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The Effective Paralegal Interview

published February 07, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing
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( 3 votes, average: 3.6 out of 5)
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Most paralegal applicants have a good array of skills and wonderful personalities. The interview is just the place where some are more effective than others at getting their skills and their personalities across.

Sometimes the jobs just go to the best interviewees, and yet it just takes a little work to become a good interviewee! New paralegals face two challenges. Not only do paralegals face the most obvious challenge of interviewing for employment, but, at the same time, they must gain access to a new and special profession through that interview.

Getting ready for, going to, and participating in an interview is challenging, nerve-wracking, and for some, dreadful. Yet the formal interview is the way people get work. In fact, the majority of the hiring process takes place in the interview. There are enough other factors in the interview process to make it the palm-moistening, mouth-drying event that it is, but that factor alone turns knees into jelly and sets hearts aflutter. It helps sometimes to ponder the elements involved. As one student, with a sense of humor, put it, first, it's like public speaking, so it makes you sweat even if you're enjoying it. Then, it is personal stuff about yourself, and that makes most of us very uncomfortable. Then, we realize that "they're interviewing lots of others, too" and this builds resentment, and after all this, we say "yeah, but what if they want me?!"

When you think about it this way, you wonder how people do as well as they do in the interview process.

Throw in, then, the additional challenge of entering a new world-the legal profession-and we have this double challenge. Thousands of paralegals have faced these challenges successfully over the last two decades, but it still remains a special assignment.

Let's construct a working definition of an effective legal interview so that we can show how the aspiring paralegal can face this dual challenge.

Following this definition will give you a successful formula for planning a winning presentation in the interview:

An effective legal interview is a warm, enthusiastic, and poised presentation of your qualifications, background, and skills as they relate to the legal profession. Your professional persona should reflect standards and values consistent with the legal profession. Your well-constructed presentation is directed and focused upon a specific job and /firm, as you work to build a mutual intensity of interest that culminates in a feeling and a sense that you could be a part of the team.

Now, let's examine several elements of this definition.

Warm and Enthusiastic-- In an interview, you must believe that all of your past experiences and situations have come together to build a fine professional candidate who is worthy of consideration. The presentation you make must be made with self-esteem, strength, a positive attitude, and a glowing sense that you are a worthy candidate. Even though the field of law might seem a bit intimidating at first, be assured that meekness, weakness, or an unsure approach is generally ineffective in an interview.

Poised Presentation-- All new paralegals should be sure of the content of their background, education, skills, and other pertinent parts of their presentations. The more familiar you are with this "tale," the more poised you will be in making it. There is nothing wrong with a little rehearsal.

Of Your Qualifications, Background, and Skills-- What many people's presentations lack is how to transfer their skills to the present job opportunity. A legal interview should go to legal concerns. The simple chronological recounting of the events of your life, without "filtering" it for legal and paralegal issues, can sound like you are only in need of a job and have nothing of special value to bring to the position.

And Your Professional Persona-- Along with the proper clothing, your demeanor should reflect a person who is up to the challenge of the world of the law. This may require an extra dose of confidence, but for some it also might require extra restraint and seriousness. You should reflect the middle road of confidence and stability. There are as many people who come on too strong as come on too weak.

Focused on Specific Job and Firm-- Many job seekers do not listen while the interview is going on. A lot of essential information is given during the interview which helps the creative and responsible job seeker design the presentation for both the job being described and the firm in which they are interviewing.

Remember, you are trying to get invited to be a part of a "professional family." You must gear your presentations to both the job and the environment and people in which that job will take place.

Mutual Intensity of Interest-- The effective legal interview is an active process. If you passively participate in the interview, such as by simply answering questions you are asked, you are missing an opportunity to build enthusiasm on your part and theirs. Often the person who is hired is the one who was able to express the most interest in the job and get the hiring firm excited about their interest. As one recent hire put it, "I knew I had the job when they got as excited as I was. It was almost as if my enthusiasm was reflected back to me, and then it turned into an offer."

A Part of the Team-- Because the special world of the law has some characteristics that make it unique, the "team" is a strong concept. The need for confidentiality creates in firm members the realization that they can only talk with their coworkers about their work. The high stakes, and win-lose atmosphere also offers camaraderie among firm members. This is true of all work settings, but it is especially true of the high drama, confidentiality, competitiveness, and tension of the law. When you interview for a job as a paralegal, you are not trying to get a spot on a production line, performing one highly skilled task. You are trying to join a small group of people who will be working very closely together under varying circumstances in an array of work situations. The people you interview with will be looking at your skills and qualifications, but they will also be looking at your potential as a team player.

This is an aspect of the legal interview that unsuccessful interviewees often forget, and successful job seekers have in the forefront of their minds.

Interviewing in the world of the law firm

Five particular characteristics bear on hiring practices. Once you have worked in the legal environment for a time, these characteristics will just seem like normal descriptions of the professional terrain; when you are new, they can befuddle and confuse you, cause apprehension, and perhaps keep you from getting hired for a job that you really wanted.

Often, the challenge of getting hired for your first paralegal job will be to fit into the special individuality of a small firm. Since many entry paralegal jobs are with sole practitioners and small firms, you must be ready to quickly analyze a host of factors from location, practice area, personality types, and age of the firm. Most important, do not interview with preconceptions about the firm's individuality and personal style.

Individuality vs. homogeneity

Law firms are entrepreneurial professional practices that grow into various sizes and cultures. They all have a unique style and personality.

They cultivate a special individuality and do not attempt the same look or identity. The personalities of the founding dominant partners will determine much of that special flavor. Some firms will be quiet and austere, others manic and active; some will be relaxed and friendly, others will be uptown, downtown, or suburban in attitude or style. The point here is that you cannot count on any one consistent kind of look for law firms.

Conservative and traditional

You may find some urban firms where you will see long hair, open collars, and a relaxed style, but those are exceptions. Expect to see a conservative and traditional world. Even with their unique personalities, styles, and cultures, law firms are still conservative and traditional. In the interview phase, in which you are still a stranger, you must hold to the image that the world you are entering was built upon generations of laws, cases, social values, political systems, and certain unwavering standards.

The effective legal interview is one that sounds and feels like a dialogue with an associate in the firm. You must educate yourself on terminology, buzz words, nomenclature, and vocabulary that is of that world.

Review your class notes and texts so that you can prepare yourself for specific kinds of practice area discussions. Immerse yourself in internship or externship experiences so that you can learn the language of those involved in the daily business of a dynamic, busy law office. Just remember that you, as the employable paralegal, should interview as a good solid citizen, an individual of strong values and standards, and a reliable person.

Serious and earnest

You will discover as you interview and, eventually, work in the field of law that everyone is in earnest about their practices. The law is a place where disputes are settled and business is done. Money is almost always passing hands and lives are always being affected. In this environment, people get serious. Everyone "plays for keeps." It does not matter if the lawsuit is about a dog bite or custody of a favorite cat-it's a lawsuit!

One of the keys to effective interviewing is to reflect your seriousness without being grave. Be warm, without being flip. Get people to talk about their practices-most everyone loves to talk about their practice, and they definitely love to talk to people who are interested in that practice. One paralegal graduate recently said, 'I was told I was hired because I was the most interested in the practice area."


One attorney seeking to make a point in an interview once said, "If 3:00 on Tuesday afternoon is our deadline, then that is the most important date that week. Work in this place happens when it happens. You must be ready for it." The world you are now entering can get dramatic and intense at any time, on any day, depending upon the docket. The work flow is not predictable. As a successful interviewee, you must portray yourself as practical, hardworking, and eager to get the job done.


Lawyers are in a special group. They went to law school and passed into a community of professionals. The firms that arise from this Interviewing in the World of the Law Firm community of professionals have exclusivity about them. Paralegals have educational and experiential requirements. Legal secretaries also have extensive training and experiential requirements. New paralegals must present themselves as professionals, but understand that they are not yet a part of the club. Law firms are teams of tightly knit professionals who have all become familiar with one another and have become accustomed to each others' behaviors and patterns. When a new person joins this "family” the real test (after qualifying them) is whether they think they will be able to get along with the new person. An interviewee who communicates attractive warmth, ease, and diplomacy will probably have an edge.

You should be seeing a clear picture of law firms developing, as each of these qualities works off the other. Law firms tend to be individuated, deadline-oriented, serious places that are conservative and intense, populated with teams of highly trained professionals who must work closely with one another and face changing and sometimes dramatic work flow changes. This description by no means pretends to depict the totality of law firm life, but these factors are paramount in the interview process. The well-trained and prepared paralegal applicant considers these elements when constructing his or her presentations.

Types of legal interviews

With the definition of an effective legal interview discussed earlier in mind, and an appreciation for some of the main characteristics of the legal environment into which you are seeking entrance, let's now consider some basic kinds of interviews that you may encounter.

The non-adversarial chat

This is a very common kind of interview. Friendly and apparently unorganized, it is decidedly non-adversarial and relaxed. The interviewer may seem to jump around from subject to subject. They talk about one aspect of the job, then they will talk about a strong personality in the office, then they will ask a question of the interviewee. The interview will tend to meander like this. Keep in mind that the interviewer does have priorities, even if they are difficult to discern. You need to read between the lines and avoid becoming lax or complacent about the interview.

Assume that the questions the interviewer comes back to are the ones he or she cares about. Highlight different aspects of your background or a key skill for what seems to be revealing itself in the interview. It is easy to feel you have done well, or feel unsure about your performance in these non-directed organized cool tense groups of interviewers. The types of interviews are: the cross-examination, and the court of inquiry,

The cross-examination

This interview is organized and methodical. Often the interviewer is using written notes and materials. The interviewer does not seem to care whether you feel comfortable or not. He or she might make an attempt to be friendly, but you have the feeling it is because their notes probably told them to. Don't be rattled; try to give complete responses. Don’t over- answer or grope for answers trying to respond too completely. These interviews test your mettle and your enthusiasm. You can easily feel you have done poorly in these interviews. You may do very well, in fact, but feel terrible. Do not be disturbed. One of the purposes for this kind of interview is to determine if you can handle the pressure. Remember, these interviewers are deliberately not showing many feelings.

The court of inquiry

Interviews with two, three, or more people are inherently difficult because you are dealing with different styles and personalities, which may range from gushy to friendly to distant to malicious-all in the same room. The key here is to remember your strengths, and enjoy. If one person rattles you, at least you can take solace in the fact that someone else's question will be coming up soon. You can have fun with these types of legal interviews. One person recently said that she feels she can ''work the room" with this type of interview. Humor often works best in these interviews. A group feeling develops that can work for you if it goes well.

Unfortunately, those who are timid can appear absolutely mute unless they have practiced and developed an interview mind-set that keeps their attitude upbeat.

Interviewing Style

Contrary to what you may have heard, the legal interview is not a lion's den, but an arena with special qualities. The special qualities affect both style and kind. We've just looked at the kinds of interviews; now, let's consider different styles. Be conscious of the style, but don't get taken in by style. "Style," as opposed to "kind," has more to do with the individual's approach to you and not to the interviewing situation.

Most legal interviews are very pleasant and positive experiences.

Most non-adversarial chats are conducted by those who are "disarming, charming, and non-alarming." Attorneys are excellent at getting the relaxation response from job candidates. This is generally good, because the interviewees tend to relax and perform in a confident manner. The caveat here is that interviewees relax too much, reveal too much, open up too much, and generally talk too much. Answers become overly long and meandering. It is almost as if the relief felt in the interview causes an overly familiar style that, in the end, offends. Keep your composure at all times in the interview process, no matter how relieved and elated you may feel.

The distant, remote, cool style

If someone is remote and cold, don't respond in kind. Try to measure your responses and temper yourself, but do not be dragged down by the gravity of their dignified bearing. Stick to your bio, be yourself, sell your skills, and stay upbeat and enthusiastic. Those who are too nervous will probably be muted by this style and thus descend into quietude. The cocky and nervous will chatter and could disqualify themselves. It is the composed, upbeat, positive, and buoyant interview that will make an impression.

The professorial style

If a lawyer or administrator gives you a "mini bar exam" and tests your memory and intellect, do your best, but get in your story, stay enthusiastic, and don't lose your cool. If your memory serves you well and you know all the answers, very good. If your memory does not serve you well, talk about how the paralegal knows where to find the answer and has the willingness to pursue a question until she gets an answer. The worst response is to gnarl up inside and get red-faced because you are not passing their test. Remember, you do not know how other candidates have fared: It may be a test of your poise as much as of your knowledge.

The distracted, irritated, gruff style

Many attorneys interview "on the run," in the middle of their busy day. If someone is distracted, antagonistic, and gruff, it is probably a matter of temperament and a busy schedule. Do not take it personally.

Keep your poise, stay professional, generate enthusiasm, call it an adventure, and do your best. Those who interview this way do so because their day is one up-and-down roller coaster ride, and they are taking just a few minutes out to talk to you. If you get your story in and declare your virtues positively, the interviewer may be very impressed. You must get this interviewer's attention with a professional presentation. A muted and intimidated presentation will not win the day.

See the following articles for more information:

published February 07, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing
( 3 votes, average: 3.6 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.