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Take time to anticipate the types of questions likely to be asked in your interviews. Think through what your answers would be without “scripting” them or making them sound too rehearsed.

Public interest employers may approach the interviewing process in a variety of ways. Some employers rely primarily on “basic” questions about your background, skills, and motivation for wanting to join their organization. Other employers adopt behavioral questions or even hypothetical questions (especially for entry-level or alumni positions), where your ability to think critically and exercise sound judgment is on display.

Finally, some employers conduct fully “structured interviews,” often designed to minimize the impact of implicit bias in hiring. In a structured interview, each candidate is asked the same questions, and responses are written down and later compared. Interviews are highly scripted and questions are generic; some interviewers in these situations may not even have seen the candidate’s resume, or may be instructed not to react to the candidate’s answers. Such interviews can sometimes feel disconcerting, but you should not take the lack of response personally.

Think about how you will address areas of your resume that could raise questions, such as significant gaps between jobs or schooling, changes in career direction, or less-than-stellar grades. Avoid appearing apologetic or defensive, and be willing to talk about these areas briefly and openly. You can talk through these areas and/or generally practice your skills in a mock interview with an OPIA adviser.

Basic Questions

  • Personal
    • Tell me about yourself.
    • How would your friends/colleagues describe you?
    • How would you describe yourself as a person?
    • Why are you drawn to this particular geographic area?
    • What is the latest non-legal book you’ve read?
    • What are your outside interests and hobbies?
    • Who is your hero/heroine?
    • Why did you choose law?
    • What is your biggest accomplishment?
    • What are your strengths/weaknesses?
    • What is a legal skill you struggle with?
    • What would make you a good trial advocate?
    • What is your advocacy style?
    • What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?
    • How would you go about building a trusting relationship with a client?
    • Do you foresee any challenges connecting with your clients?
    • What is something interesting about you that’s not on your resume?
    • What one thing have you done that you’re proudest of?
    • What is the most difficult/rewarding thing you’ve ever accomplished?
    • How do you work under pressure?
    • What type of colleagues do you work with best or would have trouble working with?
    • Are you a team player or do you prefer to work on your own?
    • Are you a self-starter or do you prefer guidance on projects?
    • What experience do you have with remote or hybrid work?
    • How do you work in a remote or hybrid environment?
    • How would you contribute to our office’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging?
    • What does it mean to you to support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the workplace?
    • In your opinion, what things help a person become successful?
    • What constitutes success in your mind?
    • What kinds of things give you the most satisfaction in your work?
    • How do you feel about working for someone younger than you or who has less work experience?
  • Resume/Transcript
    • What type of responsibilities have you had in prior work experiences?
    • Why did you choose to work at these specific organizations?
    • What did you particularly like/dislike about that work?
    • Why did you leave your prior jobs?
    • Why did you choose your undergraduate major?
    • What did you do between college and law school?
    • Why did you decide to switch from your previous field to law?
    • Why did you go to law school?  Have your goals changed since then?
    • What extracurricular activities have you participated in during law school?
    • What was the issue you argued in Moot Court?  What was the argument on the other side?
    • What clinical work have you done in law school?
    • Tell me about your participation on the journal, in your externship, your clinical program, or your research project.
    • Tell me about your thesis/journal article.
    • Why did you get an “LP” in…?
    • Tell me about your interest in rock climbing, course on Islamic law, etc.
  • Knowledge of Organization/Position
    • Why do you want to work at our office?
    • Why do you want to work in our office, as opposed to other offices that do similar work?
    • Which of our legal practice areas and/or areas of interest are you most interested in?
    • Why our practice setting (e.g., federal government, legal aid, non-profit with a community lawyering lens)?  Why our issues?
    • Why are you looking at this area of specialization?
    • What qualifications do you have that will make you successful at this job?
    • What would the greatest drawback of this job be for you?
    • Why should we select you over all of the other candidates?
    • How are you prepared to work with clients/colleagues who are different from you?
    • What two or three things are most important to you in a job?
    • What kind of training or supervision are you looking for in a job?
    • How would you describe your ideal job?
    • What criteria are you using to evaluate the employer for which you hope to work?
  • Commitment to Public Service
    • How much experience have you had with public interest organizations?
    • What prior public interest involvement do you believe allowed you to make the greatest impact and how?
    • Why did you decide to switch from private sector to public interest work?
    • How much experience have you had in your field of interest?
    • What fields interest you other than the one you are in?
    • What are your short/long term career goals?
    • Where do you see yourself in 5 (or 10) years?
    • Where else have you applied for a job?
  • Legal Reasoning/Thinking
    • What do you like most about law school?  What do you find most challenging?
    • What was your favorite class in law school?  Why?
    • Who was your favorite professor in law school?  Why?
    • What qualities do you think a good lawyer should have?
    • Tell me about your legal writing sample/note.
    • What kinds of feedback have you received on your legal writing?
    • Tell me about a legal memo you wrote this year.
    • Tell me about a recent Supreme Court case you disagreed with and why.
    • Tell me about your hardest law school exam question.
    • Tell me about a complex legal issue you worked on.
    • If you were a court, how would you rule on the following issue…?

Behavioral Questions

  • Assessing Past Action

    Employers use behavioral interview questions to assess your past and future performance.  An interviewer may ask you to provide an example of a time you demonstrated a particular skill required of the position, or they may ask how you handled or faced a specific situation or assignment.  Your past performance serves as a strong indicator of future performance.  By asking you to elaborate upon your prior professional experiences, employers can assess whether you possess the requisite skills for the position.

    When presented with a behavioral question about past performance during an interview, frame your responses using the STAR method, which consists of the following:

    • Situation or Task: Provide context for the interviewer.  Provide a brief overview of your position.  Explain the problem or issue you faced while completing a specific project.  You should seek to humanize the situation for the employer by providing relevant details.
    • Action: Describe the steps you completed or skills you used to address the problem or issue.  Use this opportunity to highlight strengths and skills you could bring to the position.
    • Result: Summarize the result or lessons learned while addressing the issue.

    Keep your answers specific, focused, and succinct.  You should seek to engage the interviewer and demonstrate why you are the best candidate for the position using concrete examples.

  • Assessing Future Action

    Behavioral interview questions may also evaluate your ability to respond to future challenges.  An employer may present you with a hypothetical situation related to a project, supervisor, or other workplace issue and ask you to develop a response, or pose an ethical dilemma and ask how you would address the situation.  Your response should resolve the issue presented while highlighting the strengths you wish to convey during the interview.

  • Sample Behavioral Questions
    • Tell me about a time when you made a mistake, and how you dealt with it.
    • Tell me about a time you had to make a quick decision.
    • Tell me about a difficult experience you had in a clinic or internship and how you overcame it.
    • Tell me about a time you had too many things to do and had to prioritize.
    • What did you do the last time things didn’t go according to plan?
    • Tell me about a situation where you failed.  Why did you fail and what did you learn from it?
    • Tell me about a time you had to work with someone who did things very differently from you.
    • Tell me about a time you showed bias or prejudice against a client.  What did you do and what did you learn from it?
    • Tell me about a time when you worked as part of a team with diverse perspectives and/or backgrounds.
    • Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult client or coworker.
    • Describe a situation in which a detail you thought to be unimportant turned out to be very important.
    • Tell me about a time you had to persuade a colleague to accept your point of view.
    • Tell me about a time you went above and beyond the call of duty.
    • Describe a situation where your efforts had a direct impact on the outcome.
    • Tell me about an ethical work situation you had to deal with.  How did it turn out?
    • Tell me about a time when you had to act in a leadership capacity.
    • What have you done in the workforce that shows initiative and creativity?
    • How would you handle a situation where you and your supervisor disagreed about an issue or course of action?

Hypothetical Questions

  • Anticipating Hypothetical Questions

    In some cases, interviewers may pose hypotheticals or questions about substantive areas of law.  By asking these types of questions, interviewers are trying to evaluate how well you reason and analyze and how clearly you think and speak.  Your ability to articulate your response is often more important than coming up with the right answer or being an expert on the relevant case law.

    Prosecutors and public defenders will typically ask applicants hypothetical questions to assess their judgment and reasoning.  An employer will present hypothetical criminal fact pattern and ask you to make a decision based on these facts.  These fact patterns often do not have clear-cut legal answers.  The employer will be evaluating your ability to respond to ethical concerns and your commitment to the mission.  The interviewer also will be assessing how you react to a situation under pressure, your thought process to reach your decision, and your ability to defend your decisions when challenged.  Prior to the interview, prepare yourself for questions related to criminal justice proceedings and ethical conduct.  Review the hypothetical questions in Prosecution Interviews and Public Defense Interviews below and think about how you would frame your answers, keeping in mind the interviewer’s objectives.

Public Defense Interviews

  • Interview Process

    Most public defender offices have a multi-stage hiring process, usually an initial screening interview followed by an interview with a panel of attorneys.  Some offices will also conduct a third interview with the final decision-maker or Public Defender.

    Interviewing for a public defender job is uniquely challenging — interviews can be confrontational or hostile, usually involve on-the-spot hypotheticals, and at the panel stage, may include a simulated client interview, arraignment, cross-examination, or opening statement or summation.  Watch this video of OPIA and a panel of practicing public defenders to learn the nuts-and-bolts of effective PD interviewing.

  • Initial Screening Questions
    • Why do you want to be a public defender?
    • Why do you want to work here? Why not [a different office]?
    • Tell me about a difficult experience you had in a clinic (or other work setting) and how you overcame it. What would you do differently in the future?
    • What would make you a good trial advocate?
    • Why should a client want you as their public defender?
    • How would you go about building a trusting relationship with a client?
    • Is there any type of crime you would have trouble defending, like child molestation or rape?
    • How would you handle a 200+ misdemeanor caseload?
    • Tell me about a time you showed bias or prejudice against a client. What did you do and what did you learn from it?
    • For offices with a holistic model:  what does holistic representation mean to you?  What role do lawyers play in it?
  • Hypothetical Questions

    Public defenders use hypothetical questions to test an applicant’s loyalty to a client. The list below includes some hypothetical questions a public defender’s office may ask.

    • How would you counsel a young client who had never been arrested and is proclaiming his innocence in the face of prosecution for a serious crime based completely on the testimony of several police officers?  The client is facing a long jail sentence should he be convicted after a jury trial but is now being offered a plea-bargained sentence of probation.  What do you say to the client?
    • What would you do if you appeared for court and saw the government’s witness in the wrong courtroom?  Would you notify the judge or the prosecutor when the witness failed to show up for court in the correct courtroom?
    • What would you do if you were assigned a case you were morally opposed to?  How would you reconcile the conflict between your personal beliefs and the case?
    • You represent John Smith, charged with beating his wife.  Smith admits to you that he did in fact beat his wife but stresses that an investigation into his wife’s personal background will reveal facts about her drug addiction, neglect of her children, and petty theft, that will devastate her credibility and result in Smith’s acquittal.  He also tells you in an offhand remark that he would beat her again if he had the chance.  How would you proceed?
    • In preparation for a trial, you contact the prosecution’s main witness, the person who says that your client robbed him.  You arrange to meet him with an investigator from your office (who can testify at trial if the complainant contradicts himself).  At the meeting, the witness admits that in fact, he was trying to rob your client, the gun that was recovered was his, but he is too afraid to recant to the DA because he does not want to go to jail.  You suspect that on cross-examination you can get him to admit to all of this on the stand.  As a defense lawyer, you are concerned about his Fifth Amendment right not to self-incriminate.  Before trial, do you call the DA and suggest that she have a defense lawyer present in court to advise the witness regarding Fifth Amendment, if need be?
    • Your client has stolen several pieces of equipment.  She has two people who will supply her with an alibi, but you think they might be lying.  Do you put these people on the stand?
    • How would you feel about defending a man who admits to you his guilt on child molestation charges yet wants to plead not guilty?  Would you be willing to try to impeach the child’s testimony on the stand even though you know that the child is telling the truth and that by doing so, you are likely to get a favorable result for your client while at the same time further traumatizing the child?

Prosecution Interviews: District Attorney Offices

  • Interview Process

    District attorney offices typically have a multi-stage hiring process, usually an initial screening interview followed by an interview with a panel of attorneys.  Questions during a panel interview will often include hypotheticals about substantive criminal law and ethical issues.  In addition, some offices require you to present an opening/closing statement or other simulated exercise during this round.  Most offices will also conduct a third interview with the final decision-maker or District Attorney.

  • Initial Screening Questions
    • Why do you want to be a prosecutor?
    • Why do you want to work here?  Why not [a different office]?
    • What is one skill you have that would distinguish you as an ADA compared to other applicants?
    • In your first year as an ADA, what do you think will be your biggest strength?  Biggest weakness?
    • What have you seen in court that you want to emulate?  Avoid doing?
    • Much of your experience has involved helping people from the same socio-economic background as many people we prosecute.  What conflicts do you see this causing for you?
    • How do you manage your time?
  • Hypothetical Questions

    Hypothetical questions posed during a district attorney interview will test an applicant’s allegiance to the community.  The list below includes some hypothetical questions a district attorney’s office may ask.

    • You have been asked to handle another ADA’s hearing concerning the search and seizure of a pound of cocaine.  The notes you have for the case indicate that the arresting police officer saw the defendant driving erratically and so pulled over the defendant’s car.  When the officer asked for the defendant’s license and registration, the defendant said he didn’t have them.  The officer arrested the defendant and searched the car.  He found a pound of cocaine in the gym bag of the trunk.  What questions do you have for the officer before you analyze how to argue for admission of the cocaine in front of the hearing judge?  Do you think the search was constitutional?  Develop your argument.
    • What would you do if you were assigned a case you were morally opposed to?  How would you reconcile the conflict between your personal beliefs and the case?
    • What would you do if your supervisor told you to file a case but you did not believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty?
    • Can you imagine a case in which you believed beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed but you chose not to file?
    • You are an ADA on a case and offer the defendant a plea of five years.  The defendant rejects it and wants to go to trial.  You receive a call the night before the trial informing you that your only witness just died of a heart attack.  You come to court to tell the judge that you have to dismiss the case when defendant’s lawyer approaches you and says that they’ll take the deal.  What would you do?
    • A police officer and victim come in to the DA’s complaint office, wanting to charge an individual with armed robbery.  The victim is an 80-year-old white man who was robbed at gunpoint at 3 AM with no witnesses.  After the robbery, he sees a police officer and flags him down.  The officer and the victim proceed to drive around for a minute when the victim points out the robber in front of a store with three other men.  The robber has nothing on him at arrest – no gun, no wallet, not even his own identification.  His three friends took off, so you don’t have any information on them.  Would you charge armed robbery?
    • You are about to start a gun possession trial.  The defendant was arrested after he was pulled over for running a red light.  The arresting officer testified in the grand jury that he saw the gun lying on the passenger’s seat as soon as the he approached the defendant’s vehicle.  At 9 AM on the morning of the trial, the arresting officer says he needs to talk to you.  He explains that the arrest happened as he explained in the grand jury, except that he came on the scene after the actual seizure of the gun.  The officer who saw the running of the red light and found the gun was at the end of her shift and asked this officer to cover the case.  What do you do?
    • A police officer comes to your office with an arrest.  She tells you that she heard about a robbery on her police radio; during the robbery, three guys knocked down an old lady and grabbed her purse.  The officer started driving to the scene of the crime and she saw two men running down the sidewalk.  One man was holding something bulky under his coat.  She ordered them to stop.  She searched them and the one with the bulky coat had a purse under his jacket, so she arrested them both for robbery.  Would you write up the case?
    • You are prosecuting a robbery case.  You have spoken with the victim several times about the events that occurred the night of the robbery.  She presents consistent facts to you every time you speak with her, providing you with specific details about robbery, including the location, time, and description of the perpetrator.  There are no inconsistencies.  However, you have a strong, nagging gut feeling that you don’t believe her, but you are not sure why.  You just do not believe her and you cannot point to a specific reason why.  Why do you do?

Prosecution Interviews: U.S. Attorney Offices

  • General Information

    U.S. Attorney Offices each have their own method of interviewing candidates, but many have some common approaches. In addition to the types of questions outlined in the sections above, below are samples of questions that are frequently asked of Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) candidates across the country. For more information about AUSA hiring, please make an appointment with an OPIA adviser.

  • Transitioning from a Law Firm
    • What issues have you worked on at the firm?
    • Have you ever argued in court?
    • Given that you do not have much trial or courtroom experience, why do you think you would be good at this job?
    • What kind of experience have you had that would prepare you to appear in federal court as an AUSA?
    • What percentage of your time do you devote to pro bono work?
    • What do you like most about your job?
    • Describe an interesting legal issue you’ve worked on.
    • Why leave the law firm?
    • You’ve been working on complex cases at the firm, but if you come here, you’d start by handling basic cases like slip-and-fall cases on the civil side or illegal re-entry cases on the criminal side. How would you deal with that transition?
  • Motivation for Becoming an AUSA
    • Why are you applying to a USAO now?  Why not sooner/why not wait?
    • Why do you want to be an AUSA in this district?
    • What do you think would be the most difficult part of being an AUSA?
    • Is getting trial experience one of the reasons you want to be an AUSA?
    • Have you talked to any AUSAs or former AUSAs about what the job is like?
    • Why are you interested in criminal law? What types of crimes get you going in particular?

Questions to Ask Your Interviewers

  • Sample Questions

    The following are types of questions to consider asking a prospective public interest employer. These kinds of questions should help you determine whether the job will be a good match for you. It is important to ask thoughtful questions as well as questions that are pertinent to the specific organization so that the employer knows that you are very interested in this particular job.

    • Could you tell me more about the areas of specialization?
    • On what kinds of cases or issues are you currently working?
    • How do you enjoy your work overall?
    • Could you tell me a little about how you came to work here?
    • What do you consider to be the greatest challenge of your job?
    • What kind of person is your office looking for in this position?
    • What personal attributes are required in order to do this type of work well?
    • Who would supervise my work?
    • How much direction/autonomy is there in this position?
    • What kind of training could be expected for this position?
    • How would you describe the work atmosphere here?
    • What measures does the office have in place to support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging?
    • What are your greatest challenges for the coming year?
    • What is the office’s history of hiring summer interns into full-time positions?
    • What is the office’s expectation about remote vs. in-person work?
    • What are your expectations for the person hired into this position?

Meet with an OPIA Adviser