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How to Nail a Legal Interview

published September 14, 2019

By Author - LawCrossing

( 11 votes, average: 4.6 out of 5)

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You've snagged an interview at the most prestigious law firm. Now what? Here, top recruiters, career consultants, and even shrinks offer shrewd tips and subtle tricks for moving from "How do you do?" to "When can you start?"

Six tips for the first two minutes, because nothing matters more than a first impression:

1. Everyone knows not to be late to an interview. But legal recruiters say arriving early is just as bad-in fact, showing up even 10 minutes ahead of time may irritate them. Why? You will interrupt whatever they're doing ("Ms. Jenkins, your next appointment is here"), which can sow a seed of resentment. It also sends a message: You are an amateur, both overeager and over worried about being late. Arrive no more than five minutes before the interview. If you find yourself there earlier than that, look for a bench outside, read the newspaper, and . . . floss or something.

2. While you're waiting for the interviewer to greet you, always remain standing. "You don't want the very first thing the interviewer sees to be you getting your things
in order and adjusting your clothing," says Anne War field, president of Impression Management Professionals, a Minneapolis-based career consulting firm.

3. Sociolinguists at Stanford University have discovered that what we say accounts for a mere 7 percent of a person's first impression of us, while our body language constitutes 55 percent. In case they're right, hold your briefcase or bag in your left hand and keep the right one hanging loosely at your hip, ready to shake hands.

4. When speaking with the legal recruiter's assistant, use her name. A simple, respectful "Thanks, Denise" could mean a kind word from Denise to her boss later.

5. Be prepared for the potentially awkward moment when you and the legal recruiter walk into a conference room for the interview and there are more than two chairs. If she hasn't yet taken a seat, rest your hand on one of the chairs and ask, "Is this a good place for me to sit?" If the interviewer has already set up shop, "choose the seat directly across from her," says Michele Mamet, associate director of university relations at Bristol-Myers Squibb. "If the table is round, sit next to her, but move away so you can look her dead in the eye."

6. The interviewer may well kick things off with the dreaded "Tell me about yourself." If he asks, you gotta tell him. But since your best overall M.O. is to release information about yourself in strategic deployments throughout the interview, resist the urge to dump it all at once. Rehearse a 60-second commercial spot that summarizes your responsibilities at your last legal job or internship, capped by your reasons for pursuing this position. Begin this part with the phrase "But what I really want to do is . . . "
Three rules for breaking the ice:

1. Family photos can be great conversation starters-if you choose your comments wisely. (You: "Your mother has a great smile." Him: "That's my wife.") "Making assumptions about the people in the pictures is dangerous," says Debra Fine, founder of the Fine Art of SmallTalk, a Denver firm that teaches conversation skills to executives at companies like IBM and Wells Fargo. "If a picture is facing you, it's fair game, but be vague: 'What a great picture. Where was it taken?' "

2. Think before cracking jokes. "The safest, most effective kind of humor is self-deprecating," says Albert Chen, the former executive director of graduate programs at Kaplan Test Prep, "but this is one situation where you don't want to put yourself down."

3. Never talk about traffic, sports, or the weather. You don't want to be the eleventh automaton that day to say, "Wow, sure is hot."

Five moves that show you are a pro:

1. Have an agenda. "One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking the goal is simply to answer the questions that are asked," says J. Daniel Plants, partner and head of communications and wireless banking at Think Equity Partners in San Francisco. "Sure, you have to answer their questions, but the best candidates know how to steer the conversation where they want it to go."

2. Want to be an attorney? Your first step is to sit like one. Powerful people have no qualms about taking up a lot of space. Sit up straight in the middle of the chair, with one arm on the armrest and the other on the table. You'll instantly look and feel more confident and in control.

3. Tell a story. There should be a theme that runs through every answer. Maybe it's "I'm not only a tech whiz but also an inventor." Whatever your story, tell it clearly and succinctly. Tailor an explanation of your strengths and weaknesses to support it.

4. Admit past mistakes in a way that shows you learned something. "Let's say you once did something that a client wanted but that wasn't what your boss wanted," says Joni Johnston, a psychologist and the CEO of WorkRelationships, a management training company whose clients include Nokia and Ericsson. "Explain that while your instinct was to please the client-a good instinct-you learned that your manager's wishes are most important."

5. Obey the rule of three. Have three points to drive home and an anecdote to support each one. If you're applying for a legal position, maybe the points are: "I've interned at the Women’s Legal Centre," "I've conducted my own research using the internet, legal databases, legal libraries and government offices," and "I understand the day-to-day tasks." If you've thought ahead about what you want to communicate, an interviewer notices.

Three signs you're losing it (and three ways to get it back):

1. If a legal recruiter asks more than once whether you have any questions, chances are she's already formed an opinion about you and is trying to wrap it up. Ask for a glass of water. Dramatic? Perhaps. But it'll help you collect your thoughts. It also creates the impression that the interview has a first half and a second half. Shine in the second half, and you've got a chance. "I've had people who I wasn't sure about at first but who made a strong comeback," says one recruiter.

2. Should you draw a complete blank, ask the interviewer to rephrase the question. People are scared to ask this, because they think they'll look stupid. But that's not true. And even if you do understand the question, you'll have a moment to collect your thoughts while they rephrase it.

3. There’s a time in every person's interviewing process when they're rambling along and they suddenly say to themselves, "I have no idea where I'm going with this." Pause. Check in, and say, "Have I answered your question?'"

Deal breakers: Seven things Legal recruiters hate-and why

1. Taking notes during an interview is fine, but keep your pen holstered unless absolutely necessary. Excessive scribbling indicates an inability to think on your feet.

2. Shoes that aren't shined. Details matter.

3. Interviewer: We're opening a new office in Charlottesville.
Candidate: Oh, I've heard it's great there.
Interviewer: Really? I'm from there. What have you heard about it?
Candidate: [Pauses. Starts to cry.]
If you don't mean it, don't say it.

4. Some candidates have their rap so well practiced that instead of responding to specific questions, they churn out prepackaged answers, no matter what the interviewer asks. "It's frustrating when people don't answer the question because they didn't listen to it," says Bristol-Myers Squibb's Mamet. "Don't just pull out your favorite response. It's easy for us to tell when it's rehearsed."

5. Never swear during an interview, says a former Goldman Sachs recruiter. He can only assume you'd do it in the first meeting with a client, too, and he can't take that risk.

6. Answering questions the way everybody else does. "If I ask, 'What's your biggest weakness?' don't say, 'I pay too much attention to detail,' " advises Mark Golin, a former VP and creative director at AOL. "People don't realize that the recruiter has done this 400 more times than they have. If you think about it, your answers will change-they'll become unique."

7. There's standing out from the pack because you're unique, and then there's standing out because you blare your trombone louder than everyone else just to make noise. "I was once scheduling a second interview for lunch, and I suggested a restaurant," remembers one media executive. "The candidate said, 'No, I don't like the food there.' I could tell he wanted to rebuff my choice just to prove he could. The interview was over."

Tactics for the last 30 seconds:

1. When the interviewer utters these five words, "Do you have any questions?” Don't make one up on the spot. Prepare two good questions about the position or the firm-the answers to which cannot be found on the Web site.

2. If you don't have any questions, spare yourself an awkward moment by saying, "Do you have any unanswered questions about my qualifications?"

3. Take a business card. Obvious, right? The worst mistake candidates make when sending thank-you notes is misspelling the name of the interviewer.