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More than any other rule, there is one rule you must keep foremost in your mind during a legal job interview. It is the key to success; disobeying or flaunting this rule is, in my opinion, the single biggest cause of being "screened out" in a legal job interview. It is a simple rule to remember, and yet is difficult to apply in practice, both because it runs counter to a lawyer's nature, and because it contradicts the advice given in countless books on interviewing (which, you will recall, are devoted to the professional interviewer or human resources executive, not the lawyer interviewer). It takes a lot of guts to follow this rule, but I guarantee that your interviewing performance will improve dramatically if you discipline yourself to follow it rigorously.
So what is this miracle rule? I can state it many ways, but it all boils down to five simple words:
SAY AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE
That's it! That's all there is to it! The rule more than any other will help you get ahead in.
As my Italian-American grandmother used to say, "Keep-a you bigga mouth shut, so you don't getta no flies in there!" Or, as my high school history teacher used to say, "In writing your essays for the final exam, be sure to keep them short, because the more you say, the more likely you are to make a mistake."
SAY AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE
I call this the "20/80 Rule": I do not consider any legal job interview a success if, upon reflection, I conclude that I have done more than 20 percent of the total talking, and the interviewer has done less than 80 percent of the total talking (in other words, we weren't just sitting there staring at each other in stony silence).
Consider the story of my two interviews with Firm A and Firm B. I thought I did wonderfully at Firm A, when in fact I was setting myself up for a quick rejection. I thought I did terribly during my afternoon of interviews at Firm B, and ended up getting an offer from the head of the firm. Do you wonder why that happened?
Well, now you know why! Because at Firm AI held court like the Czar of All Russia; I chattered my head off at each interview, selling and selling and selling my credentials and experience, and hardly let the interviewers get a word in edgewise. They probably thought I was such an egotistical jerk that I deserved to be rejected from society at large, not merely their firm! By contrast, at Firm BI let the interviewers do all of the talking, for the simple reason that I was not adequately prepared for these interviews and didn't want to let it show.
The lawyers at Firm B probably thought I was fascinated by their war stories and perspectives on the practice of law, which flattered them no end and led them to believe not only that I was an incredible conversationalist, but had tremendously sound judgment to boot! They probably thought they had to rush to make me an offer or else I would be gobbled up by more than one of their competing firms! Why?
Conducting Yourself BECAUSE I SAID AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE
Most of the books on interviewing stress that, if an interview is handled correctly by the interviewer, the candidate will do the lion's share of the talking. That way he gets to open up and show the interviewer what he is really all about, so that the interviewer can make in-depth judgments about the candidate's poise, character, judgment, commitment, and above all "fit".
That is all well and good, because these books are all about interviewing with professional interviewers: personnel people and human resources executives who have been intensely trained in the art of interviewing and know how to do it well. In contrast, in a legal job interview you are being interviewed by a lawyer who has not been so trained; by following the guidance of the interviewing books and doing all of the talking you are likely to make a bloody fool of yourself! Why? Well, there are at least two reasons. First, by doing the lion's share of the talking you increase dramatically the odds that you might say something silly or counter to your self-interest, and thereby "screen yourself out" of the interviewing process. How can one little mistake or "slip of the tongue" screen you out? Let's make believe that you and I meet at a street corner, and that we discuss 10 topics. Let's further suppose that we agree warmly on nine of these topics, but we disagree strongly about the tenth. Then let's say we part company, and meet again at that same street corner a year later after not having seen each other at all during the interim. We may or may not, at that later time, remember any of the topics we agreed about during our earlier discussion, but we are sure to remember the tenth, which we disagreed about!
As a short digression, I submit that this is the reason that politicians are so non-committal in their statements about what they will do once they are elected to office, and fail to take strong stands on the issues. If I am running for office and you agree generally with my views on defense spending, the savings-and-loan crisis, aid to the homeless and the need for lower taxes, but you disagree violently with my views on abortion, tell me, what are you going to be thinking about when you pull the curtain behind you in that voting booth? If you are like most people, all you will think when you see my name underneath the voting lever is "that idiot Ennico, he's in favor of [either killing babies, or denying women their right to choose]!" and you will pass me over in favor of another candidate. As my father used to tell me when I was a boy, "better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are a fool, than to open your mouth and prove it!"
There is no need to apologize for this; it is simply human nature, and until we can improve upon it, we must learn to live with it. A legal job interviewer, when he reflects upon the many candidates he has seen during his recent visit to XYZ Law School, or reviews the many resumes sitting on his desk after having been distracted by a client's business for the past week or two, will likely remember very few details about the candidate: what he looked like, what they talked about, what his grades were, whether he was a member of Law Review, and so forth (although you hope the interviewer would at least have made some notes on your resume during the interview).
Remember the Rule
He will, however, remember anything you said that sounded wrong or off-key to him, or that signaled a less-than-perfect fit with the position or the firm. So, simply put, the less you say, the less likely you are to say something bad or silly that the interviewer will remember. He will then be forced to make his decision based on what is on the piece of paper in front of him, which usually will be skewed in your favor (you wouldn't dare say anything negative about yourself in your resume, would you?)
The other important reason why talking a lot can "screen you out" in a legal job interview is much more cynical, and has more to do with how the interviewer sets himself than with how you present yourself during the interview. People in general like to hear nothing as much as the sounds of their own voices; no less an authority than Dale Carnegie, in his classic book How To Win Friends And Influence People written almost a century ago, stressed the need to make other people feel important by really listening to what they have to say and not burdening them with the sound of your voice.
Now, in your interviewer is a lawyer, and lawyers more than most members of the human race like to be listened to. To put it crudely, a lawyer's job is to talk, and a lawyer loves nothing so much as to hear himself talk. The more you talk, the less interested in you the lawyer interviewer becomes. Why, because, in the final analysis, the lawyer interviewer is more interested in himself and his own problems than he is interested in you and your career future. The more interest you show in the interviewer and his affairs, the more interested he will be in you. He will most likely perceive you as "his kind of person", and will remember you fondly as "the person who showed such a keen interest in my stamp collection (or my big case against the local electric utility)."
At the very least, he will not be able to say anything bad about you, because he was so busy talking that he neglected to ask you any questions about your background, experience, strengths and weaknesses! I have to believe that at some point in the process of selecting someone for a new position, all of the people who have interviewed the available candidates sit down around a table and compare the merits and attributes of each candidate. Very often in such situations the winner is not the person with the most impressive credentials, nor the person whose achievements make him stand head and shoulders over all the rest, but rather the person about whom the interviewers can say the fewest negative things.
Lawyers by nature are not risk takers; they tend to shoot for the safest and least risky course - the easy single instead of the long-odds home run. This is no criticism of lawyers; they are paid by their clients not to take risks! How would you feel about your tax lawyer if he told you, "If you take this course of action, you stand a 99 percent chance of being audited by the I.R.S. But why don't you go ahead anyway? I think it's time we had a test case on this issue?" Something tells me you would not praise him for his innovative thinking and willingness to take risks (with your money, after all).
The surest way to put someone's mind at ease, and to win him over as a friend and ally, is to show a genuine and sincere interest in the things that matter most to him, which will usually not include your need to find a job, your need to be-come partner at his firm, or your need to advance your career. The best way to do this is to signal that you are willing to do things "his way" instead of yours ~ that you are flexible, even malleable, and will easily adapt to whatever habits, style or culture your potential employer may want from its employees.
By asserting or "selling" yourself too strongly - by talking too much - you send an inaudible, but clear, signal to the interviewer that you are more interested in doing things your way, and there are few better ways to lose status in any organization than to let them think that you are a loner, someone who "does his own thing", someone who does not do things "the company way," someone who is not a "team player," someone who "dares to be different," or someone who is not flexible in his attitudes and behavior on the job. Conversely, by saying little during an interview, you demonstrate that you are a good listener who is willing to do things the "right" way - meaning, of course, the interviewer's way (or the way most befitting the employer's culture) - and take the time to find out what that "right" way is before shooting your big mouth off or taking precipitous action.
What should you say during an interview? Obviously, if the interviewer asks you a direct question, you must answer it -I am not counseling that you be evasive. Answer the question in the most direct, concise and short (short, short, short) manner possible, giving your answer the most positive "spin" you can. Once you have done so, then you should either shut up or (preferably) ask the interviewer a question.
Think of as a verbal tennis match - like many of the great tennis players, your strategy is to keep the other player running back and forth, back and forth, from one side of the court to the other, so intent on returning your perfectly placed volleys that he forgets to go back on the offensive. Your volleys are your questions that you have carefully prepared in advance and committed to memory, after having thoroughly research the employer and the interviewer. Whenever you find yourself in an awkward silence during a legal job interview, the solution is for you to ask the interviewer a question, not volunteer more information on something you may have already beaten to death. Keep the interviewer talking about himself, his practice, his great victory over the local electric utility, his great defense of the serial killer, his hobbies and personal interests, whatever! But keep him talking!
While you are keeping the interviewer talking, don't forget to listen to what he is saying! Your goal here is not to kill time, but to make the interviewer open up and babble on so much that he accidentally leaks some information about the employer and its practice that may actually be useful to you. If the interviewer confides that he is so busy that he has little or no time for outside interests, that will tell you more about the employer and its culture than a hundred page Martindale Hubbell entry ever will. While the interviewer is talking, you should be listening, not thinking about the next question to ask; if you listen carefully and closely enough, so closely that you actually lose track of time and space, the next question will suggest itself to you without any effort on your part.
If you can't think of a follow up question, you will pick out another of your memorized list of questions and ask it as soon as the interviewer finishes answering this one (if indeed he ever does).
A corollary of this basic rule should be mentioned in passing: "if the interviewer is selling you, shut up." If you sense during the interview that the interviewer is going out of his way to sell you on his employer or his practice, and especially if he is doing so openly, congratulations! You've got it made! He wants you and he is letting you know you have sold him on your credentials, your experience, and your personality. There is nothing more for you to do! So don't blow it by opening your mouth, getting carried away with your success, and blurting something out that is going to turn the interviewer around or make him doubt his judgment.
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