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Interviewing Primer

by Linda Green Pierce, President

Our dynamic, growing economy has increased job movement for many including associate attorneys. Most are seeking opportunities in law firms or as in-house counsel in corporations. Many lawyers have not interviewed since shortly after law school graduation and are making some common mistakes. Here is a primer for a successful interview.

  • Stay Focused on the Essentials. When you meet with Partners and members of the Practice Group focus on legal and industry questions. Ask questions that get you quality information on the firm and will support your need to evaluate this as a career move. And communicate to them the breadth and depth of your experience. ("Deliver the Goods" - see below.) Avoid spending too much time on non-essentials. Both you and the Partner may be very interested in tennis, however, try not to let it dominate the limited time you have together.
  • Don't Leave Before You've Delivered the Goods. I sometimes go to the grocery store for a much-needed item and a couple of others which might not be important as the needed item. When I get home, to my frustration, I find I've purchased the two "others" and an impulse item and forgotten the needed item! Unlike me, you should stay focused. Have in mind one or two needed items to deliver to the potential employer and make it your responsibility to get the message across and leave the goods. Not all people who interview you will be skilled interviewers. Stereotypically, a litigator might be more comfortable at telling you trial war stories or how she or he bested an opponent. An associate with whom you went to law school may spend a half hour revisiting unbearable professors with you. These get togethers make for a fun meeting, but when you leave them you know only a tiny bit more about the firm or company. Unfortunately, the interviewer knows little more about you than your resume content and that you didn't spill coffee on his desk. This is the time to carefully take the lead and talk about what you bring to the table. Even if you make your points at the closing - while shaking hands -- don't leave without delivering the goods.
  • Do Your Homework. Employers are stunningly impressed when you know a lot about them and some of the law practice problems they may be facing. Not knowing anything signals the potential employer that you don't care about them - you just want a job. With no research made on the hiring entity, you'll have no ready questions about the job or the company or firm. Knowing why you are pursuing this employer will enable you in turn to articulate why you want to work for them. Employers need help in seeing you (as opposed to others who may have also interviewed) as the candidate. It's your responsibility to build that bridge.
  • Money, Money, Money. When to discuss money in the interview process is a complicated and delicate matter. In many cases it is best to avoid the issue during the first interview. Sometimes just raising the issue gives the impression you are more interested in money than the value you bring to the firm or corporation. However, in recent years compensation packages have become more complex at some firms - hiring bonuses, retention bonuses, investment pools, etc. This may communicate essential information about the firm's culture and maybe a key component of your career decision. If possible have this discussion with the Hiring Manager. But, even here, be certain to give the Hiring Manager a balanced picture of your impression on the job - don't just talk money! And remember in the end that once an employer "falls in love" with a candidate, monetary negotiations are thereafter weighted in the interviewee's favor.
  • Crank Up the Energy. I repeatedly hear from our client law firms and corporations that a candidate's interview was "flat." Or they state: "We were enthusiastic about the candidate, but she did not seem to be interested in us." We know that candidates in interviews are busy absorbing information and perhaps mentally applying themselves to the new work. They simply "forget" to say: "Great, I'd like that!" People want to hire people who are enthusiastic. Let the energy and enthusiasm show and, if you are interested -- ask for the job.
  • Dress for the Audience. This used to be more obvious; everyone interviewed in a "traditional blue suit." If you wore this severe suit to your own law firm, compatriots would joke that you were going to an interview or visiting your banker for a loan. Although the suit is still the safety net for most interviews, it not always the most appropriate for certain employers. Some high technology employers and many law firms have an every-day casual policy, but expect to see interviewees in more "formal attire." While other casual to campy employers would not "hire a suit if it walked in the door" specifically because of their informal culture. When in doubt, call the employer, your legal recruiter, or someone who knows the industry or employer. Absent good intelligence on dress code, err on the conservative side.
  • Be on Time. Being late creates a strongly negative impression from which it is difficult to dig out. The interviewer thinks you are irresponsible and that you won't be able to make work deadlines once on the job. If you are late, make a brief, concise apology at the beginning of your interview. Don't go on and on about circumstances and problems.
  • Pass the "Susan Test"! I was the manager of a law firm where we had a talented and knowing receptionist named Sue. She had a keen intuitive sense and great judgment. Her opinion was well respected in the office at all levels. It was said that partners would be asked to leave before Sue would be sent away. A thumbs down from Sue, although not the only criteria for not making an offer to a candidate, was seriously considered. Be courteous to everyone you meet. The world is full of Susans.
  • Not Everyone is a Comedian. Lots of career coaches have encouraged using humor in interviews. Precisely-placed humor can get you over a rough spot in an interview. However, it can also be trouble; you never know whom you will insult. Self-deprecating humor (once) in an interview to fill a space or break the ice often works, but continuing humor along those lines puts employers off. Smile your socks off; be warm, outgoing and engaging but remember that humor should be dosed out in careful quantities.
  • No Trash Talk. Negatively kills interviews quickly. Do not be negative about anything, especially your current or previous employer. Lawyers are notorious for wanting "the dirt" about another firm or supervising lawyer. Don't take anyone up on the opportunity to dish dirt. When asked, deliver your reasons for leaving your position in a positive light. Practice, practice, practice before the interview if you are nervous.

The goal of a first interview is to learn more about the position and to "deliver the goods" by informing the employer of your unique skills and experiences thus eliciting a great offer. Use the above points to gain control and place yourself in that luxurious position of deciding whether or not to pursue the offer.