Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Job Interview Do's and Don't's

Today's legal job market is tough, and there is a lot of competition out there. Each year thousands of students graduate from law school and go on the job market, and also each year associates at firms nationwide decide to make lateral moves. And while the number of applicants seems to be growing, the number of new jobs is staying fairly static at best--and in some parts of the country the number of available jobs is shrinking.

So that means that if you are on the market, you have to interview exceedingly well to give yourself even a decent shot at employment. And that is where this post comes in. Over the years I have interviewed extensively--for college scholarships, for judicial clerkships, for law firm jobs, and most recently for tenure-track law professor positions. Those are all different processes, to be sure, but they share important commonalities.

In other words, I have found there are core interviewing strategies that apply no matter what type of interview it is. I'm not talking about mundane aspects like "dress professionally" or "smile and look the interviewer in the eye." Those tips have their place, but they don't give you the bigger picture.

What will get you far? Here are the essential eight fundamentals that I have always followed. They invariably have been successful.

Step 1. Have a perfect resume. You've heard this before, but its importance cannot be overstated. The internet contains loads of advice on what equals a good resume, but I can tell you that in law, what equals a bad resume is one with a typo. I went into an interview one time with a resume containing a typo, and guess what? The interviewer saw it. And I did not get a callback.

At the end of the day, all a resume does is show that you pass the employer's minimum requirements on paper and are worth a closer look. Then it's on to steps 2 through 8.

Step 2. You are not competing; you are self-maximizing. There is an important distinction between the two. On the one hand, if there is 1 job and 3 applications, you are by definition competing for the spot. But do not focus on the other people. Your job is to show the employer why you deserve the job--not why the other 2 candidates don't.

Think about it this way: there is always going to be someone with better grades than you, who speaks more languages than you, who is dressed better than you. Always. Don't worry about them. Worry about yourself. You bring something to the table that the other candidates don't. Which leads me to--

Step 3. When you interview you are telling the story of you. Your story is unique. There is something in your background that makes for a compelling story. What is it? The answer lies in surprising and often ordinary parts of your past. I grew up in West Virginia, and when I interviewed with big firms in Chicago I often brought that up--why I was living in the midwest, why I wanted to make my mark in a big city. I also talked sometimes about how I worked in fast food as a college freshman, how I hated it, and how it gave me additional drive to succeed in life.

The point is that the facts of your background may not be absolutely unique, but the meaning you attach to them and the lessons you learn from them are. And using them in an interview helps you tell a story, stand out from the crowd, and portray something important about yourself and your character.

Step 4. Practice, practice, practice. This one is huge. Remember how in college you thought you had your term paper all figured out, and then when you tried to write it the words just wouldn't flow? Don't let the same thing happen in a job interview. Practice your answers. Think of what questions the employer might ask, and answer them. Out loud. Do it in your car. Do it in the shower. Do it late at night when everyone else is asleep. (Do not do it while shaving. I learned that the hard way.)

I'm completely serious about this. You will catch yourself saying some really dumb things. But better to say them in front of a mirror instead of in front of the person interviewing you.

And here's a trick: if you are embarrassed about being seen talking to yourself in your car, just stick your cell phone ear bud in your ear and chatter away. No one will know the difference.

Step 5. Research, research, research. All firms are not equal, and the same goes for interviews. What does the firm do? What are its specialties? What does it not do? These are important things to know. This really should be obvious advice, but when I sat on the interviewer's side of the desk I saw this rule violated over and over again.

If you do your research, you will avoid major gaffes and will be able to ask intelligent questions. Questions show the employer you have done your homework and are taking the interview seriously. You don't have to sound like an expert--you just have to sound eager and on the ball. Something along the lines of, "I see your lawyer Jane Schmoe closed the Acme deal last week. That looks like it was an interesting project," is a good way to display that you are determined. And in this age of the internet, a little research is easy to do. That wasn't the case 10 years ago.

There's another advantage to doing your homework in advance: you may decide you would never want to work for that employer. If you figure that out in advance, that's good--you save everyone some time.

Step 6. Treat Each Interview as Special and Unique. Each interview is with people who may be your colleagues for years on end, so treat it that way. And all law firms (and companies) are not equal. Some do corporate law, some do litigation. Some are big, some are small. Not to mention how their cultures vary. So try to find out what you can about the firm, and tailor your interview to that. Don't interview at a corporate law firm for a litigation position. Again, this should be obvious, but I have seen the rule violated as often as I have seen it followed.

But this does not mean you engage in merciless spin about yourself. Rather--

Step 7. Always tell the truth. Tailoring your message means presenting yourself in a favorable light, not changing yourself or lying about yourself. It's like a date: you want to look good and come across well, and there's nothing wrong with that. But don't be dishonest. For one thing, you are a lawyer. You have been given a monopoly by your state government to practice law. With that right comes responsibilities, one of which is to hold yourself to a higher standard of ethical behavior. So do it.

Think of it this way: interviewing is like writing a legal brief. You recite the facts and make the arguments in a manner that is most favorable to your client (in this case, you). But you do not lie.

Step 8. Relax before the interview. This is a key step. Arrive at the interview a few minutes early, and sit still and breath deeply. By that time you have done all you can do (although perhaps not as much as you like); now what you need to do is be poised. Clear your mind and smile.

I have done it both ways: take a few moments to relax, or rush into an interview at the last minute. From experience I can tell you the former works far better.

These steps should serve you well. And in fact, I have found that steps 2 and 3 (not competing; telling my own story) are a wonderful way to live my life in general. To focus on improving myself instead of competing with others is healthy, I think. And to think about my own personal story has allowed me to chart my life's journey--to look at who I am today and decide where I want life to take me. That's far better than backing through life and succeeding by accident.


Michael said...

As an addendum to "Relax before the interview," I would add "don't alter your sleep schedule." I thought I could handle taking an early morning bus into New York last week for a 10:30 interview. I was wrong. Get a hotel!

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