Why you ask: Day in the Life stories show the type of matters you'll work on and the amount of responsibility you'll get. Listen for descriptions of colleague, client and staff interactions as well. (Hint: If the interviewer says, no day is typical, ask what's on her desk today.)
Whom you ask: First- or second-year associates.
Follow up: Ask about the range of projects the interviewer has handled over the past six months to see if you'll be limited to a single project, practice area or client.
Why you ask: Look for a match between the firm's personality and your own. Is it informal? Hard-charging? Traditional? Observe office decor and personal interactions. Will you be comfortable here?
Whom you ask: Anyone.
Follow up: Ask how the business and legal communities perceive the firm. A gap between how the firm sees itself and how others see it may indicate either that perception lags behind reality or that the firm lacks self-awareness.
Why you ask: Associate surveys show that structured training is best. A structured program sets measurable goals and makes sure you achieve them. A training program that consists solely of big siblings and partner lunches leaves your professional development and career advancement to chance.
Whom you ask: Partners and senior associates (for details and procedures); junior associates (for a reality check).
Follow up: A good mentor can be an invaluable part of the learning process. What is the firm's approach to mentoring?
Why you ask: So that you will understand how assignments are made and whether your interests will be considered. You are in charge of your career, and if working in a particular practice area trumps other considerations, knowing how firms handle practice assignments may influence your decision. And you'll learn a lot about the culture of the firm and whether your interests matter.
Whom you ask: Senior associates; partners in charge of associate development.
Follow up: Ask how practice assignments are made, if associates receive assignments from other groups, and whether it's possible to change practice sections.
Why you ask: Effective technology will make your job easier; out-of-date or poorly supported technology will make it harder. The firm's interest and investment in technology are also clues to its short-term priorities, long-term strategy and personality (vibrant early adopter or slow-moving follower).
Whom you ask: Associates. They are usually the firm's most tech-savvy lawyers.
Follow up: Long hours and rigorous workloads demand technology you can depend on in the office, at home and on the road. Ask if user support is available remotely 24/7.
Why you ask: Client contact and relationships are key to building a successful practice and making partner. Not to mention that seeing the faces and knowing the players makes the work more fun.
Whom you ask: Junior associates.
Follow up: Ask how the firm helps associates build practices. Teaching networking strategies, introducing you to clients and supporting business development activities are tangible ways the firm can support you.
Why you ask: Even if you're committed to work 24/7 now, priorities can change. It's wise to find out in advance if the firm will respect your life outside its walls. Listen for specific examples of lawyers balancing work and life commitments through telecommuting, flex-time and other alternative career paths.
Whom you ask: These questions are closest to the hearts and minds of senior associates and junior partners. They're likely to know the most about the firm's policies and track record.
Follow up: Has anyone made partner while on part-time status?
Why you ask: Many benefits programs look alike on paper. Talking about them reveals how they work in real life and highlights distinctions you might not be aware of otherwise.
Whom you ask: Recruiting managers.
Follow up: Who can help me navigate the various programs and services? A well-run program will be staffed by experienced benefits professionals.
Why you ask: Pro bono work is a great opportunity to gain hands-on experience along with personal and professional satisfaction. And a diverse firm provides a dynamic environment with a range of views and thinking.
Whom you ask: Associates and partners; pro bono and diversity committee members.
Follow up: Are pro bono hours credited as billable? Firms that support pro bono may count a percentage of pro bono hours toward billable-hour requirements. At other firms, pro bono is an on-your-own-time activity – and it's tough to find that time when you're trying to meet high billable-hour targets.
Why you ask: Another question that reveals not just transactions and cases, but also the firm's values and priorities. Does the interviewer tell you about matters from outside her own area of practice? The answer will tell you something about the cohesiveness of the firm and the feasibility of building your own practice through cross-marketing.
Whom you ask: Partners.
Follow up: Ask more about what the firm does best (and worst) to learn how your talents will be valued. Will you get great cases or great training in a second-tier practice area? Can you become a star at this firm or just a bit player?
Why you ask: You'll not only learn more about the nature of the work associates do, but you'll also learn about the person you're talking to and create a positive association he or she will remember after you leave.
Whom you ask: Associates.
Follow up: What was your most challenging or difficult case? How did you resolve the difficulty? The answer may be the same as above. But if it's not, you'll learn how the firm handles problems and supports associates.
Why you ask: The first rule of investing (diversify) applies to law firms as well. Look for both general practice and boutique firms that represent a broad range of clients and industries. Working with a range of clients strengthens your position within the firm and your marketability outside it.
Whom you ask: Partners.
Follow up: Ask if any one client or industry dominates the firm's work. If so, the firm's stability (and your future) could suffer if the industry or the client's business tanks.
Why you ask: It's important to find out how you're doing well in advance of your annual review so you can avoid surprises and fix potential problems. In addition to as-you-go project feedback, look for firms that clearly communicate their expectations and provide regular evaluations.
Whom you ask: Associates, partners involved in lawyer reviews.
Follow up: Find out about the criteria for salary increases and bonuses.
Why you ask: Whether you're an introvert or a people person, an environment of teamwork and collaboration speeds your learning process, provides face time and increases opportunities.
Whom you ask: Associates.
Follow up: Ask if you'll work with only one partner or several to find out if you'll be exposed to different working and mentoring styles.
Why you ask: Having a vision for the future is almost as important as the vision itself. Firms with a shared vision tend to work smarter, do better and be more collegial. But specifics matter too. If the firm's goal (becoming full-service) conflicts with your goal (working at a litigation boutique), it's the wrong match.
Whom you ask: Partners involved in firm management.
Follow up: Ask where the firm plans to grow and how it plans to do it. The firm's priorities will affect your career path.