Many of us have come across a certain type of colleague: the one who is no better than us at the job and possibly worse, but can come across brilliantly at interview. As the law is meant to be a profession of sceptical truth-seekers, how do they pull the wool over the interviewers’ eyes? The Gazette is not about to coach readers on how to be a fraud. But professionals, contacts and friends have suggested useful ways to give a good account of yourself in the eyes of a potential employer.
Preparation 1: Digital hygiene
It is possible to over-egg that ‘online footprint’.
Remember, context is everything. If a public, findable image – your Facebook profile picture, say – shows you holding a glass of wine and looking benign, you really do not need to change it. Have a brief look at what’s out there. For legal jobs, an employer will certainly be concerned if you have expressed views that appear racist, sexist or otherwise discriminatory. They might also balk at a candidate who sounds aggressive or appears easily ‘triggered’.
A more common issue professionals have to address is their LinkedIn profile. If a diligent interviewer does not check your profile before an interview, they will likely check it after they meet you – especially if a job offer is in prospect. A surprising number of people use a cropped wedding shot for their LinkedIn photo. You probably looked great on the day, but it is better to look professional.
And do not just consider your online presence. Specialist legal recruiter Totum points out: ‘Your [personal] brand is everything that you say and do; off- and online. Even when you’re commuting into work, you’re conveying a message about who you are.’
That advice applies to your arrival for interview too. Be courteous to reception staff – if you’re not, word will get back.
Preparation 2: Research the people
Who are you meeting at interview? If you don’t know, try and find out because this also shows you are taking the process seriously. But do so nicely. Do not go ‘straight to the top’ to ascertain information like this. A polite enquiry to a recruiter, or the HR professional or personal assistant who contacted you, works best.
Have a look at their firm biographies and LinkedIn profiles. It does not matter that they can see if you checked them out on LinkedIn – if they notice, it shows you are serious about the upcoming encounter.
Preparation 3: do your research on the employer
Chances are that if you have been called for interview, you’ve done this already. But if you are there because a recruiter nursing a brief says the firm wants to meet you, you may not have done. It goes without saying you should check out the team you might join, but also look at things that relate to an organisation’s DNA – its values, as expressed in sections like ‘about us’, blogs, charities supported, press releases and so on. If there are diversity and equality pages, read them, and check out any awards and commendations the employer may boast.
Client lists, though not always available, are also useful. Some may appear in directories like the Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners. And do check a law firm’s write-ups in the directories, too.
Preparation 4: check your network
Are you in touch with anyone at the firm? A few insights on the firm and the culture may be helpful as you think about how you present your experience and skills. This is not a necessity, but if nothing else it may reduce the stress of entering an unfamiliar environment.
Don’t be late
It may seem surprising that we would even mention this, but for interviewers it remains their most common gripe. ‘There is never, ever, ever an excuse for being late or getting lost. Full stop. The end,’ is Totum’s curt advice.
Aim to arrive at reception 10-15 minutes before the interview time. If some catastrophic transport failure means you will certainly be late, call to explain and check that they will still see you at a different time. Simply hoping your luck will change and transport you past all obstacles is not a good strategy.
Don’t accept a cup of tea. Nowadays you get boiling water and need to select/dangle your tea bag, do something with the tea bag, add milk. Don’t accept any drink other than water
Suzanne Gill, Wedlake Bell
Suited and booted
Do not overthink the clothes you wear. A law firm may have cool media clients but they still won’t expect you to turn up in a casual shirt, or T-shirt or jeans.
‘I like people to dress smartly… like they’re going to, well, an interview,’ former Sony Electronics general counsel Jonathan Pearl advises. ‘I had a guy turn up in a collarless shirt once. Immediately ruled himself out of the job.
‘Dress up, not down to be safe.’
Making a splash
Candidates are commonly offered a beverage on arrival in reception or in the interview room. Do not complicate your environment by accepting one, Wedlake Bell partner Suzanne Gill says. Tea is especially dangerous.
‘Don’t accept a cup of tea,’ she advises. ‘Nowadays you get boiling water and need to select/dangle your tea bag, do something with the tea bag, add milk… don’t accept any drink other than water.’
And don’t turn up smelling of alcohol. This may seem obvious, but one experienced interviewer relates two incidences of this to the Gazette. There are other ways to steady any pre-interview nerves than a trip to the Wetherspoons across the road.
Know your own CV
You should be able to answer a question on any part of your own CV or application form – or what is that entry doing there? The good news is, your CV or application form answers have got you to interview and therefore served you well so far. If asked a general question about your experience, mention your highest qualification or best experience first, before talking about other examples.
First question counts
‘Answers that go on and on and on and on…’ is a common moan of interviewers, and this happens most often when answering the first question. Candidates can be so full of the information and thoughts that they have prepared for the interview that it all comes pouring out at the first opportunity. The interviewer will have a list of questions; and this really is a conversation they should be allowed to steer.
Questions can be predicted
You may not know exactly what you will be asked, but you can expect the questions to cover a fairly consistent list, however they are phrased. Recruitment specialists Robert Walters identifies five points. You should prepare an example for each point from your experience:
- Project management skills
- Problem solving
- Managing stakeholders
- Demonstrating sound technical knowledge, backed up by good business understanding
- Delivering on targets or goals.
Remember this is a conversation, so answer the questions put to you – which means listening carefully. Give specific examples when answering questions.
‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ This hoary old classic may not get asked much any more, but it is very likely that the interview will cover the extent of your ambitions. Having ambition is good and can show that you will be committed to improving in post in ways that will benefit the organisation. But don’t be glib, unrealistic or presumptuous. Saying you are aiming for partnership one day is fine, but looking an interviewer straight in the eye and saying you’ll be after their job is not a winning gambit.
It is good to think of the ‘ambition’ on show as something you and the putative employer need to share. The ‘wrong’ answers the Gazette has been told about are often one-sided, reflecting only the candidate’s agenda. ‘Why do you want this job?’ was answered by one candidate: ‘Because it’s really near my house.’ Avoid asking questions yourself that could come across as entitled.
As the interview winds up it’s a mistake to say: ‘What can you do for me?’ Candidates who give the interviewer a ‘knowing wink’ may also get rejected.
For jobs in the law, this is not usually the forum for a hard-ball negotiation about salary and benefits. Either the reward for the post should be transparently linked to the market rate and is known in advance, or this is one for a recruiter or headhunter to handle afterwards. It is unlikely in any case that you will be hired on the spot. If money is raised by an interviewer (specifically whether the salary is one you could accept) it would be fine to politely check that it is in line with what other people at your level in the firm are hired at and work for.
You are also interviewing them
It may feel like the balance of power favours the interviewer, but this is also an event the interviewer can mess up by making a bad impression. ‘What does your father do?’ is one question that puts candidates off.
Totum despairs of interviewers who have not read a candidate’s CV till the interview itself. Asking the same questions at each interview stage is also off-putting, and candidates are also lost when a process with more than one stage lacks momentum. Interviewers should also be ‘selling’ the firm and the opportunity with conviction. It’s all about them as well as you.