Taking the Informational Interview to the Next Level

My law school friend, Mike, did something entirely off-the-charts when, as a 3L, it became time to focus on the job hunt. Our career services office dean kept hammering at us to do informational interviews, i.e., sitting down with prospective employers willing to take some time out of their busy days to tell us what their practices and work days were like. The whole ostensible point here was for the job seeker to elicit information about careers, employer types and corporate cultures while “pretending” that s/he was merely doing this to absorb information and was not actually seeking a job with the interviewee. Of course, both parties knew what was really going on. The unwritten hope was that during this conversation, the interviewee might actually take a professional interest in the student as a potential hire.

Mike, however, saw opportunity in the informational interview concept that did not fit the mold of this “mating” dance. He realized early on that the traditional informational interview was largely a waste of time. What he did instead amounted to an epiphany.

Instead of asking for time for such a conversation with prospective employers—law firms, corporate in-house counsel offices, government law offices—Mike first identified the legal employers he wanted to target and then identified their major clients. His innovation was to contact these clients and request informational interviews with them.

Quite a few were happy to oblige. When he sat down with them, he asked about their businesses and their major legal concerns. Only then did he process that information and approach prospective legal employers. At those more formal job interviews, Mike was able to demonstrate his drill-down knowledge of both the legal and business matters he learned from his informational interviews of the prospective employers’ clients. Employers were uniformly impressed with (1) Mike’s detailed knowledge of these legal and business issues, and (2) how he came about his knowledge. He received more job offers than could have been anticipated given his academic performance.

A collateral benefit of his client interviews was that, in one instance, a corporate client contacted its outside counsel and promoted Mike for a job with the firm.

Mike’s outside-the-box approach to the job hunt carried over into his law firm practice. When he was assigned a new or existing client, he visited the company and asked if he could “shadow” its production process from beginning to end so that by understanding the business, he would better represent its legal interests. For example, one of the firm’s clients was a Pacific Northwest company that manufactured and sold telephone poles to utilities. Mike went out with the lumberjacks to watch them select suitable trees, then observed the process of transforming those trees into telephone poles, followed by accompanying a salesman to a utility client, tagging along when the poles were delivered and, finally, observing how they were incorporated into the grid. The client company was so impressed that it directed Mike’s firm to make sure that he be involved with every legal matter for which advice or representation was required.  As an added benefit, no firm client with respect to which Mike did this ever left the firm for another outside counsel.

Even something as mundane and, frankly, unoriginal as the informational interview can be made both more dynamic and valuable. Who knows, it may even get you a great job and launch a terrific legal career.