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Nailing the Interview

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I work daily with hiring managers in the legal industry, many of whom are former or practicing attorneys. After years of work in the legal recruiting business, I've observed that numerous hiring managers generally lack intuitive interviewing skills. The explanation is simple. On average, attorney hiring only occurs a few times a year, providing hiring authorities within these legal firms and companies little opportunity to practice and hone interviewing.

Nailing the Interview


How can this benefit you, an attorney looking to transfer to another position? You are an experienced attorney with years of practice under your belt. You've interviewed for many positions, and you understand the inner workings of the legal work environment; but you may be overlooking some key interviewing points. If you have made it to the interview, you—and everyone else who is being interviewed—have the right credentials and resume. How you portray yourself in the interview will affect who gets the position. Show who you are, what you have learned, and the value you can bring.

You are the interviewee, the one whose personality, background, and skills are being assessed to determine your fit. Even though your counterpart may not ask the right questions, you can provide the right answers. Use this opportunity to take control of the situation and reveal information about your career, personality, and desires. Remember that a hiring authority generally forms an opinion of you within the first few minutes of an interview.

The goal is to obtain employment with a firm or corporate law department, where your talent and efforts are recognized, valued, and appreciated. How can you be sure you've left the interview knowing that you were fully understood? More important, how do you ensure that the firm is desperate to add you to the team? Sell yourself well.

The following guidelines will refresh your interviewing skills and may provide new techniques:
 
  • Show a steady evolution of your career. Provide a vision for the interviewer, detailing the evolution of your career.
  • How has your career evolved over the years?
  • Describe what's prepared you for your current career?
  • How can all of this lead to your future career?
  • Why does it apply to this specific company?

For example, a law firm attorney wants to change the direction of his career and become a general counsel, but there are objections to overcome. General counsels typically carry more generalist roles, overseeing several legal aspects and tasks of a company, where law firm attorneys are specialists, focusing on one area. And this attorney has never run a corporate law department. How does he use his specialist work to justify his position to quality for a general counsel? This is his time to highlight career evolution and direction and provide information not obviously expressed in his resume. Although he specialized with the firm, he also oversaw a department of several practicing attorneys, which provided him general legal management experience. His next task is to carry that daily management from his law firm to performing general counsel duties.
 
  • Connect with your interviewer. It is often noted that the success of an interview depends upon your ability to discern the employer's needs and identify with the interviewer. It's true for the legal community as well. Besides empathy, there are several ways to establish a relationship and build good rapport.
     
  • Technical interest. Take the time to understand the firm/company and its values, positions, and stances on situations. What distinguishes a successful interviewee from a mediocre one is someone who shows a technical interest in the fine points of the company. What does the company do better than any other in the industry, and how can you contribute to that success? How are your work accomplishments and personality traits conducive to the company's policies and beliefs? Do the research on past litigation strategies, and know the technical detail of the company. Communicate with the interviewer that you admire his/her business strategies, and explain why and how you do business the same way. Provide specific examples.
     
  • Enthusiasm and Confidence. This seems obvious to most interviewees, but there is a fine line to keep in mind when interviewing. You want to convey confidence without portraying arrogance. A great way to keep consistency is through proper preparation.
     
  • Intensity. Intensity refers to your interest and control within the interview. Often, this is a born skill, but it can be learned. Be sure not to interrupt or finish the interviewer's thoughts. Talk when it's your turn, and communicate with confidence and spirit. But don't nod too much. You want the interviewer to know you are engaged and interested, not overbearing.
     
  • Personal Interests. Be personal. Ask the interviewer to tell you his/her story. He/She will generally take well to that question and appreciate your interest in his/her personal and professional lives. When the hiring authority has shared his/her story, he/she will ask you to give a brief overview of yourself. When providing your answer, you should find a way to draw a straight line between your initial career conception and this exact job. Your personality should reflect your business interests; make the connection for the interviewer. Everything in your overview and presentation of qualifications should mirror you were born to do this job and have been preparing for it your entire life. Explain your work ethic by tying personal background and details into your story. For example, completing difficult farm work as a child may contribute to a strong work ethic as a practicing attorney, or participating in competitive sports throughout your life may reflect your competitive nature in business and distinguish you from everyone else.

At a minimum, be prepared to answer the following questions. While these questions may seem trite, they are often used for experienced attorneys. Putting thought into them prior to the interview and applying them specifically to the position for which you are interviewing will increase your chances.
 
  • Why do you want to leave your present firm?
  • Where do you see your career going from here (one year, five years, ten years)?
  • What do you perceive to be your greatest strengths? [List strengths that are traits sought in this position.]
  • What are your biggest weaknesses? [Passively present additional strengths.]
  • What drives you? What are your passions and motivations?

Additionally, ask questions that are important to your daily work environment. This will show the interviewer that you are truly interested in the details and demonstrate your level of experience and understanding. Here are some examples:

 
  • How does the typical day of an associate here differ from other firms in which you've worked?
    • Here, you are providing the interviewer an opportunity to talk about himself/herself, while providing yourself the opportunity to learn more about the interviewer.
  • Of the associates who have worked for you, what have been the greatest attributes they possessed?
    • This presents more depth through personalization. You are asking the interviewer's opinion based on experience, instead of just asking a more generic question, such as, "What are good attributes of an associate?"
  • What are the biggest misconceptions people have about this firm/company?
    • Asking public perception illustrates your concern for the firm/company's reputation and shows your interest. Give examples of common misconceptions of your firm/company to begin the conversation.

Most attorneys move laterally within the first five years to increase prestige or opportunity in their specific concentration. After the eight-to-ten-year mark, attorneys will generally make a move when a partnership eludes them, moving to a smaller firm or transferring their skills in-house. Whatever your case, heed this advice; and use it to your advantage. You can control the outcome of your interview, especially with those interviewers who are less advanced. Remember to be specific, confident, relaxed, personal, and genuine. Make the connection, and you'll leave the interview confident the job is yours.

Clint Johnson is the Managing Partner of Lucas Group Legal in Houston, TX.
 
Interested in More Interview Advice?
 
See the following articles for more information:
 

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