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How to ace your next interview

How to ace your next interview

By Thomas Hobbs

Interviews 

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Doing your homework and knowing as much as you can about the role and the firm or organisation you want to work for will pay off.

It is surprising how under-prepared some lawyers are before a job interview. Here are some tips to help you prepare well and execute your plan on the day. While aimed at private practice lawyers, much of the advice can be transferred to a non-private practice role.

Part 1: Preparation

Know the role

Start with the job advertisement. Look for key information such as the area of law, specific tasks to be undertaken, required knowledge, required level of experience, type of clients, salary, who the role reports to the areas the partners specialise in and any discussion as to firm culture.

In a perfect world you will have a position description although often this will be difficult to get (for government roles these are easily attainable), or there may not be one. Follow up with the firm or your recruiter, and ask for further details about the role. This deep understanding will show through in your interview and enable you to ask tailored, informed questions.

Know the firm

Take a look at the firm’s website including the “About Us” section and the key practice areas relevant to the role. Read through each of the relevant partners’ profiles and don’t be afraid to look at their LinkedIn profiles (it helps to have an up to date and detailed LinkedIn profile). Read through relevant publications the practice area has on the website – particularly anything written by one of your interviewers.

Also, check any mention of the firm in publications such as the LIJ, Lawyers Weekly, Australasian Lawyer and the Australian Financial Review. You should also search the firm on the internet. Knowledge of interesting deals the firm has been involved with or any positive news stories can be worth mentioning (if relevant) during your interview.

Also, check if the firm does well on the major law firm rankings in your area of practice. If the firm ranks well, mention this during the interview. You may also want to speak to anyone you know who has worked at the firm, or who is still there. Be aware that from time to time people leave a firm on bad terms, so don’t let that colour your impression of the firm.

Know your interviewers

You need to know who will interview you in advance so you can research them. Follow up with HR or your recruiter if you’re unclear. Generally, HR is likely to ask more behavioural questions and partners or seniors lawyers tend to ask more technical questions. Of course, there are exceptions – the two most obvious being where you are just meeting a partner, or where someone from HR is essentially screening you before your interview with a partner and others. In both cases, you can expect a mix of behavioural and technical questions. There are no set rules on the type of questions you might be asked so be flexible and alert. Be prepared to talk about both.

Plan articulating your experience and narrative

Early on in the interview, you may be asked to give a brief snapshot of your career to date and how this role fits into your plans moving forward. Failing to respond to this question with conviction can make things difficult for the rest of the interview.

Firms like to see a natural progression between roles, and you should be able to take them through any moves (obviously in a positive light).

You should also be able to explain your motivation for leaving your current role (if you’re employed) and joining the firm. Typical examples include moving to a larger firm and team to gain exposure to more complex matters, moving to another firm to get more variety of work in your practice area (may feel pigeon-holed), moving to a team where there will be more opportunities for career progression, or relocating to another city for further opportunities (moves to Melbourne and Sydney are common). Feeling that you’re being underpaid can form the basis of a move to another firm although don’t mention your relatively low pay at the interview.

While money is important, frame the move in terms of the greater opportunities available in the firm where you are interviewing. Ultimately, be clear on your past moves and show that you have carefully considered how this move fits into your future plans. Firms generally want to see stability, and want to believe that you are planning to be with them long-term.

Know the expected questions and plan your responses

You can expect to be asked plenty of questions during the interview.

While there is not enough space here to go into detail, the following link provides a good summary: http://www.bplr.com.au/the-legal-interview-example-questions.html.

The best responses are always supported by examples. Lawyers tend to be quite process driven and are good with formulas, so using the STAR approach may help – describe the Situation, your Task, what Action you took and the Result. Obviously, don’t be overly robotic when using this approach and be honest. Overstating your input on matters can put you in an awkward position where the firm has unrealistic expectations of you.

Take pride in your appearance

While you should always be comfortable in your choice of clothing, recognise that law firms are generally conservative in their dress codes. Some firms are less so and this will become apparent over time. In your first interview with a firm, wear your best corporate outfit and keep the colours reasonably tame. Excellent personal grooming will always be appreciated, and really is expected.

Part 2: Execution

Arrival

Pre-plan your route to the interview address, taking likely traffic into consideration. Preferably arrive 10 minutes early so you can settle. Arriving 15 minutes early can seem a little long while five minutes is too rushed by the time reception notifies your interviewers. Announce your arrival clearly and confidently to reception, mentioning your first and last name and those who you will be interviewing with. If advised to ask just for the HR representative (and not partners or senior lawyers) then do so.

Greeting and small talk

First impressions count so maintain good eye contact, smile and exhibit positive body language from the moment you meet your interviewers and throughout the interview. A firm, though relaxed handshake will suffice – a flimsy or overly firm handshake won’t impress. Often an interviewer will engage with you in small talk. They want to see that you can relate on a personal level as well as a professional level. Interviews generally will differ in their formality. Use your emotional intelligence and match your interviewers’ level of formality, erring on the side of being conservative if you’re unsure.

Flow

Dialogue. Dialogue. Dialogue.

After you’ve responded to a question, it’s generally good practice to ask your own tailored and informed question, communicating awareness of the firm and genuine interest in the role. Don’t be afraid to take a breath and collect your thoughts before responding to a question. If there are multiple interviewers, ensure that you engage with each equally. A common mistake is for some lawyers to focus on a partner at the expense of establishing rapport with an HR representative. Also, mirror your interviewers’ body language, within reason, to build rapport.

Key messages

Think back to your narrative and the motivation for leaving your current role and interest in this one. Lawyers are successful obtaining roles because they can do the work required (technical fit) and show that they will likely get along well with the team (cultural fit). Demonstrate with several examples showing you have the technical skills to thrive in the role and that you’re a hardworking and committed team player. If you have a portable client base and/or you’re able to refer work to the firm, be sure to mention it.

Money and notice period

Having an idea of what you can demand in the market is one of the benefits of using a legal recruiter. Some would say their tables are at times inflated and used more as a marketing tool to ensure an agency gets your CV when you think you’re not getting paid what you should be. That said, they can provide a very general guide as to what you can expect at your level of experience and at a certain size of firm.

If asked about your salary package expectations, take into account the size of the firm, your experience, any work that you would refer to the firm and any portable client base that you have. Certainly don’t be evasive about your current salary package – provide it if requested. Just don’t volunteer it if not asked. Mention that while money is important, you’re more interested in joining the right team and firm. If asked about your notice period, be clear. This depends on the length of time you’ve been in the role and is usually four weeks. If coming from interstate, or if you’d like a quick break before starting the new role, add another week or however long you need, taking into consideration any urgency the firm has in filling the role. Also mention any set leave you need to take within your first year.

Thank you

Always thank your interviewers for meeting with you. If you feel the interview went well and you are keen to progress, be sure to communicate this before the interview ends. End the interview with an appropriate handshake.

If you’re not being helped by a recruiter and are keen to proceed, send a follow up email in the two business days following your interview. In it, thank the interviewers for their time and reiterate your interest in the firm and role, and mention that you are keen to proceed.

Hopefully these tips can help with your next interview. Remember, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Nail your preparation and the execution will usually take care of itself.

Good luck.


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