A ship is safest in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.
-- William Shedd
Soon, rising second-year law students and employers will be fully engaged in preparing for the upcoming fall interview season. Students can best ready themselves for this process by taking a thoughtful, step-by-step approach.
This involves understanding your current endeavors, developing a focus, and whole-heartedly engaging yourself in the process. Successfully navigating the interview process will launch you, like a ship set to sail, into the great legal career on your horizon.
UNDERSTAND YOUR CURRENT ENDEAVORS
As a first step, it is important to reflect on your recent and past experiences.
What led you to law school? What aspects of your legal education inspire you most? What goals, aspirations and responsibilities are you taking into account as you determine your course?
Be acutely aware of what motivated you to get where you are today, and what you believe will motivate you going forward. This will help you set your sights on a thoughtful and fruitful path.
DEVELOP A PLAN
Once you've reflected on your course, and determined where you would like to head next, outline congruous and continuous steps in an action plan. Be sure to use all of the resources available to you.
Consult with your career services office, and work with the talented professionals there throughout your job search. They are well trained and broadly experienced, and can help coach you through the process.
Participate in mock interview exercises, and be sure to make yourself open to feedback when it is offered. If available to you, participate in a mock exercise where you are videotaped. This is a challenging experience for anyone, but it will afford you the opportunity to critique yourself, and to consider your strengths and weaknesses from a particularly candid and novel vantage point.
Consult with your mentors and the people closest to you throughout the process. Utilizing your support network will allow you to learn from your fumbles, and celebrate your successes.
Prepare a resume that truly reflects what you have to offer. Put time into this task, and your resume can be a useful tool. Neglect this, and you may set yourself at a clear disadvantage.
When saving your resume to an electronic file, to be forwarded as an attachment, give it a title that inspires confidence rather than doubt. Receiving a resume that includes the words "draft" or "version" or something dubious about the finality of the document may cause a potential employer to question your professionalism.
Understand and manage your digital footprint. Your social media accounts are best set to private settings during this time, as you will want to be in control of your presence on the Web.
LAUNCHING INTO THE PROCESS
Preparing for an interview requires two thought processes: What might an interviewer want to learn about you, and what do you want to learn about firms and organizations?
Each party should and will have expectations of the other; to fail to appreciate that is a mistake. This process is often compared to a courtship, and both participants should and will be gathering and sharing information that each will ultimately use to make important hiring and career decisions.
Employers are coming to embrace a style of interviewing called "behavioral interviewing." This represents a change in the way that interviews are conducted, and is reflective of overall changes in the ways that firms and organizations manage their talent.
More and more, firms and organizations are identifying competencies that they believe are important for members of their organization to master to be successful. Competencies can include areas like professional excellence, interpersonal effectiveness and leadership. In order to ascertain whether or not a candidate is proficient in these areas, employers will use questions designed to encourage exploration of their applicant's behavioral patterns.
Behavioral questions allow you to discuss your past experiences, so that connections can be made between them to predict future performance. To prepare for this, think about situations when you overcame an obstacle, managed a difficult or sensitive situation, responded to criticism, and demonstrated your ability to lead a group. You will be well served to be able to discuss lessons you have learned through past events.
To frame this another way, it is no longer enough to be able to list your strengths and weaknesses on cue. Rather, you will need to be able to relate this information to your interviewers through anecdotes about your life. The same is true of any other standard interview question. Instead of being asked, "What did you do last summer," you may be presented with the following statement:
"Tell me about your work dealing with a difficult client at your clinic last summer." Dialogue will be much more targeted, and conversations should be much more trenchant.
Learn enough about each potential employer to be able to demonstrate genuine interest in its organization, awareness of what sets it apart from the competitors, and appropriate knowledge of your interviewer(s). The further along in the process, the greater the need for you to master deeper knowledge of, and nurture deeper interest in, a prospective employer.
Should any of these variables fail to capture your attention, it may be a sign that a particular employer may not be the best fit for you. That's okay: Discovering what type of work and environment you are attracted to is a vital part of the process. Just be honest with yourself and timely in communicating your interest in proceeding with potential employers, and the process will take care of itself.
To garner reasonable and balanced information about a prospective employer, consult a variety of information sources. This includes, and is not limited to, firm websites, industry periodicals and directories, NALP data, contact with your school's alumni who are currently employed with the organization, student evaluations of their own experiences with the organization and blogs.
Review the firm-based Web biography of your interviewer(s) and, if there is mention of a case or matter that piques your interest, research that a bit further (so that you can intelligently discuss this in conversation). Look to see if your interviewer is highlighted on other parts of the organization's website, perhaps in the recruiting or the pro bono sections.
Most organizations do an excellent job of identifying their attorneys' successes and talents, and you should glean an appropriate amount of information from this diligence. Web searching for personal information is not recommended, and can in fact appear to be equal parts unsettling and unprofessional when obvious.
For callbacks, the firm will expect that your initial interview created a desire for you to learn more about the firm, and therefore caused you to actually learn more. You will need to demonstrate that you are in the process of learning as much as you can about the firm or organization. This includes another round of research, and also pulling together questions to ask your interviewers that are designed to develop productive conversations that will yield insightful information. This should be important to you as a matter of professional curiosity, and you should also appreciate that you will be evaluated on the quality of your questions.
THE INTERVIEW ITSELF
Plan for your arrival at the interview to be graceful, with the help of the recruiting professionals with whom you will be in contact throughout the process.
Be sure you know where and when to report, whom to ask for, and what you will need to bring with you. Even if the firm has copies of all of your documents (resume, transcript and writing sample), bring extra copies. Be sure to request the names of your interviewers beforehand so that you can learn something about them prior to meeting.
Also, review information on the practice areas in which you may be interested. It is not uncommon for interview schedules to change prior to your arrival; the more you know about the firm, the easier it will be for you to navigate such a scenario.
If you are unsure of what to wear, remember this axiom: Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Wear a suit. Follow that with adherence to this show tune lyric: "You're never fully dressed without a smile!" Your personal presentation is important, and should relay confidence and professionalism. Nothing more, nothing less.
It is wise to arrive about 15 minutes early for your interview; any earlier can be awkward, and later does not allow enough flexibility for the unexpected. This 15-minute window also allows you time to observe interactions in the reception area while you wait. You can learn a lot by studying how people greet one another and conduct themselves in shared, public spaces.
While you are doing this, remember that everyone with whom you interact can weigh in on your candidacy. They might not be able to get you the job, but reports of an applicant being rude to professionals and staff at an organization can quickly doom their candidacy.
As you engage in conversation, you will need to cover the basics, and it almost seems to be a rule that no interview shall ever go without the requisite discussion of mentoring programs and the assignment process. That is necessary information, but we all need to delve deeper. Think about what you really want to learn from in-person interviews.
For example, you may want to ask people what their days are like, what they think makes an associate successful, what their leadership style is, and how they integrate the practice of law and other aspects of their life. Ask questions that will allow you to discern the character of your interviewers, and how their character may or may not be reflective of the ethos of the organization.
Be prepared to answer a wide variety of questions. First and foremost, devote yourself to being able to discuss anything on your resume intelligently and enthusiastically. Nothing sours an interview like hearing a candidate blunder through something that should be easy for that person to discuss. You should also be able to succinctly relate how your prior experiences have prepared you to be ready to practice law.
Be ready to talk about your interests. Most candidates are encouraged to list a few extracurricular activities on their resumes. This is a wonderful way for candidates and interviewers to connect.
Many times, I have watched a candidate emerge from an interview, wholly stunned that a significant amount of time was spent talking about cinema, cuisine or sporting events. This happens a lot, and your interviewer may be learning more about you through this exchange than you think.
Did you reveal something about your sense of teamwork in discussing last night's ballgame? Were you showing your sense of humor when you found yourself telling the story about your last hiking trip? Did you communicate your ability to think on your feet when you talked about the time you had to unexpectedly teach a class? What did you share about your self-esteem throughout the exchange?
Interviewers may seem to be walking you through easy anecdotes about your life, but they are likely always keeping an eye on what they can learn about you through your comments. This is especially true if your interviewer is adeptly engaging in behavioral interviewing, sometimes unbeknownst to you.
Also, understand that multiple interviewers at a firm may ask you the same question. This could be intentional or unintentional. Regardless, it is important to have the same enthusiasm for each conversation. No interviewer wants to feel that you find him or her dull, or repetitively boring.
It is absolutely fine to give a similar answer to each interviewer. You are being asked to share facts about yourself, and factual consistency is good. Interview evaluations will be collected and compared later on, and you don't want to be caught contradicting yourself. You may also ask your interviewers each a similar question, and then you can compare responses the same way. Is there consistency in what people think about the opportunities at the organization? Are you able to compare what people within an organization think about topics of interest to you?
So, what are we trying to learn about you throughout this process?
Of course, we need to know if you are intellectually capable of mastering the work. Subsequently, we are also looking for that special thing called "fit."
Overall, this interview process is designed to help firms, organizations and candidates find each other, and to create what will hopefully be lasting and successful relationships. Approach this process as you would anything else, logically and with gusto, and you should find that you set sail on yet another remarkable journey: the beginning of your legal career.
Donna Manion is legal recruiting manager in the New York office of DLA Piper.