Daring to ask if a job is right for you

A few months ago, one of my friends introduced me to the ABA’s daily e-journal, and now it’s a highlight of my morning routine—I comb through the legal gossip as I wait for the rest of my computer to (slowly) come to grips with its age and responsibilities. Last week there was a piece about an American Lawyer article in which job hunters wishing to assess whether a particular law firm is a good fit were advised to ask interviewers about their own career highlights at various career stages. The premise was that “the answers can provide insights into opportunities, mentoring, lifestyle, working environment and firm culture.”

The post noted that “some job hunters will take any job offer, no matter what the answer,” but apparently that nod to the current challenges of a legal job search wasn’t enough repudiation of hubris for the first commenter of the day, who scolded: “he junior woodchucks with the humongous loan balances pretty much need to take any job they can get, without agonizing, ad nausem , over whether the firm will be a good ‘fit’ with their universal scheme of things.” Apparently, to this commenter, asking a single question designed to elicit information about the firm’s culture is hopelessly self-indulgent.

Is that sensible? No doubt the economy has spurred even the best-positioned law students to feel more risk-averse than they already are temperamentally inclined, and professionally trained, to be. But I think across-the-board advice to suck it up and suffer with whatever job comes your way is dead wrong. I continue to hope, and think, that the silver lining to the legal hiring shake-up is that our law students will start to focus a bit more on what they actually want from their legal careers rather than feeling constrained to simply march toward the perceived “best firm” that will employ them.

Contrast the employment choice with the law-school-enrollment choice. The conventional wisdom in choosing a law school to attend is: Go to the best one that admitted you. Ignore for this discussion all the problems with that maxim, since “best” is not self-defining; the central point is reasonable, that you should choose a law school that will allow the optimal range of options down the road—and those options correlate closely with the perceived prestige of the law school. But choosing the “best” employer, and maximizing future opportunities, is a completely different undertaking—you progress in your legal career through the work you do and the skills you develop, and the type of profits-per-partner measures that land a firm in the Am Law 100 or the NLJ 250 have nothing to do with the tasks a new associate gets assigned. (Certainly some would argue that those measures often have a reverse correlation with getting challenging, skill-developing work.)

Now, I’m not counseling that people go wild. Legal-job-hunters ought not to go into a 15-minute on-campus interview and pound the table while demanding to know what a law firm will be doing for them. There is a way to ask these questions well, and one ought to wait until a certain stage in the process before asking them. (Strategizing on these issues is just one of the many helpful tidbits of advice a law school career counselor can provide!) But not to ask such questions at all? That advice bespeaks a pretty bleak view of the world. It is not necessary for a student to have a basketful of job offers before he or she should feel comfortable exercising a little control over the future. Even those—or, I might argue, especially those—who are not yet in a position of choosing among options should be actively thinking about their careers, and taking steps to learn about the practice of law. Asking polite questions about the nature of the employment experience you’re contemplating is not the sort of bold anti-establishment maneuver that’s going to get you branded in an interview as an entitled troublemaker. If lawyers can march in Pakistan, surely U.S. law students ought to be able to ask an interview question or two.

-Dean Z. Assistant Dean for Admissions and Special Counsel for Professional Strategies