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Interview red flags for candidates and law firms

When the job market is more volatile, it’s more important than ever to be on the lookout for job interview red flags. This is true for both sides of the equation; prospective employers and job seekers should be particularly cautious.

If there’s one thing for certain about the current law firm hiring market, it’s that things are relatively uncertain.

While many large firms recently laid off large numbers of workers that were brought in post-pandemic, many legal professionals are still voluntarily leaving their jobs to pursue other opportunities, which leaves plenty of positions open for other candidates.

That means there’s a lot of interviewing going on.

Regardless of which side of the process you’re on (interviewee or interviewer), we’re all looking for the best fit.

A candidate might seek a firm with demonstrated work-life balance, for example. A law firm, on the other hand, may be seeking Ivy League candidates with prior trial experience.

What most of us spend too little time considering, however, are the red flags we should watch out for during the hiring process. These deserve more attention as we prepare for the interview process.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the biggest red flags, both from the perspective of the interviewee and the interviewing law firm.

Red flags for interviewees

As a job seeker, chances are good that you either really need a job or you’re really anxious to leave the firm you’re currently working for.

Either condition is a recipe for ignoring red flags during the interview process.

We get it, but if you see these behaviors from the lawyers/firms you’re interviewing with, you should strongly consider taking a pass. Otherwise, you’re likely to have to go through the whole process again in the next few months.

#1: The interviewer is a no-show

Imagine this scenario:

You show up on time for your interview and check in with the people at reception. They’ve never heard of you, so you give them the name of the partner you spoke with. They call his office and learn from his assistant that he’s in court that morning, but that he’ll be back at noon and you should check back then.

Your interviewer is a no-show!

While miscommunications and mistakes happen, a situation like this tells you that these may not be people you want to work for.

The lack of organization and communication reeks of chaos. If they’re so unable to execute on something as simple as scheduling an interview, imagine what they’ll look like on the morning of a summary judgment motion deadline.

#2: The interviewer treats everyone but you poorly

Now, imagine this:

Your interviewer greets you warmly at the reception desk and asks you if you’d like anything to drink before you head into a conference room. Along the way, they’re all smiles and giggles with you.

But then you notice something. As they speak with colleagues and staff, they seem to be angry at everyone.

“Late again, Steve?”

“Carol, are you going to get that letter out today or do I have to get a temp in here to finish it?”

Without a doubt, there are ways for you to handle a rude interviewer professionally. If someone at the firm is rude to you during the interview, you know exactly what kind of legal boss they’re likely to be.

Odds are good that your interviewer will try to make the best first impression, though.

Pay attention to how they treat the other people at the firm, and consider whether you’ll be on the receiving end of those unpleasant missives if you get the job there.

#3: You’re being hired to fix a new problem for an old client

This red flag is a little harder to spot, but it happens all the time, especially in smaller firms.

Many small firms have what is referred to as a “horse” — i.e., one client who supplies so much work to the firm that it almost single-handedly pays for the whole operation. A good example is a small, transactional real-estate firm that has a large real-estate developer as a client.

Every now and again, that client will have an off-brand legal problem.

For example, let’s say the CEO of our real estate company is embroiled in a nasty divorce and wants the firm to handle the matter. You’re being interviewed for a position as the firm’s new family law litigator. The firm makes all sorts of promises about autonomy, independence, and substantive experience.

There are two major concerns to consider here:

  1. It’s dangerous for a law firm to rely too heavily on one client; and
  2. you’re likely to be let go once that divorce is over.


The most reliable way to figure out if you’re being interviewed for this kind of position is to ask questions like these:

  • Is this a new role, or are you replacing someone who is no longer in that position?
  • What do you expect the day-to-day to look like in this position?
  • Who else in the firm does something similar?

Red flags for interviewers

As the person conducting the interview, you’re looking for the candidate that will do the best job and fit well with your law firm culture.

Different people fit at different firms, and that’s okay. You know what kind of values and personality work best with your team. In the meantime, keep an eye out for these potential red flags that can tell you that a candidate is in need of some personal growth.

#1: Their resume is poorly written

Law firms are places where precise written communication is essential.

Even if everything else on a candidate’s resume looks outstanding, you should always be cautious of a resume filled with spelling errors or bad grammar.

It might be okay to overlook a typo or formatting error, especially if the position doesn’t require a lot of client-facing communication, but even that should still give you pause. Most people spend extra time on their resume or cover letter because it’s their only chance to make a good first impression.

If the candidate isn’t concerned about proofreading for errors when they’re trying to get a job, why would you think they’d ever care about mistakes in the work product they create for your firm?

Typos and errors aren’t the only problem you might spot on a resume.

Resumes that are difficult to understand, packed with irrelevant information, or that you discover to include false information are all warning signs that this candidate may not be a good choice.

#2: They’re way too nervous

During an interview, nerves are natural. Occasionally, though, those nerves get the better of a candidate, and they can’t seem to get themselves under control.

When hiring someone who will interact with legal clients, you should be able to trust that they can handle high-stress situations. While there are a few jobs at a law firm that don’t require this ability to work under stress, they are few and far between.

A person who is unable to control their nerves during an interview is probably going to struggle with their stress response in other situations, too.

Law firm personnel must project confidence and integrity.

So, while it is perfectly appropriate to try to put a nervous candidate at ease, someone who can’t calm down might not be the right fit for your firm.

#3: Too much self-interest

Some people struggle with interviews because talking about one’s own achievements feels too much like bragging. Then, there are some people who are all too eager to tell you why they’re wonderful.

I once interviewed a young attorney who used the words “I” or “me” 37 times in his cover letter without ever once stating why he was interested in our firm.

Not surprisingly, his interview was a solid half-hour of him pontificating on his own greatness. When asked if he had any questions about the firm, he replied, “How do you see me fitting in here?”

While many legal professionals exude confidence, there’s a big difference between confidence and arrogance. Arrogance has no place in a firm that operates on teamwork.

The other problem with this mentality is that an overly self-interested candidate doesn’t learn much about your firm during the interview. If they’re not asking questions about your values, priorities, or the day-to-day work, then they’re not really looking for a place where they fit well. They’re looking for any place that will hire them.

Most of the time, arrogance is just a cover for insecurity. Your self-absorbed candidate is probably trying to hide their fear behind bravado, and that’s not something you need at your law firm.

More resources for legal professionals

Hopefully, it was helpful to think about what you should watch for in an interview and consider what the other person might consider a red flag. Think back to this article when you’re preparing for your next interview.

In the meantime, the InfoTrack blog is packed with resources to help you advance your legal career. Check out these articles next:

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