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How to succeed (and have fun) at informational interviews

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It can be difficult trying to figure out exactly how you want to use your law degree. Do you want to work in the government? For a large firm? A smaller or medium-sized one? A public interest group?

Lucky for us, we lawyers have lots of options. One of the best ways to drill down on these choices and refine your career goals is with an informational interview. While they’re interviews, informational interviews are quite different from traditional job interviews and, without a doubt, shouldn’t cause any nail biting or sleep loss.

In fact, I submit to you that informational interviews can even be considered fun. Yes, I understand I’m a long-time lawyer, so perhaps what I can consider fun might differ from what law students might consider to be fun; but in terms of career decision making, I stand firmly behind that statement.

What’s the difference?

There’s one main difference between an informational interview and a job interview: The goal of the meeting. Stating the obvious, with a job interview, your goal is singular: to get the job! The balance of power is pretty clear—prospective employers have the power. They get to ask most of the questions, set the tone, and lead and direct the conversation. Of course, this power will shift a little if you’re offered a position and begin negotiating the terms of your potential employment.

With an informational interview, the main goal is for you to learn. The pressure is off, for both sides really, and you, in essence, have more control. Depending on the personality of the person with whom you’re meeting, you can and should steer much of the conversation. This isn’t quite as hard as it sounds despite how impressed, perhaps intimidated, you might be by the interviewer.

A person who grants an informational interview is more likely than not to be someone who cares about the field, likes to help others, and, to a certain extent, enjoys mentoring. And while you want to make an impression during an informational interview you should keep the pressure off yourself. You’re there to learn and connect with professionals in your field. I’ve conducted scores of interviews, both traditional and informational. I enjoy both a great deal, but with the more relaxed setting of the informational interview, I often feel as if I get to know the interviewee better—someone whom, if I had an opening, I’d surely contact and consider for a future position if the fit were right.

The lesson? Don’t underestimate the value of an informational interview beyond that of gleaning information. The truth is that informational interviews are important first networking steps in your new career.

Wing it? A wasted opportunity

There are many similarities between informational and formal interviews. If there’s one thing I want to stress about both types of interviews, it’s that you should always dress professionally. Come looking like a lawyer even if you know the person with whom you’re meeting favors flip-fl ops and shorts to a shirt and tie.

I know well a very successful lawyer who, when not in court or meeting with clients, dresses this way. He also conducts a lot of informational interviews— in his signature flip-fl ops and shorts. However, he knows his audience and understands when it’s important to look the part. If you know the person with whom you’re going to meet or the meeting is outside a law firm or business environment, still dress like a lawyer unless you’re told otherwise. Even then, no flip-flops—wear shoes!

Next let’s talk about preparing for the interview. Always do your research before either type of interview. Whether it’s an early-morning meeting at a local coffee shop with a lawyer you admire or a true job interview at a law firm, learn about the person with whom you’re meeting, familiarize yourself with her practice, cases she has worked on, articles she has written, and where she attended school. There’s absolutely no excuse for walking into either type of interview and winging it.

As I mentioned, I conduct both types of interviews quite frequently. While I don’t expect interviewees to remember every detail about my life, if I say something about an area of my work that’s prominent, and they seem to know nothing about it, it’s clear they’ve not done their homework.

What does that show me? A lack of interest. Don’t give an interviewer the chance to toss you into the millennial or Generation Z complaint pile. A lack of interest is never a message you want to send to anyone in your prospective field. A lack of preparedness is professionally off-putting and easily avoided.

No devices. No exceptions!

For both types of interviews, be prepared with insightful questions. When it comes to an informational interview, there may be very specific information you want to learn. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with glancing at a pad with your notes and questions on it.

Notice that I said a pad. By that I mean one made of paper. Not Google Keep, not a notes app on your phone. Never, and I really mean never, take out your phone during an interview, even if it’s to look at your notes or questions. Though this may seem to be common sense, allow me to take this warning one step further: Your phone should be totally off—not on vibrate—in any professional setting.

Even if you’re waiting for the interviewer to come into the lobby, an office, or a conference room, it’s better to simply sit there, reading a newspaper (or staring at the wall) than at a screen. I know this sounds old school and may be hard for some of you to hear, but please take this advice. (Can you tell I’m a mother as well as a lawyer?) In informational interviews, questions are the way you steer the conversation, and they enable you not to waste the opportunity you’ve been given.

Also, don’t be afraid to jot down notes during either type of interview. It’s not a law school lecture, so naturally you shouldn’t be staring down at your paper feverishly writing down each word. But if something is said that piques your interest or you think you might want to circle back to, by all means, make a reminder for yourself.

Informational interviews are essential to your professional growth. Don’t be afraid to ask for them from people you know, people you admire, and people you think you might be able to learn from. I guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the positive responses you get to your requests.

Six Dos and Don’ts

Here are some informational interview dos and don’ts:

  • Do relax a little. A job offer isn’t on the line. Connect, inquire, and learn.
  • Do come prepared. Try to keep in mind that you’re leading the interview. Come with notes or at least an idea of what you’re going to ask. You should be especially prepared if this is someone whom you’ve never met before.
  • Do listen. You’re there to learn, after all. Take notes, pay attention, and be present. This is a great opportunity.
  • Don’t make the interview all about you. Perhaps you sought out the interview because you think that some day you might like to work for the person sitting across from you. That’s great. Naturally, you want that person to know about your achievements. But reciting your resume to someone who isn’t looking to hire is misplaced and can be tedious. If you’re listening to what the interviewer is saying and truly interested in learning, the conversation will likely flow freely—and during it, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to share information about yourself.
  • Don’t try to make the interview work around your schedule. Informational interviews are valuable to you, and most people who grant you one enjoy it at some level (or perhaps owe a favor to someone you know, which is a completely acceptable basis for the granting of one). But be mindful of their schedule, and be sure to be flexible, accommodating, and grateful for the time
    offered.
  • Don’t forget a thank-you note. This goes for all types of interviews. Always send a thank-you note to your interviewer—email is just fine (but not text, please). Make sure your notes reference specific aspects of the conversation; don’t simply say “thank you for your time.”

Informational interviews provide a way for you to learn more about the industry you’re about to enter and to help you make a more informed choice about where you see yourself within that industry. If you make the effort to seek them out, you’re showing you care about your career and your future—those are really good things.

So I say go for it. Request and attend as many informational interviews as you can. I guarantee it’ll be time well spent. And, hopefully, years from now, you’ll pay the favor back and meet with a law student or two who themselves aren’t entirely sure what they want to do with their law degree.

JILL STANLEY is a co-founder of Cohen & Cohen PC in Washington, D.C. She’s a former assistant district attorney in New York and a criminal defense lawyer in Washington, D.C. She’s also a professorial lecturer at The George Washington University Law School and Pepperdine University School of Law. She provides legal commentary at such media platforms as CNN/HLN, NBC, and    CBS and maintains the celebrity legal news site www.PROOFwithJillStanley.

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.