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How to Conduct Yourself at Law Job Interview

published February 25, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 38 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
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It is very easy to "blow" an important interview before it is even started. Too many job candidates are so eager to "get down to business" that they forget an interview is as much a social occasion as a business one: your first task, and perhaps your only task, is to get the interviewer to like you as a person.
How to Conduct Yourself at Law Job Interview

If a person likes you, he is usually willing to overlook an occasional slight or faux-pas, and is more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt in chancy situations. As the social psychologists tell us, likes usually are attracted to likes (or more precisely, people are attracted to other people whom they perceive to be like themselves, regardless of the actual truth), and people are more likely to think good things about (and do good things for) people whom they find attractive. This is not limited to physical attractiveness, although being considered extremely attractive in the physical sense cannot hurt your chances of winning an interviewer over.

Most books on interviewing stress the importance of "making a good first impression" when you walk in the interviewer's door, and give a few basic, commonsense rules for beginning a job interview:
  • Relax; don't appear to be overly eager or artificially enthusiastic
  • Don't appear to be worried or under pressure to get a job quickly (or "never let them see you sweat")
  • Be pleasant but not to the point where you might appear to be obsequious or "smarmy"
  • Greet the interviewer with a smile and a firm (but not bone-crushing) handshake and so forth.

This is all well and good, but what the interview books don't tell you is "how to do it". When you are interviewing for a job you really want, and when there is much at stake (say, for example, you have been out of work for several months, the severance pay from your old employer has run out, and your spouse is nagging you about the mortgage payment that is due the first of next month), it is very difficult indeed for your mind to tell your stomach and your nerve endings to "calm down; it's only an interview; it's not your life".

Rather than waste time focusing on your general demeanor or image as you walk into the interview room (we will talk about that in the next section), let us focus instead on your mindset - what is going through your mind as you walk into the room and greet the interviewer.

It is my experience that you cannot control your feelings at a given moment; if you are thinking sad thoughts you cannot help but feel sad. By changing your thoughts, however, you can manipulate your feelings - how you perceive an event is as important (and sometimes, as we will see, more important) as the event itself. Politicians and their advisors often resort to "spin control" -- presenting an event in the light most favorable to the politician or the light least favorable to his adversaries in order to manipulate the public's perception of the politician and his policy goals. You, too, can (and should) resort to "spin control" to put your thoughts in the light most favorable to you before you begin a legal job interview; your feelings will follow your positive thoughts naturally and you will present a positive image to the interviewer. Let us see how it is done.

Rule # 1: Make Believe You Already Have the Job

This rule is not as outrageous as it sounds at first, for in a way, you may have already passed the biggest hurdle in winning a legal job before you walk into the first interview. If you are applying for an advertised or posted position, or if you have made a contact through networking or through a headhunter, your potential employer has reviewed your resume, screened your credentials, and decided that your background and experience fit the job. Otherwise, why would the company or firm waste time interviewing you?

Sometimes the only question remaining at that point is whether you are better suited for the job than the others who have also passed this initial screening along with you. In other words, the company or firm has already "screened out" those whose credentials and experience are clearly not a "fit" for the job; what is now necessary is to "screen in" the candidate to whom an offer will be made (with perhaps a backup), and "screen out" the rest.

In such a situation your mindset walking into the interview should be "I've already got the job; my credentials and experience are a fit, otherwise why would they be wasting their time on me? I won't spend a lot of time rehashing my resume, and I won't ever be defensive about anything on my resume, because in all likelihood they have already figured out they can live with whatever weaknesses there may be in my background."

Sincere Effort

You have all heard about sports teams who go into a big game where they are highly favored over their opponents: about such a team it is often said that "the game is theirs to lose", meaning that if they can keep their spirits up, maintain momentum and discipline at all times, and make a sincere effort to win, they should be able to do so easily. If, on the other hand, the favored team gets lazy, allows itself to be "psyched out" by the other team, or otherwise loses their discipline or momentum during the game, they stand a good chance of losing the game even though the other team isn't deserving of a victory.

You should think the same about yourself going into the "big game" of a legal job interview: "the job is already mine; I can only lose it by fouling up by saying or doing something that turns the interviewer off or by revealing a significant weakness that the interviewer has no cause to suspect." We will examine some of the most common "foul ups" in subsequent sections; the important thing now is to remember that when walking into a legal job interview you must not be overly concerned on "selling" yourself, like a telephone salesperson trying to sell you real estate in a swampland somewhere, but rather on not saying or doing anything that may cause the interviewer to think you are not a "fit" for the job.

Be assured, the interviewer is not on your side in this effort; he is looking for you to make such a mistake, because it makes his job much easier. The candidate who says or does something that turns the interviewer off effectively "screens himself out" of the competition, even though he may have the best credentials for the job, and even though he may in reality be the most perfect "fit". Some interviewers go out of their way to try to surface such "screening out" information during an interview, and you must be sure at all times that the interviewer does not succeed!

Life is not fair this way: often (in fact, I think most of the time) the winner in a legal job interview is not the best qualified candidate in fact, but simply the one who performed the best during the interviewing process. In other words, the victor is not often he who is best, but he who has made the fewest mistakes (and isn't that after all a prime quality of the good lawyer that he doesn't make mistakes when representing a client in court, or drafting a legal document, or negotiating a delicate business transaction)? As a friend of mine - who does a lot of interviewing for his firm puts it: "sometimes we pick a person out of the pack simply because we can't think of anything bad to say about him, even though we're not wildly enthusiastic about him, if we can indeed say bad things about the other candidates."

Popularity Contest

Rule # 1 is not in itself a guarantee of success in a legal job interview. If after several interviews there remain several candidates, none of whom has made an interviewing mistake or otherwise "screened himself out", the interviewer(s) must still make a decision and pick one. The result at that point may be a popularity contest, or may hinge on an individual's unique strength in an area of critical importance to the job. Rule # 1 is, however, a guarantee that you will make it to the "final cut" and be among those so considered.

There is an exception to Rule # 1, which applies when you have signed up at your law school placement office to interview with a firm for your first legal job (be it a summer clerkship or your first job upon graduation). While you may be required to deposit your resume with the placement director a week or two before the interview date, usually the interviewer does not "pre-screen" the resume, and may be going into the interview with absolutely no idea of your credentials, background or experience.

In such a situation you really cannot assume going in that you already have the job; indeed you will probably spend most of the interview reviewing the items on your resume with the intent of demonstrating your "fit" for the job and the employer. If your grades are not up to snuff, or you are not a "Law Review type", you will probably be screened out before the interview even begins.

A better approach to follow in this situation is to tell yourself that for a specific type of employer (large firm, small firm, corporate legal department), "all entry-level positions are alike", that one opportunity is as good as another, and it will only be a matter of time before you find a situation that will play to your strengths. There is an element of self-deception in this, but keep in mind that what you tell yourself is merely a "tool" designed to help you calm yourself down and keep the interviewing process in perspective, and make a good first impression on the interviewer. Whether or not you internalize these beliefs after the interview is over is not important, because by then they will have served their purpose; they have prevented you from looking like an uptight, worried, neurotic dweeb during the interview.

Rule # 2: Have a Safety Net for Yourself, Even If You Have to Weave it Out of Thin Air

What about the feeling that you are under pressure to succeed in the interview or the feeling that "if I don't get this job it will be absolutely horrible -- I'll end up on Skid Row?" Too much attention to these thoughts will make you appear anxious, worried, and pressured, and the interviewer will be turned off before you even open your mouth to say "good morning."

Anxiety is catching. When you appear anxious, you make other people feel anxious; I have discovered that people are generally more responsive to your moods and feelings than you think. Have you noticed that whenever you are in a conversation with someone and you start talking faster and faster, they start talking faster and faster too? The same is true of emotions; if you appear awkward, you will make the interviewer feel ill at ease and he will sooner or later begin to appear awkward. The interviewer does not enjoy this feeling of being awkward, he inwardly blames you for producing that feeling, and he will screen you out.

The "Dating Game", then and now: More importantly, it is one of the great ironies of interviewing that the candidates who display that they really need the job are never the ones who get it. Those of you who are young enough to remember dating in high school or college will know how this goes: was there ever someone in your life (usually it was not a physically attractive someone) who developed a crush on you and followed you everywhere you went, making a nuisance of himself or herself trying to get your attention, and doing everything within his or her power short of committing a felony to get you to go out with him or her? If there was, tell me, how interested were you in that person? If you are like most people, you wouldn't have anything to do with such a person.

Did you ever stop to think that that person would do anything for your affection, be more true and loyal to you than anyone else, and return your affection tenfold until the day he or she died? I'll bet you actually did at some point or other. But you still weren't interested, were you, you soulless heart-breaker? Instead of settling for the one you could get without lifting a finger, you spent your time (more or less discreetly) trying to get the attention of someone who wouldn't even give you the time of day - the handsomest guy on the football team, the prettiest cheerleader,, the Homecoming King or Queen. And, pray tell, how did he or she treat you? Probably just the same way you were treating the poor slob who was tagging along after you everyplace with his or her tongue hanging down to his or her knees.

A Signal

It is much the same with interviewing. The candidate who is most likely to get a job interview is the one the interviewer most likes but is not completely certain he can get; the candidate he is least interested in is the one who fawns all over him and sends him a signal that he would do anything to get the job. Why this is I don't know; I'm not enough of a psychologist to have figured it out. But it is a fact of interviewing life: the more you are perceived to want or need a job, the less your chances of getting it.

The Need for a "Poker Face ": Another possible reason, which should not be overlooked, is that the law is not a very emotional business. A lawyer is expected to remain calm and detached at all times; this puts clients at ease, since if a lawyer looks worried, the client sees a jail cell or the poorhouse in his future. Lawyers are uncomfortable generally with people who display their emotions or who otherwise show that they cannot control their feelings. If a candidate appears overly eager, or overly anxious, an interviewer is likely to think to himself "gee, if this person gets so wound up about a lousy job interview, can you imagine how he'll be in a tough courtroom situation? How will he deal with some of our crazier clients?"

This is not to say that you should send signals that you are not interested in the job you are interviewing for. Heaven forbid! That would be an instant "screen out" of the type you want to avoid at all costs. It does mean, however, that you have to stifle a certain amount of your enthusiasm for the job or the employer, even at the risk of appearing a trifle distant or lukewarm.

One way to calm your fears that I have found very successful is to "weave yourself a safety net." It will be much easier for you to believe (sincerely) that winning the job is not the most important thing in your life if you can persuade yourself that you do in fact have other options - that there is always something else you can do if all else fails and you don't get a job offer from anyone in the world.

In my own case, I worked a few years as a reporter for a major metropolitan daily newspaper before I started law school. That was years ago, but whenever I find myself thinking that a job interview is a "do or die" situation I calm myself down by telling myself that if all else fails I can always go back to that newspaper (or another one) and write obituaries or feature articles for a while.

White Lie

Now, I haven't the foggiest idea if I could in fact do such a thing; I probably would be considered overqualified for such a position by this time. But this "little white lie" that I have told myself does me a great deal of good; I usually do calm down and keep the interview in better perspective, and as a result I appear more calm and relaxed, which puts the interviewer at ease and makes me appear more professional and mature.

This "little white lie" is what I mean when I say that you should weave a safety net for yourself "even if you have to weave it out of thin air." Think about something you would really like to do, that is possible for you to do without a great deal of money or inconvenience start a small business out of your home, for example, or become a late-night disk jockey for your local radio station (talking and playing records for a living -- I'm sure you could do it), or write legal articles for your local newspaper. Forget for the moment that the job wouldn't pay a decent living wage; just concentrate on picking something that you could do well without much effort, that would give you an entry-level position without much effort, and that would be fun to do for a while. Once you have found it, make it your "safety net", write it down on a little piece of paper, stick it in your wallet or purse (in a place where you can reach it easily and scan it while waiting for the interview to begin), and keep saying to yourself "I'm not making a big deal of this; it would be nice to get the job, but if all else fails, I can always do X, I will not end up on the streets rummaging through garbage pails for my supper." Just don't fall too much in love with your "safety net" position, or you may just decide to give up practicing law altogether!

Rule #3: "Warm, Friendly, Smile, Low-Key"

This is really a collection of rules, a mantra that I repeat over and over to myself just before walking into a legal job interview. I have found it helpful in developing the right frame of mind, which in turn affects the "image" I present to the interviewer in a very positive manner. Let us look at each element of Rule # 3 in turn.

Warm: It should go without saying that you should not come across as a cold fish. Your personal style should be warm and inviting, your stance relaxed without being limp. Your facial expression and body language should communicate to the interviewer, "look, I am genuinely interested in this position, but I don't look upon this interview as a stressful situation, and neither should you; so let's get down to the business of getting to know each other."

Friendly: Without showing too much of your personality, you should signal to the interviewer that you genuinely like him, that you are the sort of person who would get along with just about anybody and win them over. As in other professions and walks of life, loners generally do not succeed in the law; attracting and keeping clients requires as much "people skills" as technical lawyering skills, and no law firm or corporation wants to hire someone who will have to work behind closed doors all the time.

Smile: You should not forget to do this. Your smile should not be flashy or forced, but you must not forget to smile. Psychologists tell us that when we smile we unconsciously trigger happy thoughts and emotions that put our minds at ease; your actions in this regard do indeed influence your thoughts.

If you do not have a natural smile, develop one! If necessary, tell yourself a favorite joke or remind yourself of a humorous or silly situation from your past as you walk in the door: your slight laugh will come across as a natural smile.

Low-Key is the most important element of Rule # 3. You absolutely must not appear to be intense, uptight, or overly concentrated. You must send a signal to the interviewer that nothing really bothers you, and that while you work well under pressure, you never let the pressure get to you. Far from being a turn-off, this sort of emotional detachment from the situation is a very positive sign that you are a mature, mentally healthy, well adjusted professional. The trick is to present a low-key image without appearing to be bored or uninterested; one way to avoid appearing too "laid back" is to listen intently to the interviewer's every word, and make it a point not to sit too far back in your chair.

Make a Mantra of the Rule

Once you have mastered Rule # 3, you must make a mantra of it. Just as the door of the interview room swings open, you should repeat to yourself "warm, friendly, smile, low-key" over and over again. During the interview, if the interviewer has launched on a lengthy monologue about his employer or a favorite "war story", you should occasionally repeat to yourself "warm, friendly, smile, low-key". Finally, as you stand to leave the interview room, or walk with the interviewer down the hall to your next interview, the phrase "warm, friendly, smile, low-key" should be foremost in your mind.

If it helps, another helpful mnemonic device that you can use to set yourself in the right frame of mind before a legal job interview is what I call the "four C's" - Calm, Confidence, Courage, Control - with "control" being the most important of these. Not only are you going to be in control of your emotions, fears and feelings, real or imagined, but you are also going to "control" the flow of information during the interview, in a way that will present you in the best possible light. You will learn the key ways of accomplishing this "control" over the interviewing process later in this chapter.

Rule # 4: Show a Personal Interest in the Interviewer

It is common for an inexperienced job candidate to begin an interview by rattling off every item on his resume, or giving the answer to an anticipated question that has not been asked yet (or may never be asked). While it is natural for you to want to "get down to business" quickly, you must repress this natural desire as by giving in to it you send the interviewer an invisible signal that you want to "get this over with quickly" or worse yet, that you are an intense, self-absorbed neurotic who does not know how to get along with people.

You must take the time to get to know the interviewer personally; if the interviewer does not buy you as a person, he is not about to buy you as a lawyer. If the interviewer begins talking as you walk in the door (most lawyer-interviewers will start the conversation), listen intently to what is being said and forget for a moment your prepared lead-in or initial question. See if you can't think of a follow-up question to ask; doing this successfully shows the interviewer you know how to listen, you are keenly interested in what he said (which cannot but impress him), and you are able to focus on the moment without following an internal "script". As we will see later in the chapter, the earlier you start directing the interview, the more likely it is you will succeed.

But what if the interviewer does not begin talking as you walk through the door, but instead just sits there in stony silence, looking at your resume or just staring at you? If you have done your research on the interviewer as described in Chapter 3, you should have found at least one common area of interest that you could use to begin the interview. I would begin by pointing out this area of interest and then asking a question based on it. For example, if your research has uncovered that the interviewer is an alumnus of your law school, you might say something like, "it must be interesting for you to come back to [Name of Law School] each year; do you see any differences or any changes taking place since you were here?" This is small talk, and accepted as such. But it shows that you are interested in the interviewer as a person without going out of your way to "brown nose" him, and it gets the conversation off to a relaxed start. Most importantly, it gets the interviewer to open up and start talking about something he cannot help but have something to say about.

Another approach is to highlight a shared interest, especially if you can do so by focusing on an object or event that is immediately present. For example, let's say that as you walk into the interviewer's office he is on the telephone talking to a client about a pending antitrust lawsuit. You have just taken an antitrust course and understand what the interviewer means when he refers on the telephone to a "possible Robin-son-Patman claim." When the interviewer hangs up and apologizes for the delay, you may wish to say something like "no, not at all, in fact I was quite interested in what you were talking about. I'm working on a paper on the Robinson-Patman Act right now, and your conversation sounded interesting. If I may ask, what is that case about?"

Or, if you see a model of a sailboat on his desk, you may wish to begin the interview by saying "that model looks interesting; are you a sailor?" The interviewer will then have no choice but to talk about a hobby he no doubt dearly loves (if he is a sailor), or (if he is not a sailor) explain how the sailboat model comes to be sitting on his desk. Either way he will be talking about something that is of interest to him, and if you listen very carefully you will not have to worry about what to say next; his conversation will lead naturally to a follow-up question.

There is no better way to get someone to like you than to show (1) that you are interested in him as a person and are willing to spend some time getting to know him as a person before you "get down to business", and (2) that you share a common interest, goal or background. It bears repeating that human beings are attracted to people they perceive as being like themselves; throughout the interview you should be emphasizing how the two of you are really quite similar people, and downplay any significant differences (such as ethnic background or law school grade-point average) that may exist.

Rule # 5: Make 'Em Laugh

Let's face it, lawyers are not funny people. Their business is a serious one; when clients call their lawyers it is usually because they face a serious problem, or a legal liability, and they will usually have little time or patience for levity. Nonetheless, there are few better ways to "break the ice" than to get the interviewer to laugh. There is an old saying among criminal lawyers that "a laughing jury never convicts." Similarly, a laughing interviewer cannot help but think you are a clever person if you can make him laugh during what is for him a stressful experience.

You should be very careful, however, how you go about making the interviewer laugh. Telling jokes (especially off-color ones) will not go over very well. Rather, a well told humorous incident from your own past, especially one that highlights one of your personal or professional strengths, is the way to go. If your personality is such, however, that you are not comfortable with humor, it is best to avoid it altogether than risk making a fool of yourself.

Rule # 6: Warm Up For Your Audience

Before striding out on the stage of a comedy club or night spot, a stand-up comedian does not sit alone in his dressing room staring at the four walls. Instead, he will walk around, talking to the backstage hands and the other entertainers, talking about anything that may come into his head. He is not doing this for idle amusement; he is "warming up" for his act, putting himself at ease, exercising his vocal chords, and pumping a little bit of adrenalin, so that when he is announced and runs up on stage to take the microphone he appears to do so naturally and without an awkward pause in the flow of the evening's entertainment.

While you should not come across as a stand-up comedian during a legal job interview, this "warming up" technique is one you should consider using. You should not stand or sit in the waiting area silent, staring at the four walls. This will make you more nervous, as when you are idle you are more likely to be besieged by unwanted, negative, self-defeating thoughts. It is better to talk to someone - anyone - in a casual, lighthearted manner, as this takes your mind off the immensity of the task ahead of you, calms you down, and enables you to practice your "shtick" before an audience of people who are not sitting in judgment over you.

I find that secretaries and other clerical staff people are especially useful in this regard. If I am forced to wait outside the interviewer's office for a minute or two before the inter-view begins, I almost always strike up a conversation with the interviewer's secretary, asking questions about the office decor, the working environment, items on his desk that reveal a shared interest, and so forth.

If I am lucky, the secretary will reveal something about her boss' work habits or his schedule that day and that will provide me with a much-needed "opener" for the interview. I may, if I am really lucky, learn something about the interviewer that will help me decide if I want the job or not. I once was having such a conversation with the secretary of a man who was going to interview me, and at one point she said, "You know, would it be possible for you to wait another minute or two? His wife has been trying to reach him all day and I've had her on hold for fifteen minutes." In my view, any person who does not return his spouse's telephone calls promptly, and/or keeps his spouse on hold for indefinite periods, is not a person for whom I would like to work. This secretary's boss did not help matters by ushering me into his office, apologizing for the delay, and (when I suggested that he may wish first to take any telephone calls that may be on hold) saying "oh, don't worry about that flashing light; I know who it is, and it can wait."

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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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