This is a guest blog post by Ed D’Arcy.
You did everything you’re supposed to do for a successful job search – drafted a cover letter and resume by following the templates found on the NDLS web site, provided them to a counselor at the CDO for proofreading purposes, submitted them in response to job postings or resume collections on Symplicity/IrishLink and BAM – you score an interview with a law firm!
In order to properly prepare for the interview, you conduct a mock interview with a CDO counselor and perfect responses to potential interview questions. Since you’ve done everything necessary on your end prior to the actual interview, you wonder – what are interviewers at law firms really looking for when interviewing a candidate for a position with their firm?
I spent many years engaged in civil litigation as a partner in small and mid-size firms located in Chicago, and interviewed countless law students and attorneys alike during this time. If an interview was scheduled with a law student or attorney after submitting his/her resume, it was presumed he/she possessed the necessary education, background, and qualifications to succeed at my firm. Since education, background, and qualifications were usually not at issue if a firm agrees to an interview, the following traits were the ones most important to me (and most interviewers) when deciding whether a candidate should be offered a follow-up interview or position with my firm.
Although it seems obvious, this one seems to surprise many students. Very simply, the single most important characteristic I sought in a job candidate was whether they were someone I would like to work with. Frankly, I could tell within a short period of time whether the candidate was someone I liked or someone who would not be a fit for our firm. Who are the most likeable candidates? Easy – those who are engaging, enthusiastic (without being hyper), and treat an interview like a comfortable conversation, not an interrogation.
The determination of a candidate’s likeability actually begins from the moment of introduction. If the interviewee shook hands with a firm grip, looked me in the eye, and was smiling and enthusiastic (repeat: not hyper) when first speaking, it was a great start to becoming likeable. Those interviewees who had a weak handshake, did not smile, and were a bit lifeless when introducing themselves fell into the “indifferent” category which they would be forced to overcome during the subsequent interview to become likeable, no small feat and unlikely to occur.
During the course of an interview, the best candidates create a rapport with the interviewer in order to become the most likeable. What’s the best way to create a rapport with an attorney? Again, easy answer – ask them questions about themselves (not just the firm) since attorneys love talking about themselves. But it doesn’t end there – the timing of when to ask the questions makes all the difference in the world in this regard.
If an interviewee did not ask me any questions during the interview and was merely responding to my queries, I would get tired of hearing myself speak and thought the candidate didn’t care that much about getting the position. By the time I reached the end of the interview with the standard line “Do you have any questions?”, the damage had already been done and no offer would be forthcoming. In order to truly establish a rapport with the interviewer, make sure to ask relevant questions at the appropriate time during the course of the interview, not at the end.
Relevant questions to ask an attorney during the interview include those like “what are some projects you are currently working on”, “how did you decide to become a litigator/transactional/corporate attorney”, “why did you decide to go to ___________ law school”, etc. By asking personal questions like this of an attorney during the course of an interview and not waiting until the end, the potential for establishing a rapport is greatly enhanced which increases the likeability factor.
A timid introduction and failure to ask questions during the course of an interview did not mean I disliked a candidate; it simply meant I was indifferent towards them which would not attract a follow-up invitation to return for additional interviews or an offer. If there was one thing which would guarantee a short interview and no offer or follow-up, it was when an interviewee was arrogant, egotistical, or condescending not just to me but to any member of my firm before, during, or after the interview. So word of caution— treat everyone who works at the firm you’re interviewing at with the same enthusiasm, smile, and personality as you do the interviewer including the receptionist, secretary, and any others.
If you don’t naturally have an energetic or enthusiastic personality, I assure you it is something which can be learned and acquired with practice. That’s what the counselors at the CDO are for. Make sure to schedule mock interviews with them for as long as it takes until it becomes second nature during the interview process. Developing a more energetic or enthusiastic (one last time: NOT hyper) personality will boost your likeability factor which is so important to establishing a rapport with the interviewer and eventually resulting in a return visit or offer.
- Effective communication
When I was interviewing law students and attorneys, it was vital that they could effectively communicate during the course of an interview since they would be communicating with clients, judges, fellow partners, and others as a member of my firm. At its simplest, effective communication means a) listening carefully to the question asked and, even more importantly, b) responding only to the question asked without undue elaboration or hyperbole.
Obviously, almost every question during an interview requires some type of narrative response. Although a narrative response is necessary, it doesn’t mean you should take 5 minutes to respond to a simple question such as why did you go to law school. Effective communication is synonymous with direct communication. Explain your response to a question in clear, unambiguous terms and then STOP TALKING. The longer you continue on, the more likely you are to eventually wander into areas unrelated to the original question or, even worse, the more likely you are to sound disingenuous. Either way, the interview will start heading downhill from there since the interviewer will tire of your rambling responses or see through the artificial nature of the disingenuous responses.
Contrary to overly long responses, effective communication also requires that you elaborate or refer to facts/examples as often as necessary when appropriately responding to an interview question. It’s one thing to merely respond “I’m a hard worker” in response to a question about your greatest strength; it’s far more persuasive (and effective) to rely upon facts or give examples before making such a statement such as noting how you worked part-time during your undergraduate years and found time to volunteer for charitable activities before concluding what a hard worker you are. In short, don’t limit your answers to interview questions just for the sake of brevity or else you won’t be as persuasive and effective by providing elaboration as noted.
Obviously, there’s a middle ground to strike when effectively communicating during an interview. You have to say enough without saying too much. If you have questions about how to find that balance, practice makes perfect so schedule mock interviews with the CDO and become the most effective communicator you can be.
- Confidence without arrogance
To be successful in sports, jobs, and life, you must have confidence. This is particularly true in the litigation field where you must constantly put that confidence on display before a judge, jury, client, opposing counsel, or other partners. As a result, I looked for confidence when interviewing law students or attorneys for a position with my firm.
Having confidence should not be confused with having no nervousness or anxiety. Unless they’re lying to you, law students and experienced attorneys are nervous or anxious to some extent before any interview, trial, appellate argument, important client meeting, or other event. Obviously, the more experienced the attorney, the lower the level of nervousness or anxiety but it is nonetheless present. Frankly, I think some level of nervousness or anxiety brings out the best in attorneys because it heightens the senses and gets them more focused than if they were completely indifferent about the outcome.
Reduced to its simplest terms, confidence is not appearing nervous or anxious even though you are but appearing poised, cool, calm, and collected. Since nerves or anxiety are (or should be) present, confidence is simply the ability to manage the nervousness or anxiety. Fundamentally, the most successful litigators are those who can persuade a judge, jury, or opponent that they’re right and the other side is wrong. Obviously, the more confident an attorney acts while advocating before a judge, jury or opponent, the more likely they are to persuade them.
Overcoming any nervousness or anxiety and appearing poised, calm and collected (or confident) while talking with a client, opposing counsel or even senior partner is an essential quality for most attorneys. Although it’s important to appear confident during an interview, you must be careful not to appear or act egotistical, arrogant or over-confident. Instead of feeling indifferent towards those candidates who do not have the necessary qualities to be likeable, attorneys will actually dislike interviewees who appear or act arrogant, particularly law students, who are not even licensed, much less experienced in any practice field. In order to be successful when interviewing for a position with a law firm, be confident but humble; not arrogant.
A few additional tips about appearing confident – always look at the interviewer when responding to or asking questions, speak in a firm but friendly tone and don’t fidget, but appear relaxed during the course of the interview. Remember – comfortable conversation, not a fidgety interrogation.
In the end, the best way to develop confidence is to believe in yourself. If you’re a student at Notre Dame Law School, you should believe in yourself because 3 out of every 4 who applied for admission were rejected. Don’t focus upon any of your flaws but upon your strongest characteristics to nurture a sense of confidence. I hate to sound like a broken record but the best way to show confidence without arrogance in an interview is to practice so schedule a session with the CDO if you lack the confidence necessary for a successful interview.
An interviewer at a law firm is not looking for some magic formula or magic responses to interview questions. As noted above, you wouldn’t be interviewing in the first place if your resume did not provide the sufficient level of education, background, and experience to be successful at the firm. When I encountered candidates who were likeable, effective communicators, and confident without being arrogant, I would routinely schedule follow-up interviews and/or made them offers to join my firm. It’s as simple as that.