Preparing for interviews is a frequent topic of conversation with candidates. This month, I offer 10 top tips for gearing up for a legal job interview. In so doing, the focus will be on essentials, as there are nuances that differentiate many aspects of an interview of a partner (rather than associate) and a general counsel (as compared to a more junior in-house lawyer).
1. Be Serious About the Opportunity
You should not pursue a job opportunity and accept an interview “just to see what’s out there.” You should be mentally committed to accepting the job if what was disclosed to you about the opportunity is confirmed, the fit is good, and other factors (such as compensation) are proven, at the end of the process, to be in line with expectations.
Don’t pursue an opportunity to polish your interviewing skills or to bring back an offer to your current employer that you hope will be matched or bettered. You will be wasting everyone’s time and will endanger your reputation with all involved in the process — including your current employer, who most likely will not match or will otherwise forever look at you with a jaundiced eye and wonder when you actually will leave.
2. Prepare, Prepare and Prepare Some More
It is impossible to be too ready for an interview. This is particularly the case for lawyers, whose hallmark is preparation.
Review publicly available information on the employer. The Internet is replete with sites (including the employer’s own) that are fertile sources of information. Talk to friends or colleagues who know something about the employer — the six degrees of separation theory is clearly in play here. You probably have connections that are only one or two steps removed. LinkedIn is likely to reveal at least a few of those people.
There are some questions that you know will be asked: the six-month gap on your résumé; your biggest accomplishment; and the reason why you are leaving, to name just a few. Knock these out of the park — practice your answers, especially if it is a difficult question for you to handle.
3. Be On Time
Absent catastrophe or some other extraordinary event, you absolutely have to be on time — in fact, plan on arriving 10-15 minutes early, to be safe. Your own knowledge of the area or online research should have revealed the best means to travel to the employer’s site — don’t scramble to figure this out on your way out the door. Assume there will be a traffic jam or that the train will be late that day.
4. Be Ready and courteous
Assume, once you walk in the door, that you could immediately be whisked into the interview. Thus, cellphones and all other electronic devices should be turned off. Your hands should be empty — no coffee, newspapers or other materials that could be spilled or dropped should be in your grasp. If you have a briefcase, it should be closed and should not have papers spilling out of it. Be ready, with a smile on your face, to shake hands and say hello.
And, when you do say hello, don’t just “turn it on” for the seemingly most important people you meet. A prospective employer evaluates how you interact with everyone — whether it is the CEO, a junior lawyer or the receptionist. It is a huge mistake if you only treat the decision makers appropriately. It is axiomatic that companies and firms want team players — conduct of that sort will be conveyed to the decision maker and will doom your candidacy.
5. Be Honest
Duplicity will come back to haunt you, whether it is detected at the offer stage or even years after you have joined the employer. Stories have abounded of executives, coaches and professionals in all fields whose careers have been decimated by the discovery of a misrepresentation in their background. Don’t mislead the interviewer, even if it is a white lie. It just may be that the fact that terrifies you, such as a termination, may actually redound to your benefit. Your handling of a tough situation and demonstration of how you grew from the experience could actually separate you from others who have not experienced hard times.
6. Be Aware of Body Language
I have discussed this topic in the past and it is one on which many tomes have been written. Some basics on your end: sit up straight, don’t fold your arms (it connotes you are closed-minded and not at ease), move toward your interviewer (but don’t invade his or her space), and don’t be fidgety.
Similarly, follow the clues from your interviewer: a frown in response to one of your answers or drumming of his or her fingers on the desk are signs that you are not connecting and need to get things on track.
7. Let Your Interviewer Set the Pace
Even the most no-holds-barred litigator would be well advised not to try to take charge of the interview. This raises an immediate red flag with the interviewer, who will wonder how well you can assimilate into a group. You are much better served to follow the interviewer’s lead and match his or her style. If he or she painstakingly walks you through aspects of the job, sit tight and similarly discuss, in detail, how you would fit in. If the interview comes at you with banter and provocative questions, don’t be afraid to respond in kind.
There may be lulls in the conversation, or things may start off slowly. In such cases, getting your interviewer to talk about him or herself can be very beneficial, since it connotes interest and touches on a favorite topic of most people: themselves. Keep such inquiries focused on business or readily apparent hobbies (such as golf if you see a framed score card in an office) and do not probe into sensitive personal areas.
8. Don’t Be Critical of Others
You may have worked for Attila the Hun or toiled away night after night for the most reviled company. An interview with a prospective employer is not the time to unleash a cathartic torrent of invective against those miscreants. You inevitably will be tarred by your tale and the interviewer, no matter how sympathetic, may feel you are tainted. Instead, put a positive spin on things: talk about how you overcame some challenging situations, grew from the experience and now feel that you are equipped to handle virtually anything that is thrown your way.
9. Have Your Questions Ready, But Don’t Fire Away
The first part of most interviews is one that allows the interviewer to explore your background and test how good of a fit you may be. The second stage is typically the time for you to ask questions; in fact, most interviewers will clearly ask if you have any such questions. Wait for that moment and be prepared for it. Ask cogent questions, particularly those that relate to the job and will allow you to better gauge whether this is a fit for you.
In so doing, however, it is not time to live out your fantasy of being a “60 Minutes” correspondent by blasting away with a series of questions that puts the interviewer on the defensive. Ask your questions, even tough ones that relate to a negative development, in a friendly manner and allow your interviewer to fully provide answers.
10. Do Not Raise issue of Compensation
This is an area in which even some of the brightest and best make a fatal misstep. Do not raise the issue of compensation unless the interviewer first discusses it. If you are working with a recruiter, your current compensation should have already been disclosed. There is no need for you to probe on this point during the interview (especially during the first session), as this telegraphs to the interviewer that a driving force for you is money, which can kill your candidacy. You very well may be underpaid, and, if your value is demonstrated through the process, that should be rectified when an offer is extended. •
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.