Use your interests as a tool to guide you through the interview process!
Advances in technology and the internet have made it extremely easy for people to apply to hundreds of jobs at once. These are welcome advances, of course, but unfortunately it has led many to take a ”let’s throw it all out there and see what sticks” approach. This approach will undoubtedly lead to interviews, especially when someone has the credentials and academic record to stand out from the pack. But interviews will rarely convert into offers if you lack a genuine interest in the job for which you are interviewing.
To be successful in any interview setting, you will have to master both your known interests and what I refer to as developed interests. Known interests are those interests which you have at the outset of your job search. Developed interests are those interests that you work to develop, and that naturally develop, in the course of preparing for (and even in the midst of) your interview.
Known interests tend to accrue and change throughout the course of one’s career. They are experiential in nature. Thus, a second-year law student applying for summer associate positions is likely to have fewer known interests than a third-year associate or a partner with 12 years of experience. In either case, before beginning your job search, you should take the time to ascertain the full scope of your known interests and limit your search to prospective jobs that meet those known interests.
For example, imagine that you are a second-year corporate associate at a large, well-respected law firm in New York. You decide to move to Washington, D.C. and have determined, over your first two years of practice, that you have a particular interest in mergers & acquisitions. At the outset, before you even begin your job search, you have certain clear known interests. Your known interests include, among other things, your interest in moving to Washington, DC, in practicing at a law firm, and in gaining experience with mergers & acquisitions. Upon reflection, you may discover additional known interests that you were not previously aware of. For example, after giving it some thought, you might realize that you prefer to practice in a small or medium-sized firm, or alternatively, you may determine that you have appreciated the resources made available to you in a larger firm setting and thus want to limit your search to similarly-sized firms.
Now that you have successfully identified your known interests, you are ready to begin your job search. Your recruiter informs you that there are several DC law firms that meet your known interests and are looking for associates with 2-4 years of general corporate experience, all of which have robust corporate practices and particular expertise in mergers & acquisitions. You send out your resume to each of the firms and, based on your strong academic record and your experience at your current firm, are offered interviews at several of them.
Presumably, you will spend some time separately preparing for each of your interviews. During your preparations, you should naturally find yourself developing additional interests which will help you navigate through your interviews and will provide you with additional insight into your interests and long-term objectives. For example, while preparing for your interview with Firm X, you might discover that the firm recently opened three new offices in Asia, including an office in Beijing, all within the span of six months. You previously spent a semester abroad in Beijing and have at least some proficiency in Chinese. You realize that it would be beneficial to your career, and of interest to you, to gain experience working with Asian markets. Naturally, among other things, you will have questions:
Why did the firm decide to open three offices in Asia within the last year?
Are there opportunities for attorneys in the U.S. to work with attorneys in Beijing on M&A and other transactional matters?
Does the firm have an international exchange program in place which would allow U.S. associates to go abroad for a period of time to gain experience in other sectors and industries?
If not, is the firm considering implementing such a program?
By asking these questions to the appropriate person(s) during your interview, you will convey your genuine interest in the firm and will set yourself apart from the other candidates. Moreover, you will likely learn valuable information that will make you more self-aware and will help you make an informed decision about which firm(s) you are most interested in working at.
Proactively engage your prospective employer!
While it’s important to be prepared and ready to answer any questions that might be posed by your interviewer, you should also remember that you are interviewing a prospective employer. It is not enough to simply prepare, show up and passively field questions. You must proactively seek answers to your questions so that you can determine if the firm is a good fit for your needs and interests.
You should make a list of questions prior to the interview that will assist you in obtaining the information you need to make an informed decision. Review your questions and reflect on who would be best-suited to answer each question. You should then make sure to speak with your recruiter (if you are working with one), or with the person setting up your interviews, and let them know what your interests are so that they can help ensure that your interview schedule accords with your interests. While it is important to interview with those having the clout and authority to make hiring decisions, you should also make sure that you interview with attorneys who are similarly-situated to you, even if these individuals are young associates or even attorneys outside of your practice group. For example, if you are interviewing for a summer associate position, ask to interview with a first or second-year associate who summered at the firm.
Alternatively, if you are a fourth-year lateral applicant, ask to interview with a recent lateral (even if that person is not in your practice area), so that you can ask that associate about his or her experiences transitioning and acclimating to the firm and can get a real sense of what the lateral experience is like at the firm. You may also want to interview with an attorney who moved to the firm as a young associate and subsequently made partner. The point is, be proactive and take charge of your interview!
Success in interviewing comes from posing the right questions to the right people. A first-year associate is not going to be able to give you real insight into the philosophy of a particular practice group or the group’s business development strategies, but a senior associate or partner will. If you ask this question of the first-year associate, you will convey a lack of ”real” interest in the actual response and the associate will become disinterested. You must relate to that associate. You will want to ask the first-year associate your questions relating to what it’s like to be a summer associate and a first-year associate at the firm. For example, your questions might include the following:
What was your experience as a summer associate like and what kinds of assignments did you work on?
How did your experience as a summer associate compare to your experience as a first year associate?
Can you provide some examples of matters you are currently working on and describe the work you do on those matters?
You should focus your questions on the experiences of the attorney with whom you are interviewing. By doing so, you will keep the associate engaged in your interview while simultaneously obtaining valuable information about the firm and the kind of experience you can expect to have. The more you engage the person you are interviewing with, the better you will be able to sell yourself as a prospective candidate.
You will want to make sure to similarly engage the other attorneys with whom you interview by actively participating in each interview and directing each of your questions to the attorney best-suited to answer your questions. Presumably you will interview with one or more partners within your prospective practice group. Your questions might include the following:
Can you tell me about your specific practice and what kinds of matters you focus on?
How have you built up your practice over time and how do you go about developing business?
What kind of work can an attorney of my experience and class level expect to do on your matters and/or other matters within the practice group?
What do you believe will make for a successful attorney in the practice group?
What, if any, formal mentoring programs are in place between partners and associates?
Of course, you will have some questions that can easily be answered by more than one attorney, such as questions about the culture of the firm or about the rapport between associates and partners at the firm. To the extent time allows, you should ask these questions of each person you interview with in order to get the most fulsome set of perspectives. It’s always good to have a couple of questions in reserve in the event you find yourself with a passive interviewer or just with extra time on your hands.
Pay attention to the responses of your interviewer and ask follow-up questions as needed. Your interviews should take the form of an ongoing dialogue rather than a series of unrelated calls and responses. If you focus on asking your interviewer questions that are geared to your specific and genuine interests, a dialogue should naturally result and, in turn, a natural rapport will develop between you.
Finally, if you have remaining, or additional, questions at the end of your interview, let your recruiter or the person who set up your interview know that you still have additional questions and would like an opportunity to speak with someone about them. Be specific! For example, you may ask the following: ”I am really interested in learning more about the international exchange program the firm is getting ready to implement. Is there someone in particular whom I could speak further with about the program?” Do not hesitate to proactively seek out answers to any remaining questions you may have. After all, the more information you have, the better positioned you will be to decide which prospective employer best meets your interests.
Impress yourself upon your prospective employer!
Once you are offered an interview, you have effectively won half the battle. At this point, it is generally all about ”fit.” Your credentials and experience have made an initial impression and now it is up to you to impress yourself upon your prospective employer.
In order to really be yourself, you have to know yourself and what it is you are seeking to accomplish. By assessing your known interests, and working to develop additional interests during the course of your preparations, you will naturally develop a better sense of yourself. But it is critical that you also take the time – prior to your interviews – to further develop your self-awareness. By doing so, you will gain an understanding of yourself and will develop a self-confidence that will capture the attention and interest of those with whom you interview.
The following types of questions should help you to develop your self-awareness prior to your interview:
What are my long-term professional goals and how will this position help me to achieve those goals?
What, if any, short-term sacrifices am I willing to make in order to achieve my long-term goals?
What concerns, if any, do I have about accepting a position with this prospective employer?
What do I believe I have to offer my prospective employer and what makes me unique/sets me apart from other applicants?
What are my greatest strengths and my greatest weaknesses at this point in my professional career?
What skill(s) am I most interested in developing and which prospective employer is best situated to help me gain those skills?
If you take the time to think about these (and similar) questions, and thoughtfully respond to them prior to your interview, you will develop a better understanding of how you can be of value to a prospective employer and will be better equipped to proactively seek out the information you need to determine whether a particular job accords with your interests and career goals. As a result, you will be much more at ease and confident during the interview process.
And remember that it is to your benefit to be yourself! Your personality is what will distinguish you from the other candidates. Think about your own past experiences interviewing potential employees or co-workers and how refreshing it was to interview someone who offered up no pretenses, gimmicks or artifice. Consider the fact that you are likely to be just one of many people interviewing for the position, all of whom presumably have similar credentials. There is very little to set one person apart from another in such a circumstance and, thus, personality (or ”fit”) is often the deciding factor that leads to an offer.
Finally, you should strive to impress yourself upon every prospective employer, even if you are not certain that the firm is the exact right fit for you. The focus prior to and during your interviews should be on being prepared and presenting your best self so that you can get the job offer and create every possible opportunity for yourself. There will be ample time after the interview to decide if any given opportunity is right for you.