Finding the right cultural fit is simultaneously very important, and very challenging—especially for tired law students with a limited window of time and limited exposure to law firms. This challenge is compounded by the fact that everyone claims the mantle of good culture. “Collegiality.” “Diversity.” “Collaboration.” “Innovation.” “Pro Bono.” These words are trumpeted so often that, like overprinted currency, they seem to lose value.
This elusive quest has high stakes; when the types of cases, working hours, and compensation are largely homogenized, cultural fit has a disproportionate influence on one’s job satisfaction and overall happiness.
I’d like to share with you one question that I always ask my attorney interviewers to get a better glimpse at an office’s culture. I always ask: “if you became managing partner of this firm, but were only allowed to make one unilateral decision before losing that power, what would you change about the firm?”
I have asked this question to dozens of associates and partners, and have usually gotten helpful insights that speak to 1) the firm’s priorities, 2) the interviewer’s own priorities, and 3) the interaction between the two. Answers have ranged from specific policy peeves to general lamentations against working long hours.
However, last summer, I had the good fortune of being able to ask this question to Anjan Sahni, who was, at the time, actually the incoming Partner in Charge of the New York office. When I asked him my question, he pondered for a while, and then gave me an answer that threw me by surprise: “I would decide to listen to everyone first and see what changes they want to see.”
This surprised me for three reasons. First, given that my question partially turns the tables of the interview dynamic, attorneys usually felt pressured to give me at least one specific answer. Second, “I would listen first,” on paper could look like a cop-out (almost like wishing for world peace at a beauty pageant). Third—at the risk of sounding naïve—Anjan sounded so sincere and passionate that his modest answer made me forget about my first two concerns.
This singular anecdote doesn’t prove WilmerHale’s positive culture (although empathetic leadership is crucial). But I focus on it because I can honestly say that I have repeatedly encountered the decency, humility, and honesty that Anjan embodied during that interview throughout my callbacks, second looks, and every day I have worked at the firm so far. My colleagues are brilliant, but also kind. Associates come by my office every day, instead of just the cursory first-day greeting. Busy partners don’t just ask for work product, but invest in you by making sure you understand the long-term trajectories of cases instead of just short-term tasks.
As you explore firms, I invite you to ask insightful questions and talk to as many people as you can. Figure out which firm makes you feel the most hopeful—makes you feel that you can dedicate your energy to being a good lawyer and a good person, and be rewarded for both. For me, that was and is WilmerHale.