PREPARATION IS THE KEY TO A WINNING INTERVIEW
By Jean M. H. Fergus
The National Law Journal, Monday, October 19, 1987
Imagine this scenario. You're a junior associate at a medium-sized law firm in New York City. When you joined the firm after law school to work on trusts and estates, you knew you'd found your dream job. Well-known and highly respected, the firm seemed to offer lots of opportunities for young lawyers to move up the ladder.
However, after two years, you've discovered that reality is far different from what you expected. While you knew there'd be grueling workdays and enormous pressure - and you handle long, hard days well - you find yourself doing too many routine tasks with insufficient client and partner contact and decision-making responsibility to offset the mundane duties. The challenging assignments you know you're ready to handle just don't seem to be coming your way.
After evaluating your short- and long-term goals, personal and professional strengths and weaknesses, and the chances for growth at the firm, you decide to go elsewhere.
The good news is that you're working with first-class attorney search consultants, a recruitment team that understands where you fit in the marketplace and is committed to providing professional counseling and getting you happily placed. The icing on the cake is that your recruiter has arranged an interview for you, next week, with an excellent, Manhattan-based law firm that you'd give your eyeteeth to work for. She has gotten you such relevant data as the number of partners and associates, the type of practice, a job description, salary, anticipated billable hours, and insights gleaned from contact with the firm.
You know that your objective will be to present your professional and academic credentials and your "winning" personality so that you elicit a job offer. And you also know that this interview, or others for other opportunities, can have a major impact on your career. The thought of its importance makes you nervous. Because it's natural, under the circumstances, to feel nervous, what's the bad news?
The Bad News
The bad news is that you haven't interviewed for a position since law school and your interviewing skills are rusty and perhaps outdated. What are you, a junior associate eager to advance, to do? First of all, you'd be realistic in recognizing that every interview contains unknowns that you cannot anticipate or control. These include hidden agendas, personality traits and external pressures that affect the "chemistry" of the interaction. Trust that your professional instincts and personal sensitivity will serve you well as you navigate, as best as is humanly possible, any unexpected obstacles that may arise.
You'll be glad to know, however, that there are plenty of factors you can anticipate. And that you can actually place yourself in a position of strength during the interview. What it takes is simple - the kind of meticulous, advance planning you do in preparation for any important meeting.
The interview is a business meeting between two professionals conferring about a serious matter - the value of your services to the firm. It isn't adversarial, a litigation or a test of wills. But it is an ideal arena for you to demonstrate the abilities to think clearly, articulate concisely and listen accurately that are the basis for your excellent academic credentials and job performance at the firm.
The format for your presentation is, essentially, a question and answer (Q & A) session, with the interviewer doing most of the questioning. And, while it is impossible to predict exactly what will be asked, certain questions do come up over and over again. It is to your advantage to rehearse responses to the following questions:
Tell me a little about yourself An "ice breaker," this question allows you briefly to review your professional background, discuss your reasons for entering the law, and to draw a correlation between your personal and work styles and the firm's "personality" and expertise.
How did you do in law school? Summarize what most excited you about the curriculum, honors and pertinent extracurricular activities, and how law school helped you discover more about your professional goals. Cite your academic standing, if it's impressive.
Do Some Homework
What do you know about our firm? To answer this effectively, you need to do some homework. While your recruiter will supply such information as a client list and firm structure, you must research the firm's success stories and its history and philosophy.
Why do you find our firm attractive? Select one of the firm's projects that you've researched and that matches your expertise, and express a desire to contribute to efforts on such an assignment. Recognize several of the firm's achievements and, if possible, the distinctions of its senior partners.
Why are you leaving your present position? Discuss your interest in increased responsibility and challenge, in a firm that offers real growth. in committing to a team that understands the demonstrated value of your skills. Never bad-mouth your current boss or firm: you'll be viewed as disloyal and indiscreet.
Tell me about your research and managerial expertise and client interaction. Modestly and matter-of-factly, sell yourself here. Specifically and succinctly describe your major assignments and your contributions to the success of a deal. Illustrate how you handled a sensitive client matter, without divulging confidential information.
Why do you think you're right for this position? Restate your qualifications and reiterate the relationship between your credentials and the job description.
Describe your most challenging assignments and the ones you liked least. The interviewer is hunting for strengths and weaknesses. Demonstrate your problem-solving ability and how you handle, with grace and efficiency, the details and monotony entailed in any job, no matter how high its level.
Assuming we hire you, where do you see yourself in five years? In ten years? Express your short- and long-term goals and position yourself both as a future leader and as an individual willing to learn from peers and partners. A professional in for the long haul, you want to make a career investment in the firm.
What is your philosophy of professional conduct? As a lawyer, you are already committed to a standard of ethics. Use this question to articulate that ethic and your belief in individual responsibility. Position yourself again as a team player with unique qualities that make you valuable.
How would you characterize your personality? This is designed to get you off balance. Highlight your strengths, avoid "confessing" to flaws, and never become defensive. If you feel compelled to offer up a weakness, pick one that actually translates into strength - perhaps a tendency, in your dedication to the work, to push yourself a little too hard.
While it is unlikely that you will be asked any of the following questions, you may wish to prepare a courteous, general response along these lines: 'The question doesn't seem related to the position under discussion or the performance of my responsibilities."
Are you married? Do you have children?
How does your spouse feel about your career?
Have you ever used drugs and how much do you drink?
Are you busy this evening?
As you meet the firm's key players, you'll be asked certain of these questions again. Provide the same responses to each interviewer.
At some point during the interview, your prospective employer will ask you if you have any questions. Having already researched the firm, your questions should target the position and demonstrate your interest in broad issues affecting the firm. Consider asking some of these questions, tailored to your situation:
What are the responsibilities of the position in terms of client and partner contact, research, management and independent decision-making?
How do you assign work?
If I meet your expectations, what career growth can I reasonably expect?
How would you characterize the style and philosophy of the firm?
What do you think are the implications of recent tax revisions on management of trusts and estates?
Eliciting an Offer
Do not ask about salary, maternity leave and other benefits, staff date, vacations and working hours.
And do remember that, as you balance questions, answers and intangibles, your objective is to elicit an offer. At the end of the interview, you will want to express your interest in the position and the firm. Rehearse your expression of this interest, aiming for enthusiasm tempered by professional restraint. Avoid over-eagerness; you don't want to appear anxious. And watch out for ambivalence; even if you have reservations, the interview is not the place to let them show.
Practice your responses to questions and your own questions well ahead of the meeting in mock interviews, using a friend to role play the prospective employer. Work with a tape recorder or video camera so that you can objectively evaluate your answers and your body language. Look out for verbal or physical mannerisms that are distracting and correct those that can be corrected in time. These include pulling at a mustache, twirling a ring, shifting frequently in a chair, using "well," "OK" and "yeah."
During your review session, debrief yourself with these guidelines: Were your answers concise, positive, clearly stated? Did you allow the interviewer to complete the question or, in your anxiety to respond, did you rush in precipitously? Did you project self-confidence, a relaxed yet professional demeanor, warmth and directness? Did you know what you were talking about?
You've spent a lot of time rehearsing and evaluating answers to anticipated questions and you've prepared some questions of your own. You've researched the company and reviewed information supplied by the legal search consultant. What else is there to do?
Several days before the interview, confirm it with the recruiter and verify the firm's address and floor, the best route to its location, and the pronunciation of the interviewer's name and the names of any other individuals you may meet. Collect and organize such supporting materials as extra resumes, case histories, transcripts and a notepad and pen.
Then carefully plan - and even more carefully scrutinize - your wardrobe; in addition to demonstrating substantive expertise and excellent law school credentials, a professional demeanor and a warm, self-confident personality, you must, quite frankly, appear to be a winner as well. Look for tears, dangling threads and loose buttons. Try on the outfit and make sure it fits perfectly. Shine your shoes and organize your briefcase, avoiding extraneous material that may fall out or get in the way. Try for eight hours of sleep the night before and eat a substantial and nourishing breakfast or lunch the day of the meeting. You need to look and act as if you are operating at 100 percent efficiency.
Having prepared for your interview with precision, you are ready to present your credentials, to go for the offer, and to learn as much as possible about yourself from the experience. This means, therefore, that the interview doesn't end with the final handshake. It ends when you have thoroughly evaluated what transpired, independently and in tandem with your recruiter. Evaluation should include your honest and thoughtful responses to these questions:
What was the primary quality of the interview that first comes to mind? Was there "chemistry" between you and the interviewer?
What did you learn about the firm, its leaders and the position that could be useful to you and your recruiter should there be a round two?
Did you convey your relevant skills, talents and accomplishments? What additional information does the recruiter need to provide?
Are you still interested in the job? What are your reservations?
Did your body language communicate ease? Was your voice firm and strong? Did any verbal mannerisms sabotage your presentation? Did your wardrobe work?
Did any questions stump you?
If an offer is made, your interview preparation worked effectively. You demonstrated to yourself and others your verbal skills and the strength of your credentials and the "chemistry" clicked between you and your future colleagues.
If an offer is not made, this is not to say you failed or that your credentials or presentation weren't first-rate. Those unpredictable elements, "the intangibles", may have been operating, or other factors may have come into play. In job hunting, as in every other aspect of life, a philosophical attitude of "you win some, you lose some" is both realistic and appropriate. But, it also behooves you and your search consultant to determine, if possible, why an offer wasn't extended. You need to understand why you didn't achieve your objective this time so that you can achieve it the next time around.
As painful as the truth may be, your job is to get the job - and one of the ways to do that is to use interviewing to learn as much about yourself as possible. Knowledge is power in an interview, but, ultimately, self-knowledge is the most powerful tool of all.