thing you did in a previous role.  Have a response prepared that is not too complicated, interesting, specific, and engaging – and show the firm how you can explain concepts clearly.  Your writing sample is also a way to show the firm how you explain facts and argue legal concepts in a persuasive, simple, and succinct manner.
You’ll notice that this list does NOT include: your legal research skills, your negotiation skills, or your contract drafting skills.  The firm will train you on those once you are there.  You will do a LOT of learning on the job.
But at this point in your career, one year into law school, the firm wants to see if you have the skills and character traits that make up the building blocks of a successful junior associate.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, and there are tons of traits firms look for.  And some firms will put more significance on certain traits over others.  But hopefully this list serves as a useful guide and starting point as you consider what firms look for during the 2L recruiting process.

Summer Associate Hub Team

This content is based on our own experiences as former law students and BigLaw attorneys, and countless conversations with firm recruiting teams, law students, law school career advisors, legal career coaches, and hiring partners.  

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