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Don’t Sell Yourself: Legal Job Interview

published February 25, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 61 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
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You should not at any cost come on too strong during a legal job interview. This point needs to be underscored here, because your demeanor during the interview may be crucial to the outcome. While you should appear genuinely interested in the position and in the interviewer, you must not be too enthusiastic, or too dynamic, or too polished, or too eloquent, or else you risk screening yourself out as a viable candidate for the job. In a legal job interview, it actually helps to come across a bit on the dull, blasé, uninteresting side.

This may at first appear contrary to common sense; aren't you supposed to make an effort to impress the interviewer, as all of the interview books recommend? Aren't you supposed to demonstrate that you stand head and shoulders above all the other candidates for the job? Aren't you supposed to "sell yourself?

Strangely enough, the answer is a clear and resounding "no". It is precisely this sort of "salesmanship" that cost me my job offer from a firm. I blew that interview because I came on too strong, and overpowered my lawyer interviewers, which had the effect of turning them right off.

Why is this so? Why is it necessary to come across a bit on the dull side to impress a legal job interviewer? Well, first let's take a look at the lawyer interviewer. He is first and foremost a lawyer, not a professional interviewer. And lawyers are notoriously resistant to sales pitches of all types and forms: there is nothing--I mean nothing--the average lawyer detests more than Madison Avenue hype and a slick sales presentation. While the ability to "sell, sell, sell" may be an asset in the business world, it is an absolute liability in a legal job interview.

This is not to say that lawyers cannot be persuaded to buy something; it means only that they must sell themselves ~ you cannot by your own action close the sale. The lawyer interviewer will want to weigh carefully the pros and cons of your background and experience, assess in his own mind your perceived "fit" with his employer, and come to a reasoned and balanced conclusion, much as he would in analyzing a client's legal problem.

Show That You Are Adaptable

An even more important, albeit cynical, reason why you should not appear to be "selling" the interviewer is the interviewer's desire to hire someone who is cut from his own image. Ultimately, the person who will be hired for any legal position will be the candidate whom the decision makers feel most closely conform to their stereotype of the successful lawyer in their particular environment. The decision makers must feel, in their collective gut, that you either behave the way they believe someone in your new position should behave, or that you have the capacity to adapt and conform your behavior to fit the style and culture of the organization. If the decision makers cannot comfort themselves that you are a "blank slate" upon which the organization can write whatever it wishes - if the decision makers believe you are too set in your ways and have too strong opinions on certain matters - they are likely to conclude that you are too risky to take on board, and you will be screened out.

This is a sad but true aspect of organizational life: to succeed often means suppressing one's natural desires and opinions and tempering one's eagerness, enthusiasm and personal dynamism. In the words of an old Chinese proverb, "the nail that sticks up from the rest is the one that will be hammered down." This is, one suspects, what is actually meant when someone says that they want a "team player" - they want someone who follows orders well, does his job in coordination with others, and wears the team uniform, not someone who follows his own agenda. If you signal to the interviewer that you are too much of an individual, or that you are not willing to take the time to learn the "right" way of doing things (translation: the way the powerful people within the organization believe is the right way to do things), it will be an automatic screen out.

Conceal Your Dynamism

Aside from concerns about "team playership", it is worth observing that many lawyers are fairly dull themselves, their long hours and near total commitment to their work often prevent them from having many outside interests, and they are not the sort of people who liven up a cocktail party. Most lawyers would admit this is perhaps the most serious drawback of the legal profession. As such, they may well feel threatened by someone who is obviously more cultured, better read, and more interesting than they are.

In the extreme case, the lawyer interviewer who perceives himself as un-dynamic will be concerned that you may try to seduce his clients away from him, and will be jealous of your superior social skills. When dealing with such an interviewer it is best to make him think that you are even duller than he is, that you are absolutely no threat to him, and that your goal in life (just like his) is to make sure the job gets done right and the client is happy.

Thus, the way to carry yourself during a legal job interview is what I call "laid back": your facial expression should be relaxed and not too expressive; your speech should be low in volume and pitch, and should avoid strong inflections (a cultivated monotone - what one lawyer friend of mine calls the "lawyer's whisper" - is desirable here); your posture should not convey an image of intensity; your walk should be slow and deliberate, like a cat treading carefully to avoid alerting his prey; and your dress should be understated and perhaps even a little dull.

What is most important is that you must not appear to be too dynamic or interesting. You should avoid discussing interests outside the law to the extent possible.

Never Opine On Anything

Finally, you should avoid expressing your opinion on any subject whatsoever unless the interviewer invites you to do so (and even then I would try to fudge it). This is true even if the subject of your opinion seems relatively harmless.

A friend of mine once blew a legal job interview with a small firm in a suburban town when the interviewer asked him how he felt about smaller firms in general. As part of my friend's answer-- to buttress his point that it was often difficult to maintain a collegial, friendly working atmosphere in a large law firm-- he inadvertently expressed the opinion that it is difficult for a law firm to operate in a collegial manner once there are more than 50 attorneys in the firm.

My friend of course had done his homework, and knew that the firm had significantly less than that number. Well, as it turns out my friend's interviewer was an ambitious sort whose goal was to see the firm grow to 100 lawyers; my friend's opinion was the last thing he wanted to hear, as it signaled that he would be a continuing dissenter from the interviewer's dreams of empire once hired. The interview ended abruptly at that point; my friend had said the thing the interviewer needed to hear in order to screen him out.

You never can know in advance what your interviewer thinks about any subject, so why risk disagreeing with him? Nine times out of ten you can avoid expressing opinions at all during a legal job interview, and even in the tenth situation --when your opinion on a matter is expressly invited by the interviewer--you can hedge your bets by saying something like "well, I don't really have any strong opinion on the subject, but I have heard others say [or "I have read"] that thus-and-such is usually the case. I'm curious, what are your views on the subject?"

Far from making you appear wishy-washy, this type of answer will signal to the interviewer that you don't jump to conclusions without knowing what the other person is looking to hear and without knowing the depth of the other person's convictions. That is an extremely positive attribute in a legal counselor, who cannot risk offending a client at any cost.

To summarize: to succeed in a legal job interview you must not sell yourself in a direct manner, you must demonstrate that your behavior is adaptable to your work environment, you must never appear to be interesting or dynamic, and you must never express an opinion on any subject unless you are dead certain that the interviewer agrees with your views.

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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