By Mary Dunnewold
Mary Dunnewold is legal writing instructor at Hamline University School of Law.
Fall is traditionally on-campus interviewing season in law schools. But these days, most law students don’t get jobs through on-campus interviews. And many students may not even participate in the process. Solid, professional interviewing skills are essential to your job search whether the interview is on or off campus, or fall, spring, or summer. Following some basic guidelines for interviews will help you land the job you want, even if you don’t participate in on-campus interviews.
Some good news: the skills necessary for successful job interviewing parallel skills taught in law school. Preparing for an interview is just like preparing for court. During an oral argument, your goal is to make your case to your audience and convince them to decide in your favor. Your goal during a job interview is the same. In fact, you probably know this “case’s” subject matter (i.e., you) better than any legal case. In either situation, to achieve your goal, you need to think about preparation, presentation, and professionalism.
First, think through the main points you want to make. Identify three to five qualifications or work experiences you have that make you a good fit for the position. Identifying your main points ahead of time will help you structure and focus your answers during the interview. This is your “theory of the case.” And like in oral argument, you should look for opportunities within the interview to bring the discussion around to these central ideas.
Next, think through how you will illustrate your points with supporting stories, like using “case illustrations” in legal analysis. For instance, if you plan to “argue” that you have strong legal research and writing skills, which are a key qualification for this position, be prepared to illustrate that assertion. Did you have a particularly good experience writing a motion memo last semester? Prepare your “story” about what you learned and how your skills improved. Did you work on a particularly complex and challenging research assignment for your externship last summer? Think through how you tackled the assignment and what you might do differently next time, and then be ready to reflect on it in the interview.
While potential employers may actually evaluate your skills based on grades, writing samples, and references, you can highlight aspects of this foundational picture by elaborating with stories during the interview. Also, interviewers need to be convinced that you can make an argument to support a point. Illustrating your points effectively will show that you can.
Second, do your research. Read up on the potential employer by reviewing the firm or business website and Googling for information. Talk to career services staff, professors, practitioners, alumni, or others who might have personal experience with the firm. You should know what kind of legal work they do, whether they have recently handled any newsworthy cases, what the firm structure looks like, and what their hiring needs are. Also, if you know specifically who will interview you, check out their online biographies or read about them in an lawyer directory like Martindale.com.
You may or may not find an opportunity to use this background information in the actual interview. While it can be frustrating to put time into researching specifics and then not have it explicitly pay off, there are still good reasons to do it. First, you’ll be fully informed about the employer and your potential colleagues, and that information will help you decide whether to accept the offer that follows your great interview. Second, research will help you develop a list of questions to ask the interviewer. Third, you’ll likely feel more comfortable and confident going into the interview because you’ll have plenty of information.
You should be savvy about how you use the information you collect—for instance, it’s not good to blurt out “I see you graduated cum laude in 1986” as the interview begins. You can demonstrate interest in the firm by showing that you did your homework. For example, you might ask a friendly question about an article an interviewer wrote for a bar publication, or you might ask about an interesting point in the firm’s history.
Finally, you need to physically prepare for the interview. Be sure you own a good-quality, relatively conservative suit well before the interview day. Before buying a suit, go to a high-end specialty store and look at the displayed styles. Then go buy the same thing at a less expensive department store. Shine your shoes and trim your hair. Print any documents that you want to bring along and have an appropriate portfolio to bring them in. Don’t leave these details until the last minute. On the day of the interview, you want to feel confident and ready, not harried because you ran out of paper or broke your shoelace.
Once you’re in the interview, make the best presentation you can. Remember that in many situations, the interviewer’s goal is to determine whether you are a good “fit” for the position. To show that you are the right fit, demonstrate that you understand the employer’s needs and how you meet them.
For instance, an employer hiring a summer clerk in a small, busy law office needs to know that you are ready to hit the office ground running and won’t need three months of training and a lot of hand-holding before you can get the work done. In contrast, an employer hiring for a career position in a big firm needs to be convinced that you understand business culture and will fit into the firm over the long term. That employer may be more willing to provide on-the-job training and more time to develop skills. And a judge hiring a judicial clerk may be most concerned about whether you have a compatible personality and set of interests.
As you field questions, use your answers to convince the interviewer that your qualifications, which you identified when you prepared your “theory of the case,” will meet these needs. If an interviewer starts by asking an open-ended question like “tell me about yourself,” you should not launch into a story about your passions for travel or skiing. Instead, you should talk about your education and work experience. If the interviewer asks “how’s your morning going?” you should not talk about how you burned the oatmeal and missed the train. You should instead talk about how excited you are for the opportunity to interview that day. You should hear every question as a question about the job.
Finally, remember that during the interview, like in an oral argument, you’re not in charge. You can’t control the questions you’re asked or the type of interviewer you’ve been paired with. But through your presentation, you can communicate your enthusiasm and qualifications for the job by being respectful, truthful, and responsive to the questions asked.
Finally, don’t forget the lessons of Professionalism 101. You have the good-quality suit. Be sure to wear it with a conservative tie or non-showy jewelry. Your personality should be on display in the interview, but through your words and manner, not your SpongeBob tie or funky earrings. Make eye contact and practice a firm handshake. Be aware of your posture and word choice. To the extent possible, avoid informal phrasing like “you know” and “like.”
If you are asked uncomfortable, inappropriate, or illegal questions about your marital status, religion, sexual orientation, country of origin, or age, try to determine what the interviewer really wants to know. Then handle the situation as professionally and politely as you can.
For instance, if you think the interviewer who asked about your religion really just fumbled a question about whether you are available certain days of the week, assure her that you are available when the employer needs you. If you think the interviewer who asked about your childcare plans is anxious about your day-to-day schedule, discuss the employer’s time commitment expectations and make your case that you are ready to meet them. On the other hand, if you think the interviewer simply posed an inappropriate question, you can ask how that information relates to the job and give the interviewer the opportunity to rephrase, or you can politely decline to answer. You can decide later whether the interaction affects your willingness to work for that employer.
It’s standard practice to end an interview with a question like “do you have any other questions for us?” Be ready with your closing argument. Restate your main points to nail down your theory of the case, and use this last opportunity to relay information that didn’t come up earlier.
After the interview, follow up with thank you notes to everyone you met during the day. In your notes, you can reiterate your interest in the job, and, if the situation calls for it, provide more information or an expanded answer to a question asked during the interview. Handwritten notes are nice, but a professional e-mail is also acceptable.
After the interview and any follow-up, move on. It can take a lot of interviews to land the right job. Just like in court, you don’t win them all. But with good preparation and professional presentation, you’ll make the best case you can. n
Vol. 42 No. 2