It’s law firm interview season! Today we’re excited to welcome an (anonymous) highly-experienced law firm associate who has conducted numerous summer associate interviews on behalf of her law firm. In the first of two posts, she shares six tips for making sure you stand out during the callback process (and avoid disaster).
As a practicing attorney in San Francisco, I have conducted numerous interviews on behalf of the law firm I work for—always searching for the best and brightest!
Throughout this process, though, I have been surprised on multiple occasions by the faux pas committed by otherwise seemingly qualified, educated, and intelligent applicants. Along those lines, I have developed a “how-to” list that I hope will go beyond the typical advice to show up early and look nice. Perhaps this offers too much insight into my idiosyncratic pet peeves; but I promise you, if these things bother me, they could very well annoy your interviewer as well.
Here are the first six suggestions for acing your interview:
1. Research your interviewer.
This can never possibly backfire!
Go in armed with as much information as possible, whether or not you need to use it.
I remember interviewing for the job at my current firm and mentioning to the partner how fantastic I thought it was that she had recently been appointed to a leadership role in a particular national litigation I was interested in, especially considering that only about 12% of applicants were chosen. Did I know anything about this litigation or this partner until the night before? Nope. Was she flattered and impressed that I had looked her up and thought that she personally was an awesome attorney? Absolutely.
2. Roll with the punches and circle back to your qualifications.
Your interviewer may keep things casual and mostly ask you about your interests, etc. (Just another great reason to include some interests on your résumé! And please, keep them politically and personally neutral!). Sometimes, though, this makes applicants uneasy because they don’t feel they are being given the opportunity to really “sell” themselves. On the other hand, these are the best kinds of interviews because they can feel natural and conversational, almost as if the interviewer has already seen your credentials and is now just trying to decide if they like you.
One time, I walked into an interview with a partner and the very first question out of his mouth was, “What are your thoughts on tequila?”
Clearly, this is something I could never have prepared myself for. I’m not even sure I had ever had an opinion on tequila!
So what do you do? You roll with the punches. I came up with something quick that I hoped would show I was smart but also down-to-earth.
I think what I said was, “Well that depends, is it room temperature Patron silver or Cuervo gold that’s been left out in the sun?”
Ridiculous answer for a ridiculous question. Then, I immediately brought it back to what I had to offer the firm. Do I care one way or the other about tequila brands or temperatures? Not even a little bit. Did the partner think I crashed and burned? Must not have. I got the job!
3. On that note, have a template.
Here’s a pre-OCI exercise: think of your top three positive qualities that you would like to get across in your interview. Maybe you got fantastic grades, have a really unique pre-law school background, or perhaps honestly really love legal research and writing.
Whatever it is, make a list of evidence, such as experiences or honors, you can use to back up the claim that you possess each quality.
Next, think of creative ways to turn the question back to why you are a brilliant choice. Don’t talk about how much you will learn from the experience. We don’t care. Your personal development is not the goal here. We are looking for someone who will do well for the firm. Chances are, if you’re interviewing with an associate, it will be their job to bring their decisions back to the hiring committee to make a case for why they thought you would be a good fit.
We want to look good to our bosses. Qualifications and experience speak louder here than the camaraderie you think you two developed in your interview. That said, coming off as pleasant and charismatic is very important! You don’t want to be stilted or standoffish. Remember, the goal is also to show them that you are a person who would be enjoyable to work with, not an abrasive, albeit qualified, social pariah. If repeatedly harping on your qualifications feels too forced for the situation, dial it back.
4. Prepare some standard questions that also serve you.
At the close of your interview, you will inevitably be asked whether you have any questions.
If a person I am interviewing declines to ask anything of me, I automatically think (a) they are not interested enough, or (b) they didn’t research enough information to ask anything relevant.
Don’t be this person! You should always come prepared with something you can ask that will make you seem engaged, but which gets you useful information as well. Try to ask a question that the interviewer will enjoy responding to (Hint: People love talking about themselves and their accomplishments! See above).
If you can find an achievement of theirs in your research or ask them about the most successful moment in their own career, why they are passionate working for the firm they do, etc. these can give you tremendous insight into what they value and what the firm is like. These sorts of personalized details also work great to make you memorable in your thank you notes (see below).
5. Don’t ask personal or unrelated questions.
A lot of OCI advice says to research your interviewers and come prepared with talking points—as you should!
However, the fact that your interviewer’s page on the firm website mentions that they are a former Olympic swimmer or avid snowboarder it is not something that is necessarily appropriate to bring up.
Use your best judgment. These sorts of details can give you a fuller picture of who this person is and things you have in common, but when the “do you have any questions?” part of the interview rolls around, you should probably limit your queries to the job itself and the interviewer’s professional life.
6. Be careful when asking and answering the weird questions.
It should go without saying, but if you are asked about your race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, marital or family status, etc., this is illegal and you should not put up with it. You should report these questions to your office of career planning.
The problem is, it’s almost never this blatant.
Blurry lines are part of the reason questions are so problematic. So what do you do if a topic comes up that you’re not sure about, but which feels inappropriate or too loaded? Do you answer honestly and give up your privacy, or storm out in a huff? The answer is neither.
From an interviewer’s perspective, there’s a fine line to walk. Questions such as (and I wish I had never heard any of these in real life!) “What an interesting accent, what country are you from?” or “Wow, you’re really tall, did you ever do any modeling?” or “That’s fascinating you choose spend time after college traveling through X country, do you have family there?” can all seem good-natured, but actually put you in quite an awkward position.
While you should absolutely exercise your right to guard your personal information, keep in mind, more often than not, the interviewer is not trying to be insulting, so getting mad might be an over-reaction.
Answer if you’re comfortable, but if not, just hedge with responses that speak to the intent of the question, rather than the substance.
For example, here, the questions above are failed “get to know you” inquiries. The asker is probably just making a clumsy attempt at being friendly and wants to find out more about you. See if you can respond with something light or breezy, albeit slightly evasive, such as “Do I have an accent? I guess I never noticed!” or “You know, traveling throughout X country taught me so much about [fill in the blank positive quality you have, see above].”
On the other side, if you are asked a question with some potential mine fields for answers, always err on the side of professionalism as well.
A few months ago, I asked an interviewee what his favorite part about traveling through a particular region had been (benign enough, or so I thought). He responded that, “The women ‘over there’ are really traditional and prioritize coming home to make dinner every night.” For unknown reasons, he followed this up with a comment about some pretty personal undergarment choices. On paper, he was a qualified guy, but needless to say, I made sure he did not get a call-back!
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Wow, some interesting stuff in there! Stay tuned for part two later this week…
Want more tips on OCI and law jobs? Sign up for our free mailing list today.
And check out these helpful posts:
- How to Use the Summer to Jumpstart Your Job Search
- The Key to OCI Success
- Rock OCI and Get the Job You Want
- The One Thing That Needs to Be On Your Résumé to Ace a Callback Interview
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