Banish Interview stress: Our top 10 tips

So, you've been shortlisted to interview stage at the firm of your choice, in itself an achievement in an increasingly competitive legal market. Now for the actual interview - here are our top ten tips on how to excel at a job interview:

1. Identify key competencies…

You will no doubt be aware of the main competencies that the interviewers will be looking to assess, based on the outline job specification and your own experiences to date at your current firm.  However, it is always a good idea to speak to your recruitment consultant and any contacts that you may have at the firm with whom you are interviewing in advance.  This will allow you to understand any specific requirements of the role and also to better understand the interviewing firm's culture and the particular dynamics of the team that you could be joining.  For example, is the job opening arising as a result of the team expanding or as a result of the departure of an existing team member?  Is the firm ideally looking for a candidate with expertise in a specific area and knowing that will allow you to prioritising demonstrating that expertise in the interview?  Does the firm particularly value an interest in pro bono or corporate social responsibility that you can emphasis your interest in during the interview?

Conversely, if there are gaps in your competencies (none of us is perfect, however experienced a lawyer we are!), be prepared to explain why and, if possible, evidence an enthusiasm to bridge them and an ability to do so.

2. Provide examples…

You will be expected to provide examples of your specific skills and competencies, normally with reference to circumstances where you have put these core skills/competencies into working practice. For example, drafting on a particularly complex deal, or a time where you showcased your skills in front of a client in a meeting etc.  The obvious way that an interviewer will do this is by asking you to speak to one or more of the transactions / cases etc. featured on their CV and asking you to run them through the key details, your main role and any particularly interesting legal points which may have arisen.  In light of that, it is critical that you are in a position to speak intelligently on any such example transactions / cases featured on your CV.  If you are a more junior lawyer (where there may be things on your CV in which you played a fairly minor role), it can be a good idea to order your CV experience as far as possible so that the transactions / cases etc. on which you played a bigger role or on which you can speak in more detail are listed first.  This tactic is no guarantee that an interviwer will not select something from further down the list to focus on in the interview, of course!  Ultimately, the key thing is to be honest about your experience on your CV. If you only played a small role on a transaction / case, say so and explain why that was the case.

For more junior candidates, interviewers may not be looking for specific examples of your experince in a specific field (because you likely don't yet have that depth of experience yet).  Rather, they will likely be looking for evidence of your core transferrable strengths (and weaknesses) which will show them whether or not you can be developed within their particular team structure into someone with the more specific skills that they are looking for.  In light of this, it is a good idea to prepare for this question by reference to your CV, for example if, on a particular transaction / case on your CV you showed your organisational skills in running a complex closing process or successfully managed a difficult client situation.

3. “What is your biggest weakness?”

Questions of this kind frequently crop up in interviews.  In order to prepare an answer, it is important to consider why an interviewer is asking the question. As noted above, none of us is perfect and. at whatever point of our careers that we are at, we all have aspects of our work where we feel that could perform better. 

What the interviewer wants to test by this question is: are you self-aware enough to recognise your areas of weakness and are you sufficiently proactive to do what is necessary to address the issues (or, conversely, are you honest enough to know that there are perhaps areas that you are never going to excel in, however hard you try)? 

In our experience, common weakness that lawyers of all levels identify are things like, delegation (whether to more junior lawyers or support staff), public speaking (whether formally in the context of giving client presentation sessions or less formally in the context of speaking in meetings or on conference calls) or drafting. 

It helps if you have already identified and started to tackle your area of weakness, as this can provide some valuable evidence. You may have several areas that could be improved. If this is the case, select the area in which you feel you can best demonstrates your ability to improve. 

4. Be prepared for ‘off the wall’ questions... 

A key trait that is tested during many interviews is the ability of a candidate to deal with a situation where he or she does not know the answer to a question. This may be tested by asking complex questions on an area of law or a transaction / case you have worked on or by way of a case study. There may not be (and probably isn't) one correct answer. The interviewer is typically interested more in how you approach answering the question and your reasoning than your final answer.

These questions are designed to assess how well you can think on your feet, how you analyse the unexpected and whether you can keep calm throughout the process.  Effectively mirroring the sort of situation that can arise in a client meeting...

The purpose of this technique is twofold, the firm want to know (a) that you would be upfront to the extent you didn't understand any aspect of the scope of work you were being asked to do and (b) how you would react in a client situation where you don't immediately know the answer to a question posed.

The best way to deal with this is by giving an open and honest response together with a demonstration of an ability to apply logic and draw on your own analogous experiences.  For example, "I'm not entirely certain of the answer to that specific question, but based on similar situations / areas of law that I have had to look at, I think that... " or "I would need to have certain additional information in order to answer that question, namely...".

5. Know the market...

So, you have done your homework on what competencies a firm will likely be testing and preparing evidence for each of those competencies. However, how do you now go about answering more wide reaching questions such as:

"Why do you think we stand out from our competitors?"

"What are the current significant issues affecting law firms?"
Commercial and market awareness is a key attribute for any legal role. You might want to ask yourself, “Once I’ve got the job, how might I contribute to sharpening the firm's competitive edge?” To do that you need to have up-to-date knowledge of the legal market, the firm you are applying to, their competitors and so on.  

Be aware that everyone will have access to a basic level of information using the internet, so any research you can do over and above that will make you a stronger candidate.

It is also always worth "name dropping" any recent significant transaction / case that you know that the firm or, even better, the particular interviewer has been involved in.

6. Your motivation…

So far we have been looking at your ability to do the job.  But as well as testing whether you can do the job, interviewers will also want to know your motivation for choosing the job they are interviewing you for if they make you an offer.

This can sometimes be explicit, as in the question "why do you want to work for us?", or they may assess how you transmit your enthusiasm in other ways during the interview, for example by way of the questions you ask them. 

Key questions to ask yourself are:

- What do I want to get by working for this firm specifically?

- How do I want my career to progress?

- What it is about law that enthuses me?

- What satisfaction do I get from making a valuable professional contribution?

Put yourself in the interviewer’s shoes: how would you identify a motivated candidate?  

7. Be specific, be succinct, give adequate information… and try not to ramble!

This ia key for both the simple and complex questions in an interview.  While interviwers will be aware that nerves can come into play in an interview (and it is quite natural to feel nervous in a job interview), being able to communicate clearly and concisely while under pressure is an essential quality of any good lawyer.   . 

Practice an interview scenario with a friend or family member, being as concise as you possibly can in your answers but including all the essential details. If you find yourself beginning to waffle, just take a sip of water, pause and remind yourself of exactly what you are trying to communicate and get yourself back on track.  Be specific, wherever possible.

Consider the difference in impact between the following statements: 

"I did some work experience in a couple of law firms during my university holidays."

"I did a paid placement at an international law firm employing around 60 people in the summer vacation of my second year; and a shadowing placement in a firm of solicitors with a staff of four people, during the Easter vacation of my first year."

The second example gives a much clearer and specific picture of what you did.

8. What if they put the pressure on...

The most important thing is not to assume your interviewer is being critical or that your performance is lacking. Keep calm and take it one step at a time. The interviewer may simply be drilling down to elicit enough evidence to meet or, ideally, exceed the competence in question. Make their job easy by giving them as many examples and as much detail as they require, but do try to control the flow of information and the direction of available questioning on a point as much as possible.  In the heat of the moment, it can be tempting to throw in an offhand reference to something of which you know little about, but which you think will impress the interviewer.  This can be a risky strategy, as the interviewer may pick up on it and ask you more detailed questions that you rapidly become unable to answer as impressively, leading to what could otherwise be a successful interview being derailed quickly.

Even the most adept of candidates can find themselves with a mental block from time to time. If you need to you can ask them to repeat the question or to provide clarification in order to stall for time and allow you to get yourself back together. Remember, the interviewer is human (however senior) will likely have been on your side of the table as an interviewee several times themselves!

9. Your questions…

As mentioned above, asking questions of the interviewer is your chance to find out more about working for the firm and an opportunity to re-emphasize your motivation for the role that you are being interviewed for.  Typically an interviewer will provide an opportunity for you to ask questions of them at the end of an interview (although this does not mean that you should not ask questions at any time during the interview, if it is apropriate timing to do so).  By asking you if you have any questions, it is in many ways yet another way for the interviewer to find out about you.  Unless the interview has been particularly "two way" and you have obviously had all your questions answered already, an interviewer will likely find it strange if you have no questions of them at all, if you are really interested in the role.  On this basis, it is always wise to prepare at least one question in advance.  This can be personal to the interviewer (for example, asking what it is about thier job or the firm that they work for that they find most satisfying / rewarding etc.) or could be a follow up with respect to the make up of the team that you could be joining or the particular type of work that the team does / you would be expected to undertake.

On ths basis, asking intelligent questions will make a good impression, but it is important that your questions are genuine. For example, try not to ask a question which you could have easily answered by looking at the firm's website (which runs the risk of looking like you're asking a question for the sake of it) or which is not really relevant to your role or PQE level. For example, you might ask about the level of training that is offered to lawyers of your level, or opportunities to contribute and develop the role that you are applying for (for example, through participation in business development or participation in "associate council" or similar internal initiatives).

10. "Google" your interviewer if you can, they will almost certainly "Google" you...

One last simple trick - if you know who is going to be interviewing you and if you don't already know them, try to find out what you can about them and their practice prior to the interview.  Virtually everyone has a searchable on-line presence these days and it is often as simple as looking at the particular lawyer's profile on their firm's website or websites such as Linkedin.  As an interviewer, it is flattering when a candidate is able to reference something about you (perhaps where the interviewer went to university or how long they have worked at their present firm) and is a really easy win for a candidate.

The flip side of you being able to do simple internet research on an interviewer is that you can bet an interviewer will be doing the same to you.  On this basis, make sure that your social media is set with appropriate privacy settings, if there are photos, comments, blogs etc. on there that you would not want a potential employer having access to (let alone before they have even met or spoken to you).  You would be amazed how many candidates do not do this and it can lead to an interviewer not having the first impression of you that you would want!


*If you are applying for a role via HIA Legal, we offer confidential classes in best practise interview technique and can arrange bespoke in-house mock interviews. Speak to your consultant for further information.