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Q: I am a fourth-year trusts and estates associate at a medium-sized law firm. The firm is partner-heavy and there appears to be little opportunity for advancement. For the past six months, I have been seeking a position with a small- to mid-sized firm where there is partnership potential. I have had five interviews, with no success. One major problem that I have encountered is that interviewers seem to like asking: “Tell me about yourself.” I fumble and stumble and mumble and come up short. I can actually see the interviewers losing interest in me. Needless to say, the rest of the interview goes downhill from there. Please help. How do I answer to keep myself in the running? A: Many interviewers like to get under way with: “Tell me about yourself.” As you have experienced, the interviewee’s response can set the tone for the interview. Candidates who are well prepared for interviews welcome the question as an opportunity to showcase their qualifications. Those who have not taken the time to reflect on what to say during interviews regard the question as a trap and rightly so; they spring it on themselves. Candidates often wonder where to start, what the interviewer would like to hear. They sometimes ask the interviewer whether he or she wants to know something personal or professional. That is a mistake. You have control over your answer; do not relinquish it. Another common error is to provide a lengthy life story, from birth to present, filled with details, regardless of their relevance. It is a sure way to exhaust your allotted interview time, and your interviewer, with information that provides very little insight into whether you are a good fit for the position. To respond well, you must have an agenda for the interview. Determine three to five facts, generally accomplishments, which you must convey before leaving the interview. Accomplishments can include skills that you use effectively, in-depth knowledge of your practice area, awards, relevant course work, and any other qualifications relevant to the position for which you are interviewing. If you are relocating, a significant fact is your connection to the area. To select your most marketable qualities, review your entire resume. There may be several related items that can be grouped under one umbrella heading. For example, if you excel in writing and advising clients, you could say that you are known for your communication skills. With respect to each accomplishment, you must have at least one concrete, interesting example that demonstrates your abilities. Generalities are less likely to stick in the interviewer’s mind. Specifics make you memorable. They make it possible for the interviewer to distinguish you from the other candidates. Of course, you have to choose the right details so that you are remembered in a positive light. To illustrate, let’s return to communication skills: you could give an example of the way that you drafted a complicated trust and explained it so that the client understood and appreciated what was achieved. When providing an example, be concise. Do not ramble. Generally, any answer that extends beyond one to two minutes is too long. Do not wait for the interviewer’s eyes to glaze. If you plan to discuss a legal issue, be prepared to provide a brief factual context, the precise issue, the legal rule, a short analysis, and a conclusion. Be sure to choose an issue with a favorable outcome for your position. Your agenda may change from one interview to the next, depending on the employer’s focus. For example, if one employer is seeking a trusts and estates attorney with expertise in elder law and another employer requires experience in estate administration, you will emphasize your substantive knowledge and skills related to elder law in the first instance and your abilities in estate administration in the latter situation. To be more specific, in preparing for an interview with the elder law employer, consider the issues that are most relevant to its practice, the documents that you prepared, and the clients that you represented. Without disclosing privileged information, be prepared to discuss a difficult matter that you successfully resolved. Once you have determined your agenda points, you must be clear about what you are going to say. Become comfortable with the material. If you have to rehearse, be careful that you do not overdo it so that you sound like you are making a speech. Be conversational. Let your personality show. When you know how to answer “Tell me about yourself,” you are ready for just about any other question an interviewer can throw at you. In the process, you have reviewed the entries on your resume and can handle questions about each of them. You can also use your agenda to answer the other questions that often stump interviewees, such as: “Why should we hire you?” or “Why are you qualified for this position?” or “What distinguishes you from the many qualified candidates that we have already interviewed?” or “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” or “What would your current employer say about you?” or “How would you describe yourself?” You cannot control the questions that the interviewer asks. You can control your answers. In many cases, you can use the question as a springboard from which to segue to one of your agenda points. By preparing for your interview, you can transform every interview from an inquisition to a conversation, and you can turn every question from a trap that stumps you into an opportunity that advances you. Linda E. Laufer is a career consultant and former practicing attorney.

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