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My Funniest Law Firm Interview Story:

It's Fall 1989, my second year of law school, and I'm interviewing with a very nice woman who works, if I remember correctly, at the D.C. office of a major Chicago law firm. She says, "I see you're interested in constitutional law, we do a lot of interesting constitutional litigation at our D.C. office." Seeing the chance to let her talk about her and her firm, I say, "really? Like what?" She says, "Some of the partners represent a consortium of American newspapers. They are petitioning the FCC to publish rules banning phone companies from instituting systems that could carry classified ads" (this is pre-World Wide Web, and they were apparently worried about something like the French system that existed at this time). I said, "oh what's the constitutional theory?" She said, "Well, the idea is that the newspapers rely on classified ads for a large proportion of their revenue, and if they faced competition from telephone-based classified, they would go out of business. For the FCC to allow this would be to basically force the newspapers out of business, which would violate the First Amendment." Obviously without thinking too hard, I laughed heartily, and responded, "No, really, what's your theory?" Awkward silence.

Needless to say, I didn't get a callback. I was going to call this post "My Most Embarrassing Interview Story," but I can't say that I was, or am, embarrassed, by my natural reaction to an extremely frivolous legal theory. [Note: By which I mean, I really thought she was joking. Only when I actually started working at law firms did I find that (1) lawyers occasionally charge corporate clients hundreds of dollars an hour to pursue outrageous legal theories, and (2) lawyers, once they've propounded a theory, often become completely bound to it. One lawyer I worked for actually gave a client an answer before looking it up, and then asked me to research the question. Turns out, there were fourteen cases on point, thirteen of which directly contradicted what the client had been told, and one of which was ambiguous. Instead of graciously admitting to the client that he was wrong, the lawyer asked someone else to re-research the same question, no doubt charging the client yet again to discover that he was mistaken.]

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Law Student Interview Tips:
  2. My Funniest Law Firm Interview Story:
Bork Fan:
You're not embarrassed by the fact that, at 24, you had still not developed the ability to suppress your "natural reactions" in the name of tact, grace, and good "people skills" and instead behaved like a tittering child?
9.21.2006 4:45pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
Nope, because I really thought she was joking. And I was only 22.
9.21.2006 4:50pm
DummydaDhimmi:
It's an old story, but it's a blight on the profession that lawyers are too often told by their employers to argue on the basis of frivolous theories.
9.21.2006 4:57pm
Bork Fan:
And you're not embarrassed by the fact that, at 22, you had still not developed the (even easier) ability to distinguish between a joke and what was obviously a genuinely serious response to your question?

Or that you had completed a year of law school without realizing that lawyers often make frivolous legal arguments in all seriousness?

Or that you didn't realize that if you have trouble distinguishing humor from seriousness, you should always err on the side of caution in professional settings?
9.21.2006 5:02pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
No. I understand that to some, the ideal lawyers is someone who's utterly smooth, knows how to "play" other people, and thinks no legal argument is frivolous if someone is paying you to make it. Given that people who are like that don't seem to be embarrassed, I don't see any reason to be embarrassed for being a bit ingenuous.
9.21.2006 5:07pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
I think that this interview may have functioned as an effective device at detecting the absence of a good associate/firm "fit".

Notwithstanding the social embarassment, if a firm regularly wants you to argue positions in court with which you not only personally disagree, but are, in your view, so far-fetched as to make you unable to argue them with a straight face, then when a particularly querulous judge asks rhetorically, during argument, "You're don't really expect me to buy THAT reading of the law, do you, counsel?", you may be unable to restrain at least a tell-tale smile... You're better off without 'em.

and, Bork Fan, while some lawyers may "make frivolous arguments in all seriousness", Federal judges, and judges in some states, also can sanction them for doing it. Some lawyers also steal from their trust accounts, sleep with their clients, and smuggle drugs, too; doesn't mean that we should regard any of them as anything other than disgraces to the profession...
9.21.2006 5:15pm
Bork Fan:
I'm not saying that you should be embarrassed because you failed to behave as "some" believe an "ideal lawyer" would have.

Rather, I think you should be embarrassed because you failed to behave as even an average person would under those circumstances and because, despite apparently wanting the job, you were absolutely clueless on how to go about actually getting it. And you did these things not as a teenager or adolescent, but as a fully grown adult with years of education and experience behind him.

Forgive me if I think that's more than a little pathetic. And by all means, continue to wear your naivete as a badge of honor.
9.21.2006 5:18pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
There's a big difference between being "proud" ("badge of honor") and "not being embarrassed. But it's not a coincidence that I'm both a law professor and a critic of many of the legal profession's excesses, and not a slick lawyer.
9.21.2006 5:25pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Speaking of pathetic...
9.21.2006 5:27pm
KeithK (mail):
There's no reason to be embarassed for laughing at someone who deserves to be laughed at.
9.21.2006 5:28pm
Bork Fan:
"doesn't mean that we should regard any of them as anything other than disgraces to the profession..."

This has nothing to do with the interviewer or her colleagues. It has to do with David's inability to handle the situation with tact. If the interviewer had said something particularly despicable or disgraceful, I would applaud David's visceral, unchecked reaction. But she didn't. She was simply trying to make conversation about a case with which she probably wasn't all that familiar. Mere stupidity or misinformation, without more, shouldn't warrant condescension.

Also, if you think a lawyer would get sanctioned for offering this argument in court, you're about as guileless as David apparently was at 22.
9.21.2006 5:29pm
Steve P. (mail):
I don't see what's particularly embarassing about the response. Prospective employees are supposed to be relaxed and comfortable without being overly familiar, and that can be difficult to gauge right out of college. In a place that would be a fit for you, that comment would have been a joke. Instead, it wasn't, and the place wasn't a fit.

Bork Fan, are your comments indicative of your real-world behavior?
9.21.2006 5:32pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
Of course, I don't have the good taste and tact to bitterly criticize somone using a psuedonym...
9.21.2006 5:37pm
Bork Fan:
"There's a big difference between being "proud" ("badge of honor") and "not being embarrassed.""

Yes, I realize that. But there's not that big a difference between being "proud" ("badge of honor") and posting about it on your public blog. After all, why else post such a stale, useless anecdote unless it's to show us all how much of a candid rebel you were in your law school days? Oh that's right - it's supposed to your "funniest interview story ever," intended to give us all a big chuckle. Right.
9.21.2006 5:37pm
Sarah Rolph (mail):


If the theory was so bad that it's actually funny, it seems quite normal to react by laughing. Clearly it was awkward, which is why the anecdote is both amusing and instructive.

The assertion that Mr. Bernstein was clueless as to how to get a job implies that the appropriate way to get a job is to stifle one's natural reactions and tell the interviewer whatever he wants to hear. I disagree. I think the way to get a job that's the right fit is to be yourself. Clearly this was not a fit, so it's a good thing that he didn't get the job, not a bad thing.
9.21.2006 5:37pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
Bork Fan:

Hmm. How old are you, I can't help wondering. On the one hand, you write well. On the other hand, your utter humorlessness, your tendency toward overreaction ("pathetic," "cluelessness,"), and your pedantic* preachiness ("tittering child," "if you have trouble distinguishing humor from seriousness, you should always err on the side of caution in professional settings") screams "grad student." Which is it?

- Alaska Jack

PS I've been told by someone who should know that, it person, Bork is actually a pretty genial guy. Just FYI.
9.21.2006 5:40pm
Realist Liberal (mail):
As someone currently going through the fun of Fall Recruitment for summer associate positions, I pray that I won't do that. With that said, I probably would have laughed at that too.
Bork Fan: I don't see what is so embarrasing about that.
9.21.2006 5:40pm
Bork Fan:
"that can be difficult to gauge right out of college."

Sorry, Steve P. It's really not that difficult for most adults, especially in the particular context that David provided.

"Bork Fan, are your comments indicative of your real-world behavior?"

Real-world? Is the world in which we're now communicating not real?
9.21.2006 5:43pm
MnZ (mail):
Bork Fan,

Some employers like a quick wit and a sense of humor. Some employers like to filter out the overly gullible. Some employers want a critical mind.

A interviewer may knowingly assert something utterly absurd to test the interviewee's reaction. In that case, a good-hearted chuckle might indeed be the appropriate response.
9.21.2006 5:45pm
Bork Fan:
"Some employers like a quick wit and a sense of humor. Some employers like to filter out the overly gullible. Some employers want a critical mind."

Of course. But again, I think it was clear from the context (not to mention the results) that is not what this employer intended. Had the employer said something truly ridiculous, David's response would have been perfectly appropriate. But she didn't. She said something rather typical of lawyers who either misconstrue a difficult area of the law or strain it to meet their client's needs. My point is simply that David should have been able to pick up on this and the fact that he didn't is a bit embarrassing.
9.21.2006 5:51pm
Bork Fan:
Alaska Jack:

I'm merely a humble Bork fan with a giant brain and a boatload of tact.
9.21.2006 5:52pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
And the most humility in the world!
9.21.2006 5:55pm
MikeC&F (mail):
Of course. But again, I think it was clear from the context (not to mention the results) that is not what this employer intended. Had the employer said something truly ridiculous, David's response would have been perfectly appropriate. But she didn't.

This is a good point. If, e.g., she had said, "My partner has me arguing that it violates the First Amendment [rolls eyes]," then a hearty laugh would have been in order. "Yeah, but it pays the bills!" would have been a socially-acceptable response.

Still, I disagree that someone at 22 should have advanced social skills.
9.21.2006 5:58pm
countertop (mail):
I hold it as a point of pride that on the last matter I staffed while an associate at a law firm (I left shortly afterward, on my own, for a more lifestyle friendly position) I had the pleasure of telling a senior, name, partner he was dead, 100% wrong on an issue and providing him an alternative theory which I believed would prevail.

He threw my memo out and told me to give him THE RIGHT answer (I was a 5L at the time). When I was unable to defend his asinine theory he pretty much defamed my legal abilities to the entire firm and had his favorite 1L re-draft my memo.

Of course, the coup de grace came when we actually sat down with the two lawyers who were going to try the case and the theory used (and which in fact won at the trial level and before the 9th Circuit) was the one which I devised on my own and which the senior, name, partner rejected outright.

This summer, at a large conference, I ran into one of the other name partners, who actually tried the case, and he introduced me to everyone as the father of the winning theory in the litigation (which, in this area of law, has garnered quite a bit of positive attention for him).
9.21.2006 6:01pm
Milhouse (www):
I wouldn't want to work for a firm that would have the hide to make such a ridiculous argument in court. And any lawyer who would do so damn well should be hit with sanctions.
9.21.2006 6:04pm
MJG (mail):
It's a pretty ridiculous theory, and the fact that the woman reacted so coolly simply means to just be glad you don't work there. However, I'm a bit taken aback though at the utter disdain for what lawyers do.

This will sound trite but it is an adversarial profession and is also a service profession. This means that if clients want to pursue it then lawyers work with what they have: often the goal is to turn chicken scraps into chicken salad. Judges and law professors can later weigh the merits of a particular legal theory later, a lawyer's job is to make it and handle the details. This may be somehow unappealing, but lawyer's are most needed for unpopular clients and theories (I recognize that this one is merely ridiculous versus say, the unpopularity and lack of authority behind the early movement to overturn Plessy).

As far as Professor Bernstein's anecdote about researching the issue with 13 cases against and 1 ambiguous depends on who it was for and in what context. If it was litigation then you're simply going to go with your best argument, even if it is weak overall. You present it as logically as you can and provide what authority you have. If your clerk does that and it's clear you have no choice, the partner may choose to advise the client to settle later. He probably should've demurred on the question and consulted the research first, but if he knew what the argument was going to be, I'm not sure where the problem is. Doesn't a lawyer most earn his salt in those contexts?

On the other hand, if this was a transaction matter and the client is acting in reliance on this advice, then it sounds more like malpractice than a lawyer's "slickness," so I'm not sure what to say.
9.21.2006 6:04pm
Per Son:
You go Dave!

My wife was asked if she would mind going undercover to union meetings in order to spy during organizational campaigns. She asked, "wouldn't that be illegal?" No call back.

Of course it is illegal, and it is better to have that problem at the interview, then quiting in the middle of the summer because you are not a fan of breaking the law.
9.21.2006 6:05pm
Bork Fan:
"I wouldn't want to work for a firm that would have the hide to make such a ridiculous argument in court."

So I assume that you've done the proper diligence on every one of your employers to ensure that they NEVER made a "ridiculous" argument in court before going to work for them?
9.21.2006 6:10pm
Dylanfa (mail) (www):
However, I'm a bit taken aback though at the utter disdain for what lawyers do.

This will sound trite but it is an adversarial profession and is also a service profession. This means that if clients want to pursue it then lawyers work with what they have: often the goal is to turn chicken scraps into chicken salad.

That would be fine if it actually happened. The more common situation is that lawyers try to turn horseshit into chicken salad and don't have the heart/spine/lack of greed necessary to tell the client the expected success multiplied by the expected fees = big loss to the client, nice gain to the firm.
9.21.2006 6:14pm
Norman:
Thanks, Dave, for the anecdote. Count me as one who disagrees with Bork Fan. I think one of the marks of a good interviewee is someone who is comfortable with the interviewer and who is able to chuckle at a lame joke. Also, no matter how skilled you are at "people skills", there are going to be times when you misunderstand where the other person is coming from. Thus, it's not unreasonable to chuckle at what you perceived to be joke, but really wasn't intended to be so.
9.21.2006 6:20pm
MJG (mail):

That would be fine if it actually happened. The more common situation is that lawyers try to turn horseshit into chicken salad and don't have the heart/spine/lack of greed necessary to tell the client the expected success multiplied by the expected fees = big loss to the client, nice gain to the firm.


I suppose. It also depends on who the client is (large corporation, well-staffed in-house department) and it seems like there's a pretty compelling market argument that firms that routinely do this would have to see their business drop because of skepticism over the quality of their legal advice, which is a lawyer/law firm's only product.

Now if you have small business owner X and some lawyer is simply breaking every state and ABA ethical rule by dragging things on and on, then yes, this is not only wrong but also undermines the profession.
9.21.2006 6:21pm
Ming the Merciless Siamese Cat (mail):
One lawyer I worked for actually gave a client an answer before looking it up, and then asked me to research the question.


Oh my God! How unthinkably shocking! A lawyer gave an off the cuff answer and then followed it up with research. Clear grounds for disbarrment.

Turns out, there were fourteen cases on point, thirteen of which directly contradicted what the client had been told, and one of which was ambiguous.


Oh well, that's unfortunate, but shit happens and it appears no harm was done. Besides, I find it unlikely that a big firm partner would give such advice (about which he was clearly uncertain, as indicated the follow-up research assignment) without the usual caveats.

Instead of graciously admitting to the client that he was wrong, the lawyer asked someone else to re-research the same question.


Well, I've reassigned work when I got an unexpected answer and had less than complete confidence in the reliability of the associate tasked with the original research. I guess the partner felt the need to double check your work. Perhaps the story says more about the impression you made on the partner than the one he made upon you.

And I feel pretty certain that your implication that the partner didn't inform the client of the correct answer, once he was confident it was incorrect, is unfounded.

no doubt charging the client yet again to discover that he was mistaken.


Why, no doubt? Writing down associate hours when, e.g., the research is duplicative or went down a blind alley is quite common. I do it frequently when preparing bills. Why are you so quick to assume shady dealings?

Feel free to snear at private practice from the ivory tower, but rest assured that even the most dupicative research memo couldn't be less valuable than much of the hack-work that fills many law reviews.
9.21.2006 6:22pm
Someone who reads the boilerplate text (mail):
Dear BorkFan,

"Here's a tip: Reread your post, and think of what people would think if you said this over dinner. If you think people would view you as a crank, a blowhard, or as someone who vastly overdoes it on the hyperbole, rewrite your post before hitting enter."

Love,
All of us
9.21.2006 6:25pm
Bork Fan:
The boilerplate text would be taken more seriously if the original poster in question ever adhered to any of its suggestions himself.
9.21.2006 6:29pm
Houston Lawyer:
Lawyers are often stuck with thin gruel for arguments because their clients leave them no recourse. This is usually handled with a CYA letter to the client informing him of the weakness of his position. I have been forced to tell opposing counsel that I am taking a position "because my client said so". The practice of law would so much more fun without clients.
9.21.2006 6:32pm
M. Gross:
My, such venom over a relatively harmless anecdote.

Perhaps he should have followed up with an expression of appreciation for how hard it must be to argue such a difficult interpretation of the First Amendment in court. However, no one can be expected to recover perfectly from every slip of the tongue and misunderstanding.

I find it a little strange, from the viewpoint of another field, that one would consider working for a company that espoused such ridiculous approach. What biologist would apply with a biotech company that supported spontaneous generation, what geologist would work for an oil exploration firm that defended young earth theory?
9.21.2006 6:35pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
"Feel free to snear at private practice from the ivory tower, but rest assured that even the most duplicative research memo couldn't be less valuable than much of the hack-work that fills many law reviews." Now that's true.
9.21.2006 6:39pm
byomtov (mail):
Had the employer said something truly ridiculous, David's response would have been perfectly appropriate. But she didn't.

She did. That's ludicrous, and billing a client for making that argument is malpractice at best. Bernstein's response was appropriate.
9.21.2006 6:40pm
Bork Fan:
byomtov,

You misunderstand. Yes, the legal argument itself was ridiculous. But she didn't SAY it in such a way that would have led David to believe that she THOUGHT it was ridiculous, and thus would have made his response appropriate. Do you see the distinction?
9.21.2006 6:44pm
Revonna LaShatze:
Must admit,
I agree with Bork Fan that the interviewee's "youngness" probably contributed to the awkwardness. There's usually not much joking about a firm's specific work, or litigation strategies.

Also, maybe the young man being interviewed was a bit arrogant. I also have to wonder if "a very nice man" had briefly described the work using the same exact words, if the response would have been, "No, really, what's your theory?"

That just seems a little casual considering it's a job interview, and a little condescending, even as you've remembered the story here today. Students with no real experience often "know the most" and have the most confidence in their untested skills.

Good that it happened though. No doubt you wouldn't have fit in there no matter how good your skills, and it's probably good that both the firm and you saw it early.
9.21.2006 6:46pm
MJG (mail):

And you're right, I did make a bad impression on the lawyer, by telling him what the law actually said, which meant that he had to go back to a very important client and tell them that he gave them a seemingly definitive answer without knowing what he was talking about.


Again, context matters. If a litigation partner asks an associate for a research memo and the associate returns with an "on the one hand . . . on the other hand" law-exam-like discertation, it is simply not useful. Like it or not, your client has a position, and the associate's job is to argue it.

A good associate takes this terrible position, writes the best argument he can, and puts a footnote that says "Please note that the majority of caselaw is in our opponent's favor. I've attached several of those cases." The partner can then make an informed decision. You don't write amicus briefs with an eye merely on "what the law actually says," do you? I thought the legal realists won the battle over the idea of fixed and immutable legal postulates floating in the sky long ago.
9.21.2006 6:51pm
Revonna LaShatze:

Makes sense to me, Bork fan.
I think it's called social intelligence.

There are better ways to follow up if an interviewee was skeptical than -- "No, really, what's your theory?"

Perhaps distinuishing when someone is serious or kidding you (a bit of the blarney, some call it), and when they are seriously mistaken and how to respectfully deal is key.

Can you imagine if someone responded in a similar manner to a real client? Even if the client was off the wall wack? Know your role.
9.21.2006 6:52pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
Just how stupid does a prospective employer have to be before an applicant is justified in laughing at them? The "First Amendment" argument for suppressing competition to newspaper classifieds is even stupider than the ACLU's "First Amendment" argument against the NSA's international-phone-call monitoring program. (Did anyone else notice that parallel?)

If you were applying to an airline, and the airline told you they were going to guarantee 100% on-time arrivals and take-offs by scheduling all flights between 12AM and 4AM, would you laugh?
9.21.2006 6:54pm
Cris:
Bork Fan,

You weren't by any chance arguing that position, were you?
9.21.2006 6:59pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
Geez, Louise, you would have thought that I was RECOMMENDING this as an interview strategy, or somehow praising myself for being a wise guy, instead of just telling a mildly self-deprecating anecdote.

As for the male-female issue, the interviewer was not presenting this as HER theory (I don't think she even worked in the relevant group of the firm), but as that of a senior partner, who in those days was almost certainly male.
9.21.2006 7:09pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
PS I've been told by someone who should know that, it person, Bork is actually a pretty genial guy. Just FYI.
Bork, or Bork Fan?

Because the latter clearly doesn't have the slightest clue about any of the things he's preaching about, such as tact, grace, or good people skills. (Judging the former by his confirmation testimony and his books, he doesn't, either.)
9.21.2006 7:11pm
LeftLeaningVolokhReader:
I think you've become more likeable with this story.
9.21.2006 7:12pm
zooba:
MJG: You forget that lawyers owe duties not just to their clients, but also to the court. It is a violation of the duty to file frivolous motions, complaints, answers, or other documents. It is also a breach of the duty to the client to bill them for things that you know are frivolous and therefore cannot use without breaching your duty to the court. Believe it or not, most lawyers do not intentionally file frivolous arguments. Some of they do sometimes, and some do on accident. Either way, it's a violation.
9.21.2006 7:14pm
Witness (mail):
Bork Fan's comments look suspiciously like the work of Internet Badass, of the Princeton Review msg board fame (now known as xoxohth or autoadmit.com). Some key evidence:

--Assuming a haughty, self-righteous attitude that lends itself well to intentional hypocrisy and ironic contradictions

--Responding to almost every comment directed his way in an effort to keep things moving

--Dropping a very obvious clue that he is not being serious ("a humble Bork Fan with a giant brain and a boatload of tact.")

--Picking back up where he left off after everyone apparently did not notice this

Expect this charade to continue until the thread reaches 100 comments, at which point he will reveal his identity, and many of you will feel foolish for engaging him in this rather pointless discussion.
9.21.2006 7:18pm
MJG (mail):
zooba: This is true, but the moral of the story appeared to be that having an associate do and billing a client for a research memo on what may or may not be a frivolous argument is also unethical, while I would think it is not only standard practice but the only way to practice. The partner may have spoken too early, but he asked for the research. Plus this may have merely been the partner knowing his client; some clients want immediate answers, even if they change. Others want one single and final answer.

I was speaking mostly to his role as an associate. The partner may have been out of line, but there was certainly nothing out of line for asking an associate to write a research memo on a potentially fruitless topic. I was simply saying that it's the partner's judgment call, and that, to me, it appears that the work product--a research memo, not a complaint, motion, etc--was flawed in its approach. A partner can better evaluate whether an argument is frivolous if a smart and intelligent associate has tried to make the most compelling case he or she could for it and comes up snake eyes. Particularly if they also, while still writing persuasively in the client's favor, highlight the potential pratfalls and negative caselaw.

This is a frequent mistake for young associates, treating litigation assignments as if they were law exams or law review articles. But the story was told as if the fact that the partner--not omniscient about this area of law--asked an associate to do a research memo and then, unconvinced by the work product (again, the partner may have simply wanted someone else to actually make the best arguments for the client so he had something to evaluate) was acting unscrupulously. I guess I can't get over the comment that "this is what the law is," when I thought every lawyer would say "I'll make the best arguments, and then we'll evaluate them before proceeding further." Nothing in the story indicated that a motion was filed with the argument that had 13 cases against on the strength of the 1 ambiguous case. Yet this partner is some kind of legal incarnation of Gordon Gekko.
9.21.2006 7:26pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
In the interest of moving on, I enjoyed the original anecdote and would like to hear others, if anyone has any they'd care to share.

- Alaska Jack
9.21.2006 7:30pm
MJG (mail):
I guess I should just note that I don't mean disrespect to Professor Bernstein and I have the utmost respect for him. The anecdotes were intended in good fun, but they, followed by the comment about being a "critic" of the legal profession, seemed both snarky and to exhibit a bit of a misunderstanding of how the "legal profession" actually works, or even what it's goals are. Certainly not all lawyers, including partners at big law firms are intelligent or even ethical, but the tone appeared both condescending and misinformed. If my impression is accurate, then that is quite unfortunate.
9.21.2006 7:46pm
Paul B (mail):
In all of the hubbub about what the young David Bernstein should or should not have done, you all have overlooked the point that the argument that "it is inconvenient to the newspaper industry, therefore it must be a violation of the First Amendment" has a long pedigree. During the 1930s, for example, that argument was made regarding the passage of child labor laws, since newspapers were dependent upon boys for the delivery of the daily paper. During the 1950s in a period of high prices for newsprint, there were calls from spokesmen for the industry that the governement had a constitutional obligation to build newsprint mills so that the press could fulfill its obligations to democracy Anyone who follows the current set of arguements regarding privlege for newspaper reporters today can see that editors and publishers are commonly extending the discussion of what is good public policy into endlessly broad claims of constitutional right.

I think Professor Bernstein's point is not that lawyers shouldn't make such outrageous claims on behalf of paying clients, but that they should at least have the intelligence and decency not to be proud of those arguments when in the privacy of a college interviewing room. As to whether or not he should have had a better poker face when listening to that kind of nonsense, I think he should be commended for not letting his economic self interest overrule his incredulity when hearing this kind of argument.
9.21.2006 8:01pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
FYI: What annoyed me about this particular partner was that I got the distinct impression that he was convinced I was wrong not because my memo was inadequate (believe me, I triple-checked before giving a memo to a partner showing that what he told a client was wrong, and even tried to make the best argument I could for his untenable position, and, while I wasn't a star associate, I was an excellent researcher), but because he was too arrogant to acknowledge error. To me, if a client is paying me hundreds of $$$$ an hour, it should be all about getting the right answer for the client, not my ego. I should add that overwhelmingly, the other attorneys I worked with weren't like this guy at all.
9.21.2006 8:33pm
Dylanfa (mail) (www):
I dare say tax protestor cases have an even longer pedigree, Paul. If David's interviewer had explained how they were going to argue that the IRS is unconstitutional, should he have nodded gravely? Laughter, if not outright scorn and contempt, is the only appropriate response to far too many things that many lawyers do and think instinctively.
9.21.2006 8:39pm
Truth Seeker:
In the interest of moving on, I enjoyed the original anecdote and would like to hear others, if anyone has any they'd care to share.

I once interviewed with the state attorney (prosecutor) thinking they also handled other state legal matters such as real estate and contracts and when he asked if I like trial work said no, I preferred transactional desk work. Confused, he kept pressing, trying to give me an out and when he said well how about litigation, I said oh, yeah that would be good....

That was almost as bad as going to the wrong "Mr. WIlliams" law office for an interview and then stoppping at a gas station to have my tire changed so I could say I had a flat.

But then Einstein forgot to wear socks and often forgot to take his keys when he went out so I felt like I was in good company.
9.21.2006 8:53pm
cathyf:
But then Einstein forgot to wear socks and often forgot to take his keys when he went out so I felt like I was in good company.
Gratuitous Zuma quote: "Just because you are misunderstood doesn't make you an artist."
9.21.2006 9:21pm
FXKLM:
I think it's a mistake to excessively suck in job interviews or try to pretend to be the person you think they want to hire. There are plenty of firms out there. Unless you really screw up, you'll get at least one offer, which is really all you need. If you give an honest impression of yourself, I think you're more likely to wind up in a firm that's a good personality fit. The interviewing process should be about trying to find the right job rather than trying to accumulate the biggest pile of job offers.

David's behavior may have cost him this particular job, but that's not a bad thing. This was clearly not the job for him. His honest reaction made that clear to both of them.
9.21.2006 10:13pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
Medical ethics prohibits a doctor from harming a patient even if that's what the patient wants. For example I had multiple opinions on a foot problem. One doctor at a big NYC orthopedic center recommended a procedure that an equally qualified (if not more so) surgeon at another big name medical center flat out refused to do. He said if you want that than go somewhere else. I should think simple ethics would preclude a lawyer or a law firm from pursuing a legal theory that's almost certain to fail.
9.21.2006 10:57pm
Hans Bader:
David was right to laugh at the none-too-bright interviewer who believed that the First Amendment restricts speech in competition with newspapers, rather than protecting such speech against government restrictions.

But it's wrong to believe that practicing lawyers are more likely to believe in this stupid inversion of the First Amendment than ivory-tower academics.

In fact, it's politically-correct academics like Owen Fiss who argue that some speech must be suppressed to make it easier for competing speakers to get their message across.

The not very bright attorney who interviewed David probably had read one too many books by tiresome ideologues like Owen Fiss or Catharine MacKinnon.

David is also right about some lawyers' willingness to try to cover up when they've given dubious advice to a client by seeking out "research" from junior attorneys or summer associates that matches their wrong answer. I've seen lawyers do just that.
9.21.2006 11:20pm
Alex650 (mail):
Maybe this is a stupid, question, but I wonder about the type of person who has the time to submit twenty-some startlingly and unnecessarily negative comments on a blog... and not for the sake of intellectual curiosity or ivory-tower knowledge, but what appears to be pure churlishness. Bork Fan: even if you're right about Bernstein, your comments (and their quantity) don't particularly reflect well on their author. Perhaps try this something more productive for the spirit, like this page: http://www.cleanfunnyjoke.com/index.php?b=21&t=703
9.21.2006 11:23pm
Miriam A. Cherry (mail):
Makes me think about my most embarrassing law firm interview... well, there was the one where I got a nosebleed halfway through (it had never ever happened to me before!) I tried to ignore it, found tissues, and carried on with conversation. Perhaps stoicism counted for something, as I did get a callback and an evetual offer....
9.22.2006 12:43am
Dave N (mail):
In terms of embarrassing interview stories, I have one-- though not quite as good as David Bernstein's.

I was interviewing with THE major law firm in my state, mostly as a favor to a new partner who casually knew my father.

During the interview, another partner gave me a tour of the offices, showing how snazzy their digs were and the flexibility partners had in decorating their offices. She led me into the wmpty office of their newest partner, until recently the state Attorney General, and proudly told me he had just joined the firm.

The office desk was black, with a shiny mirror-like surface. The chair was both modern and black as well. The walls had a two-tone gray wallpaper, with a darker color toward the floor and a lighter gray from mid-wall to the ceiling.

Without thinking, I blurted out, "Oh, is this the Darth Vader office?"
I did not get the job.

Ironically, the partner who secured my interview later left the firm, became an Article 1 Judge, and became my next door neighbor when I bought the house next to his.

When I told him the story, he laughed and said I wouldn't have liked working for the firm anyway.
9.22.2006 1:54am
Christopher Cooke (mail):
I am sure we have all said statements that lacked tact, at one point or another. I know I have, even in job interviews. I perceive David's laughter as lacking in tact, perhaps due to his youth, but that is all. Regarding the "constitutional" question, he was dead right.

When I was 22, I interviewed for a job with the State Department's Foreign Service Office (after nailing the written test). The interview went well, until one question: what were the lessons learned from the Vietnam War. I mentioned ensuring public support for a war by manipulating the press and restricting its access to the battlefield (citing Grenada as an example to show how this lesson was learned and applied). Now, I may or may not have been right, but was it a smart idea to tell a US Ambassodor, appointed by Reagan, that the main lesson learned by the US government from the Vietnam War was manipulating the press? My remark was symptomatic of the smugness that comes with being young, full of ideas, and thinking you know everything. So, I have sympathy for David's remark, which was probably less tacky than some things I have said in similar situations.
9.22.2006 2:01am
elChato (mail):
I once got a job after mildly questioning my potential employer's ethos, because I had concerns. I did very well there.

It's a fine line. Nobody likes a smartaleck but someone who you think can respectfully stand up to you probably won't be the office gossip, and could save you money one day by telling you what you don't want to hear.
9.22.2006 9:55am
CJColucci:
When you know the interview isn't going anywhere, it can be liberating. I once interviewed at a firm and it was clear to me that the interviewing partner and I weren't generating any sparks. She began to talk about billable hours -- the place was hard-working but not a sweatshop -- told me what was expected, and asked if that would be a problem for me. I said: "But what if it doesn't take me that long?" The look on her face was priceless.
I've told the story many times, and in firms that know what they're doing there are actually two decent answers: (1) "then we'll have to raise your billing rate" or (2) "if you do get it done that fast, we always have more for you."
9.22.2006 11:51am
Nathan Jones (mail):
My guess:

BorkFan = woman Bernstein interviewed with
9.22.2006 12:26pm
JohnO (mail):
I did an interview for a job fair for law students in Washington, D.C. I don't remember how we got on the subject of the first Gulf War, but the applicant just blurted out that it really bothered him how everyone was making a big deal out of soldiers who died in Iraq bwecause "they were all just playing volleybally and run over bytrucks and stuff like that." As someone who had been a Marine officer for ten years, I wanted to end the interview right there, but calmly finished and wrote in the evaluation that the applicant "said the most obnoxious thing I have ever heard an interviewee say."
9.22.2006 1:13pm
NickM (mail) (www):
Imagine interviewing with Latham 2 weeks after the news hit front pages about their huge cuts of existing associates (Fall '91).

I think my on-campus interview went like this: Mutual introductions (they sent a mid-level associate and a senior associate). Next sentence out of the senior associate's mouth is "We're really not sure if these interviews are for show and if the firm's going to be hiring." The interview muddled along after that.

My most bizarre interview had to be with CalTrans [for non-Californians, this is the state Department of Transportation, and is involved in high-profile litigation in areas from eminent domain to personal injury to environmental law, as well as high-profile land acquisition and public contracts matters]. The interviewer dressed worse than most law professors. When I opened the door, she said "Hi, are you [name of a female classmate who had an interview with them an hour later]." I said no, and introduced myself. I handed her a resume and writing sample. She hands the writing sample back to me, saying "we don't look at those". She looks at my resume, says "A average, Law Review", looks up at me and says "We don't think you'd be happy here." That was a royal we. I'm sure I looked stunned, and I asked why not. Her response was something like "You're going to want to do things that are important." I asked "Don't you get a lot of courtroom experience working for CalTrans?" Her response was "Why would you want to do that?" I don't remember much more about the interview, although she didn't have questions for me and was eager to talk about their employee fringe benefits and pension program.

Nick
9.22.2006 2:42pm
dick thompson (mail):
All I can say is that if you ever want to know why the public thinks so little of lawyers, just read this set of comments. If I were the client and the partner had given me such wrong information and then tried to bill me for his firm doing the research two times, I would be looking for a new law firm. If the law firm that was handling my cases actually and knowingly went to court with the argument that was given to David and did it by coming up with the argument on their own, I would also be looking for a new law firm.

I realize that there are many times when the client is being obdurate and totally off the wall but if the law firm actually pursues this knowing that it is totally off the wall what does that tell you about the ethics of the firm. I realize that everyone is entitled to the best defense possible legally but when you come up with something this dense I certainly don't want you handling my business. To me this smacks of being the worst kind of ambulance chasing, sleazy, hack lawyer out there and I choose to put my money with attornies who at least have some scruples. In particular those who think David handled this stupid question wrong and that he should just have answered with a really and gone on, please let me know who you work for as that is a firm I personally want to do any work for me. I want to go into court being represented by someone who will work hard for me and will do it with decent and reasonable arguments. If my case is really that bad, I want my lawyer to tell me that my case is really that bad and then tell me the best he can do for me. Absent that, get a new and reputable lawyer and put that one behind you.
9.22.2006 8:43pm
Revonna LaShatze:
"As for the male-female issue, the interviewer was not presenting this as HER theory (I don't think she even worked in the relevant group of the firm), but as that of a senior partner, who in those days was almost certainly male."

I still say, you would not have responded in the same way if a male interviewer had told you exactly the same thing. I'd bet anything on it.

Happy New Year. Hope it's a good one for all.
9.22.2006 9:38pm
Steven Jens (mail) (www):
This doesn't compare to David's story, but I once interviewed for a position as a stock analyst, and was turned down. I later heard from a contact at the firm that the interviewer thought I was "too analytical and not enough of a salesman."

I should emphasize that this was buy-side, not sell-side -- i.e., the position was for someone to recommend investments to portfolio-managers within the company.
9.23.2006 11:09pm
CJColucci:
NickM
While I don't know how they do things in California, in most states the really juicy Department of Transportation stuff would be handled by the Attorney General. It's quite clear that the CalTrans interviewer thought of its legal department as a second-rate place where people with your apparent qualifications wouldn't be happy. Even if that belief were not objectively accurate, it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
9.24.2006 10:18am