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Take Care of Looks: Legal Job Interview

published February 25, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 65 votes, average: 4.9 out of 5)
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Before you open your mouth in a legal job interview, the interviewer will have an opportunity (however brief) to see how you look, how you dress, how you walk, and how you carry yourself. Since first impressions are lasting ones, you need to be very concerned about those fleeting first moments when the interviewer is "sizing you up." This is not a "Dress for Success" book by any means, and you should follow closely the suggestions made by John Molloy in his two classic books -- Dress for Success and Women's Dress for Success -- which you can find in just about any bookstore. I have found, however, that there are a few special rules for lawyers who are interviewing with other lawyers, and they deserve special mention here.

Dressing for Success

The key word here is "dull". Dull, dull, dull! The slightest hint of glitz, glamour, high fashion or sexiness will usually be enough to turn a lawyer-interviewer right off. Remember that one of your goals is to appear "low-key" and understated during a legal job interview. Similarly, your look should be "low-key" and muted in both color and style. For both men and women, the preferred color scheme is the same: navy blue or charcoal grey suit, a white shirt or blouse, and a maroon tie (either a solid maroon or a "club" tie with small ~ very small - repetitive designs on it). While it is certainly true that different regions of the United States have different customs when it comes to business dress (California is more casual, for example, than the Northeast), you cannot go wrong with a conservative, buttoned-down look that says "I am a professional; I take my work seriously." When in doubt, tone it down and take no chances; remember that your goal is not to knock the interviewer's socks off with your highly developed ability to co-ordinate colors, but rather to avoid making a negative impression. Your clothing should be a neutral factor in the decision made about your fit for the job; ideally the interviewer should not even notice what you are wearing.

Regarding perfumes and after shaves, the best smell in a legal job interview is no smell at all. Jewelry should be muted or nonexistent (except of course for wedding or engagement rings, as they indicate a certain stability in one's personal life).

What about a briefcase or other accessory? There is one school of thought that carrying a briefcase into an interview is a good idea, as it gives the interviewer an idea of how you will look when you walk into the firm (or company) each day. I personally do not subscribe to this theory; an interviewer knows that you do not walk around all day carrying a briefcase, and may suspect you are "brown nosing' him.

I normally do not carry anything with me during an interview; I leave my briefcase in the closet by the reception area, along with my topcoat, rubbers and umbrella (if it is raining). If the interviewer wants to see what I look like on the subway, he is welcome to escort me out of the office in person and watch while I put these things on.

I do, however, keep a spare copy of my resume in my suit jacket pocket; many times the interviewer will not have this handy on his desk (or it will be buried beneath his many piles of paperwork), and it makes you look organized if you can spare him the indignity of tearing through the mess on his desk before you can begin the interview (incidentally, it also prevents you from rehashing your resume verbally while the interviewer takes notes --- an awkward, undesirable and risky venture, because you want to be past the point where your credentials are being closely scrutinized).

Your Physical Appearance

First impressions are everything, and social psychologists tell us that (sadly) first impressions are almost always the result of our reaction to a person's physical appearance. To put it simply, we are more likely to think good things about people we find personally attractive than about people we find personally repulsive.

It goes without saying that your body should be clean (I shower twice a day), your shirt and suit clean and pressed, your tie stainless, your hair clean and brushed in a conservative style (no spikes or ponytails). But your efforts should go beyond this; if your face is inclined to moles, you should have them removed if the cost is reasonable (but not right before the interview; ugly scars will make it hard for the interviewer to look at you straight on). If your teeth are crooked, you should visit an orthodontist about having them straightened. If your face bears the ravaging scars of acute acne, you should consider having your face "sanded" or some other minor cosmetic surgery performed. If your eyeglass frames do not "fit" your face it will look ludicrous (some people can wear tortoise shell horn rims, while others look better in aviator rims); visit an optometrist and get yourself fitted for contacts or an aesthetically more attractive frame.

A dark tan is definitely not a good idea, as it signals that you have a healthy, vibrant personal life outside of work which lawyers don't have - at best they will think that you are not committed to the law, at worst they will be jealous of your lifestyle. A slight "lawyer's pallor" or paleness in the face is actually an asset in a legal job interview; it signals you are hard working and able to stand up to the long hours that young lawyers must spend while they are apprenticing at their craft. Which brings us to beards and other forms of facial hair: sometimes facial hair is acceptable, but most of the time it is not. It is a prejudice of the lawyer's life that his appearance must not turn off clients, and there are quite a few clients (at least in the business world) who think that beards and moustaches should be worn only by college professors and anarchists. Again, the emphasis is not on personal style or popular taste; I personally happen to like beards, and sported a moustache in my youth.

Only you can judge if your prospective employer is flexible enough to "let you be yourself while on the job; generally lawyers are much more tolerant of people's eccentricities than are other professionals (in most large corporations, for example, beards are absolutely taboo). I have found, however, that long term success in the legal profession often means carrying yourself in such a way that you alienate the fewest possible number of people; few people will dislike you because you don't have facial hair, while a considerable number will dislike you because you do. The decision is yours and yours alone, but if your grades are not top-notch, or you do not have enough portable business to sustain yourself, I suggest you err on the side of conformity for a while before you decide to set yourself apart from the madding crowd.

Habits and Body Language

Idiosyncrasies do not sit well with interviewers generally. If you have any tics or habits, such as biting your nails or fidgeting, you must learn to control these before entering the interview room. One good way to control your hands is to practice three standard positions --arms resting on your chair's arms with your hands holding onto (but not gripping for dear life) the ends of the armrests, hands folded in front of you, one arm resting on the chair's arm while the other hand is resting on the opposite knee (for example, if your left arm is resting on the chair's armrest, your right hand should be on your right knee in a relaxed position) -- and shift from one to the other periodically during the interview.

Note that psychologists tell us it is bad body language to cross your arms in front of you; such a position is essentially defensive, and signals suspicion or distrust of what is being said. Accordingly, this is a position you should avoid during an interview - do not fold your arms across your chest, for ex-ample, and do not wrap one arm around your waist while the other rests on the chair's armrest. Similarly, you should always face the interviewer head on, and not turn your left or right side towards him at any point.

How to Sit and Where to Sit

Your feet should remain firmly on the floor (no nervous tapping) and your posture should be roughly 90 degrees from the floor (no slouching over or leaning back in your chair). A common interviewing strategy is to offer you a plush chair or sofa, while the interviewer retains a straight-backed chair; if you are like me you will inevitably find yourself sinking lower and lower into the cushy chair's upholstery, such that the interviewer will be looking down at you throughout the interview. If given the choice you should always sit in a straight-backed chair.

Some interviewing offices are set up in such a way that you and the interviewer have two seating options: you either will sit on one side of the interviewer's desk while the inter-viewer sits on the other, or there will be an arrangement of chairs and sofas that will create for awkward moments as each of you figure out where to sit. In the latter case my preference is to let the interviewer sit down first, and then pick a chair or sofa as close to the interviewer as possible in which I am facing ninety degrees away from the interviewer (in other words, I am not looking him straight on, nor are we facing the same direction).

I find that this sends the desired warm signal that I am one of "his kind of people" (because we are not at odds with each other) while at the same time respecting the necessary formality of an interview situation (we are not sitting "on the same side of the table", at least not yet). If there is more than one interviewer, I make sure that my back is not turned to anyone, and that I am facing all of the interviewers as straight on as possible (to avoid the "ping-pong" effect of turning this way and that as questions are asked). If the interviewers position themselves such that this is not possible, I usually determine which of the interviewers has the most "clout" and position myself in the strongest position relative to him. For example, if I am being interviewed by a partner and an associate, and the two position themselves opposite each other, I will sit in between them but with the chair moved to the partner's side so that the associate can look at me and the partner as if we were equals. I will be at my preferred ninety-degree angle to the partner, while the partner will not be tempted to compare me with the associate as would be the case if the associate and I sat closely together.

Another example: if the partner and associate were to sit directly next to each other in what I call the "united front" formation, rather than sit directly across from them I would choose instead to sit at a ninety degree angle to the partner, on the opposite side of the partner from the associate (this usually forces the associate to adjust his position so as to break up the "united front", since otherwise he cannot look at me straight on).

Now, you may think that some of this game of "musical chairs" is simply silly. You are, after all, being reviewed on the strength of your credentials and perceived "fit" for the job, right? What does it matter where you sit, for crying out loud? Rather than disagree with you (frankly, much of this sort of thing is quite silly), I would simply point out that in many delicate international negotiations, in which war and peace may be at stake, the delegates (or their representatives) normally spend a great deal of time in determining the seating order. Obviously they consider it important that adversaries not be perceived by the press or public as friends or allies, and vice versa. They consider it important; why shouldn't you? The competition for legal positions is fierce these days, and you cannot afford to be "screened out" because of a silly thing having nothing whatever to do with what really counts: how good a lawyer you are (or have the promise of becoming).

Eye Contact

How much eye contact should you maintain with the interviewer? Generally, you should position yourself so that your face is always in the interviewer's plain view, facing him straight on. You should maintain eye contact as much as possible, especially when you are answering one of the inter-viewer's questions, as this is viewed as a sign of sincerity and openness. However, you should not stare at him too closely, or follow his glance wherever it may roam. At best, this will make the interviewer uncomfortable; at worst (and especially if the two of you are of opposite sexes), it may be misread as taking a more personal interest in the interviewer than you might intend!

On the other hand, your eyes should not "wander"; a good solution is to allow your eyes to focus on points that are generally in the area of the interviewer's head, but without turning your head or otherwise appear to be looking away from the interviewer.

This problem of eye contact becomes especially acute when there are multiple interviewers. On the one hand, you don't want to appear to be playing to one interviewer at the expense of another (you don't, after all, really know who has the more clout); on the other hand, you don't want to seem like the spectator at a tennis or ping-pong match whose head moves perpetually back and forth while following the bouncing ball.

A good way to avoid this, as mentioned earlier, is to position your chair so that you are not caught directly between interviewers, and can look in the general direction of both (or all) while allowing your glance to move to the person who is speaking at that moment. Another good way to strike the right balance (especially if you are "caught in the middle" of a ping-pong situation) is to look at the person who is talking and, if the other asks a question, tilt your head in the direction of the person speaking while looking at a point equidistant between the two interviewers; by doing this you appear to be thinking about your answer in a way that does not make either interviewer think you are ignoring him.

See the following articles for more information:

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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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