How to Successfully Interview Rainmakers and Business Developers:
Insights from an interview with Eva Wisnik, Founder of Wisnik Career Enterprises
Eva has placed over 600 marketing professionals over the past 26 years and has trained partners at 88 law firms on how to interview legal talent. During the interview, Eva shared her thoughts on the important ability to assess talent of both laterals and business development professionals and to sell top candidates on your firm.
The Two-Pronged Interview Approach
David asked Eva to share some things she recommends firms keep in mind as they’re interviewing talent that would apply to both laterals and BD/marketing professionals.
“I believe the interview process is really a two-pronged approach,” Eva commented. “You have two goals going on. One is to assess the talent, and the other one is to sell or market to the talent. And I’ve often seen, even when I was in law firms for many years, that sometimes the focus would be one-prong.
“There would even be a borderline interrogation. Somebody would walk in the door, and the questions would start with ‘How much business can you bring in?’ or ‘Why should we hire you?’ Or, if somebody had a great resume, then sometimes partners and other interviewers would just go right into sell mode.”
Eva stressed that interviewers need to have both thoughts in mind in terms of evaluating and selling the talent.
Tips for Talent Evaluation
Next, David asked Eva to discuss evaluating talent and tips for knowing when you have the right candidate, noting the potential danger of selling the wrong person into the firm.
Eva began by saying preparation and communication are key. She shared an example of interviewing a marketing professional, sharing, “One thing I have seen, more often than you can imagine, is that by the time a partner, head of practice or a major decision maker gets to meet the marketing talent, they haven’t read their resume or the job description, so they’re not even sure why they’re hiring the person.
“I would recommend that anybody who gets in front of a marketing professional at any level, should make sure they actually read the job description to know why there’s a need to hire this person and that they can address that. Because if they can’t, it makes for a bit of an awkward interview.”
She added, “The other is to really become familiar with the candidate’s background. If you really read the resume before the candidate comes in, there are a couple of things that are going to happen. One, you won’t start the interview by saying ‘so tell me about yourself.’ I think all of us know that’s code for I’ve not even looked at your resume, and you will also not get the maximum amount of information out of a person if you’re trying to read the resume and interview them at the same time.”
Eva shared that she’s seen situations with lateral partners, where somebody says they have to meet with a candidate because they’re a great XYZ lawyer or they have a book of business, but the person’s background doesn’t fit into the strategic plan of the firm, the firm doesn’t need more help in a certain practice area, or it just doesn’t make sense.
She recommended asking yourself if there’s a good business reason for a firm to interview someone as a starting point. Eva stressed that interviewers need to have both thoughts in mind in terms of evaluating and selling the talent.
The Branding Opportunity in Interviewing
Eva went on to say, “I have really come to believe, and it underscores every interview training program I do for law firms, is that every interview is a branding opportunity. What does that mean? Every person you stand in front of or sit in front of – whether it’s an initial interview or a fourth round of interviews –will walk away with an impression of your firm.
“Even if you decide you don’t want to hire that lateral partner or CMO or marketing manager, if someone asks them what they thought of your firm or what they know about your firm, a reputation gets transferred based on their experience with you. So, when an attorney or a marketing professional interviews a candidate, how they present themselves and the firm, and how the candidate leaves feeling about the experience – regardless of whether they get or accept an offer – goes a long way.”
Eva stressed that interviewers must remember that the person across the table from them right now might not be someone they want to hire, but they could be a referral, future client, or someone the firm will want at some point later in their career.
As a final thought on the topic, Eva talked about the importance of how to close out or follow up on an interview and noted that she’s seeing more and more situations where both lateral partners and marketing professionals ghost interviewees. She noted that if a firm decides they don’t want a candidate – especially after both the candidate and the firm have invested considerable time – it might not be comfortable to tell the candidate so but leaving them out there without closing out the process is worse and leaves the candidate feeling bad about them and the firm.
Opening the Interview
Going back to the beginning of the process, David asked Eva how to properly open an interview.
She recommended, “Find something on the candidate’s resume that you’re either sincerely interested in or that you can sincerely compliment and start with an open-ended question like, ‘I see that you have a lot of expertise in XYZ. Tell me about what you enjoy about that most.’ Or ‘I see you mentioned you have XYZ client, or you’ve built a practice in this specialty. What about that are you most proud of, or most passionate about?’
“When you get people talking early on in their interviews about things that they’re proud of or that they feel good about, it just opens up the energy and makes for a really good exchange. So, keep things positive and open-ended.”
Eva noted, however, that that’s not always easy for lawyers. She explained, “I love attorneys. I’ve spent my entire career, almost 35 or 40 years, working with them, and I would never trade that for anything. But, as lawyers, they’re trained to figure out what’s wrong with things. So, if they look at a resume and there’s a gap, something doesn’t make sense, or something that sticks out, it’s sometimes instinctive to them to start with, ‘That firm went under, what happened?’ or ‘Why did you change firms?’”
But she noted, if you start the interview in that way, you shut the door on the chance to get to a place of trust, get deeper, and really learn about the person.
Transitioning from the Candidate Selling Themselves to a True Evaluation
David acknowledged the importance of making candidates feel comfortable and establishing a foundation of trust but wondered how interviewers can then move to a true evaluation.
“There’s a transition point,” Eva noted, “You start with something positive, something where they can talk positively about things, but then if you prepared for the interview beforehand, you should have outlined a couple of specific questions. So, when the interviewee is going off on a tangent about their favorite place to vacation, or something you have in common like you both went to the same law school or grew up in the same sort of suburb, you can pivot to something like, ‘You know, what I was really excited to hear about is that you mentioned on your resume that you work extensively in pharmaceuticals. Tell me about how you were able to build that up. How did you get your first client?’”
She added that she’s in no way suggesting that interviewers don’t go for some ‘deep dives,’ but rather saying that you have to get enough trust and momentum in the conversation first. And she ensured that if an interviewer knows what they want to learn about a person, they’re going to get there.
Eva added that interviewers are better off focusing on one or two areas of the candidate’s resume and going deeper, rather than trying to cover everything they’ve done. She shared that she’s also found that when it comes to lateral partner interviewing, a best practice is just to have one or two interviewers who focus on the candidate’s book of business, so the candidate doesn’t have to say the same things repeatedly in the interview process.
“If every person a candidate interacts with at the firm is focused on their ability to bring over business,” Eva noted, “the firm’s going to miss a lot of other points. I’m not saying don’t go for the deep dive and don’t ask those behaviorally based questions like ‘Tell me how you built that business?’ and ‘How do you stay in touch with your clients?’ and ‘Who do you pitch with’ and ‘Tell me a little bit about what associates are working with you most and if you think they’d be interested in coming over with you?’
“Yes, you can ask those questions, but make sure that you’ve built enough momentum to ask them in a successful way. The difference between an interview and interrogation is the tone and the timing.”
The Importance of Open-ended Questions
David reframed Eva’s advice, noting it all comes down to the interviewer’s intention. He said there’s a noticeable difference to the candidate between when the interviewer’s intention is to have a great conversation where they identify synergies and areas where both parties resonate so that at the end of the interview, they can make an informed decision, and in having a conversation to make sure that nobody pulls the wool over their eyes.
He noted that the latter intention comes off as more of an interrogation and elicits a defensive response.
Eva agreed, saying, “I think you can get a lot of information from people if you pre-plan, know what your intention is, and identify a few behaviorally based questions. Let’s talk about the difference.
“A traditional interview question might be, ‘Tell me about your weaknesses.’ or ‘I see you have always been a corporate finance lawyer.’ So, it’s closed-ended. You come in pre-thinking something and you’re looking for confirmation of that, versus something like, ‘Tell me about how you hope to use that experience when you join a new firm.’
“That’s open-ended, and open-ended questions will get you information that you might not have anticipated. They’re better for establishing something and going deeper.”
Eva gave an example, “’Tell me about that, bring me through the process.’ or ‘How did you go about doing that? You don’t have to tell me the name of the client, but how did you build that practice?’ or ‘How many hours a week do you spend marketing?’”
She noted that this is effective because how a candidate behaved in the past is most likely how they’re going to behave when they get to your firm
Eva continued, “So instead of saying ‘Why are you planning to leave your firm?’ – which is kind of a defensive question – I would recommend saying, ‘Having had the experiences you’ve had, what does the ideal firm look like? And if you went to a new firm, what is it that you would want that might be different than what you’ve had before?’”
Addressing the Famous “Weaknesses” Question
David returned to the oft-used weaknesses question, noting that if an interviewer begins with a question about strengths followed up with a question about weaknesses, they’re starting with a positive and then leaning into something more critical. He shared that he likes asking the weaknesses question, if paired with the strengths question posed first, and always frames the intent of the weaknesses question by first acknowledging he’s not perfect and offering up a weakness of his own to show that his goal is not to put the candidate in a vulnerable position.
He asked Eva if that’s a misstep.
She responded, “No, I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong. I just have a hard time believing that partners are actually going to tell you something like that. For most people who work in law firms, vulnerability is probably their least favorite state to be in.
“I think there are better ways to ask that question. Let’s say you’re interviewing a marketing professional. I would instead ask them, ‘What haven’t you had a chance to learn or do that, you know professionally would really benefit you?’ Frame it as though you are looking for their developmental needs, rather than trying to expose their shortcomings.”
Eva noted that she has interviewed about ten thousand professionals, and, in her experience, people don’t ever lie in interviews. She observed, “I don’t think that’s the challenge. I think what’s actually going on is that they don’t know themselves well enough.”
Narrowing the Leap of Faith
Eva went on to explain that there’s always a leap of faith when hiring. She commented, “What they tell you in an interview and what you hear is not necessarily going to be how they perform. My goal is to narrow that leap of faith to make it as small as possible. And that’s where behavioral stuff comes in, because then you’re looking for evidence of past behaviors.”
Eva shared a story about when she was hiring an assistant years ago. While focused, strategic and a big-picture thinker, Eva purposely surrounds herself with very organized people and needed her assistant to meet that qualification.
She said, “I was looking for a very organized, detail-oriented assistant, and a candidate came in carrying a Day-Timer. You know how people used to carry around those big day-timers?”
She chuckled, “I got so excited, thinking, ‘My God, this woman carries a Day-Timer with her. She must be super organized!’ Well, as it turns out, somebody had given it to her as a graduation gift and I never saw it again.”
Eva used the story to make the point that looking for behavioral clues may be misleading but asking behavior-based questions can be effective. In this case, she suggested she should have, instead of assuming the candidate was organized, asked her to talk about her system for tracking and to share how she keeps in touch with her clients. She commented, “It’s hard to make that up on the spot.”
Eva went on to say that firms can narrow the leap of faith when interviewing if there’s something they’re worried about, especially in the case of potential lateral partner hires. “An exercise I use at lateral partner trainings,” she shared, “is to make them think about what hasn’t worked in the past. I’ll say, ‘Think about the people you most enjoy working with, that you trust, that you bring to pitch meetings and describe them to me. Tell me about the characteristics of people that you want to have on your cases. What is it about them so that we try to get the traits?’
“But I will also say, especially to leadership, ’I want you to picture somebody you’ve hired in the last two years that you had great hopes for and they flamed out. What was it about them? Let’s look backwards so we can look for red flags.’”
Eva shared examples of red flags as candidates who only talk in ‘me’ terms rather ‘we’ terms or people who are super demanding upfront, especially those trying to rush the process. About the latter, she offered, “I think that’s made people look back and say, ‘Oh, there was something going on. They’re probably being asked to leave their current firm, that’s why they were rushing the process.’”
The Importance of an Orchestrated Interview Process
Eva also highly recommended identifying one partner who is on the comp committee or in leadership, who is the partner in the interview process who talks more about the business aspect. That partner should ideally shepherd the candidate through the process and serve as their point person.
She commented, “Integration really starts with the interview process. Does that take a lot of work and coordination? It does, but just think about the price of getting this wrong.
“How amazing will it look to a great lateral partner candidate who may end up with a few offers, if they see that you’re all working together and rowing in the same direction? They’re going to go ‘Wow, these guys and women are coordinated. They articulate very similar messages. I feel like this is a cohesive leadership team here.’ And I think that’s what people are looking for.”
More on Red Flags in Lateral Partner Hiring
David asked Eva if she had any additional thoughts on landing the best lateral partners and avoiding any key mistakes or red flags.
Evan shared that she’s a big believer in the six degrees of separation, with the caveat, “Obviously, you don’t want to jeopardize anybody’s privacy. If a candidate is going through the process, you can’t call their references while they’re interviewing. But there’s often a possibility that somebody at your current firm has worked with or gone to school with the person and knows them.
“So if there’s a way to do due diligence during the process, I think that’s really helpful because there’s going to be no better confidence builder that you’re making the right decision than somebody’s saying, ‘I worked with them, I’ve been on a case with them, they’re responsive, they return phone calls, they’re ethical’ or ‘I knew that woman from law school, and she was somebody who people really enjoyed working with and who led teams.’
“I think one of the big mistakes I noticed when I was doing due diligence with firms I was working with is not recognizing that somebody having great contacts doesn’t mean they can bring in business. I’m not saying you should never hire somebody who’s coming from in-house or from the government, for example, but do they have a plan? How are they going to leverage their contacts?
“Because what I’ve seen happen is that some people get very enamored with a candidate’s resume, the fact that they come out of some prestigious organization or government role, and they just go all the way to ‘They’ll be a great addition and maybe a rainmaker!’ And that doesn’t always translate. Great contacts don’t always mean business development.
“I think if you’re way down the road with somebody, ask them, ‘What would your 60- or 90-day plan look like business development-wise?’ Knowing that they have a plan and not just a ‘great idea’ is very important.
“When we’re talking about marketing professionals or legal talent, if a candidate doesn’t do their homework, that for me already signals something, including their professionalism and preparation. So, are they prepared? Have they done their due diligence? Do they come in asking good questions? That shows that they’re invested in whatever they’re doing. And they should have a better answer for why they’re interviewing with your firm than, ‘A headhunter thought it would be a good place to go check out.’”
More on References
Circling back to the topic of references, David noted that typically candidates only provide references they know will speak highly of them, so it’s important to ask the right questions. He also noted that speaking with someone you personally know who has worked with the person or has managed the person can be more reassuring.
Eva responded, “I agree with you, I think we just have to be careful if the person’s employed there. I also agree that the questions you ask are the most critical piece of the reference.
“I will ask open-ended questions, like to describe the person to me and what their work style is like. I’ll say, ‘In their next job, where do you think they can continue to grow?’ rather than ask about what’s wrong with them.”
Eva reiterated that if you’re reaching out to someone you know who worked with the candidate, make sure the candidate isn’t still employed at the firm. She added that there’s not much value seeking references from someone unless the candidate reported to them.
Eva offered, “So I wouldn’t say going through the references the candidate provides is useless. If I do three references, I’ll see a theme, there’ll be some of the same words used and at least that gives me confirmation.”
Don’t Ignore Gut Instincts
In wrapping up, Eva offered, “I think one of the things I would underscore is that where the biggest mistakes are made in hiring at all levels is when we ignore our gut and override red flags.”
She shared an example, “I do a lot of interview training with law firms before they go on campus and start hiring summer associates. I’ll say to them, ‘Can we look at last year’s files? Let’s look at who interviewed last year’s summer associates. Let’s see who exceeded expectations by the end of summer.’
“Oftentimes, when somebody didn’t do as well as they thought they would, during the hiring process one or two lawyers had mentioned something but during the recruiting committee meeting it was overridden by, ‘Well, but they go to school X and they’re top of the class.’
“I think for anyone who hires people for their teams or for partners who hire, there was a time where they rationalized a poor decision. It’s very rare where a hire just completely doesn’t fit, and the interviewers had no clue. It happens, but it’s pretty rare.
“I also think some people are fantastic interviewers, and when you figure out who that is because you see their comments and you see how they play out and how they spot talent and are spot-on in terms of their process, get them really involved with the process and reward them for it. Also, keep track of what’s working and what’s not and keep tweaking your behavioral-based questions, make sure people are prepared for interviews, move the process along, and think of every interview as a branding opportunity. I think those are some keys to this whole thing.”