Interview Prep Pointers

by Jon Lewis

Suppose you’ve finally landed an interview for your dream job. And say you’ve got great credentials and directly on point experience. In fact, on paper you’re a perfect candidate for that in-house or entertainment boutique position you’ve always wanted. You’re on your way, right? Well, maybe.

It’s important to understand that while you might possibly be “a” perfect candidate for a given job, it is unlikely that you will ever be “the” perfect candidate. If a job is attractive to you, odds are it will be attractive to other candidates as well, at least some of whom will probably have a resume just as good as yours. In which case, whether or not you get the job you covet may depend to a very significant degree on how well you interview.

Spend Sufficient Time

In this article, I will offer some tips concerning certain aspects of interview preparation. Before going into specifics, however, I will make a general point which I think may be the most important piece of advice there is on this entire subject: Good interview preparation takes time. More time, in fact, than many candidates actually devote. Throughout my nearly 14 years as a legal recruiter, I have been struck by how often candidates destroy their chances at a position they want by making interview mistakes that could have been avoided if they had simply prepared more thoroughly. If you’re not sufficiently interested in a job to spend a few hours getting ready for the interview, don’t go on the interview in the first place. The good news, though, is that if you do make a serious effort to prepare, there is a good chance you can out-interview a fair number of your less-diligent competitors for a position.

Describing Your Experience

More often than not, interviews focus on a candidate’s experience more than any other topic. You obviously need to be primed to elaborate on the background/skills you claim to have in your resume. If you’re applying for a position as a trademark associate and your resume indicates that you have trademark litigation and prosecution experience, you should of course be ready for your interviewer to ask for details of what you have done in that regard, including not only examples of specific matters but also what exactly you personally did with respect thereto. In general, I find that most interviewees are in fact pretty well prepared to answer specific questions about specific aspects of their experience. However, insufficiently prepared candidates can struggle far more with general, open-ended questions on this topic. It’s quite common for interviewers to pose a broad question along the lines of “What have you been working on since you’ve been at firm X? ,” and it can be surprisingly difficult to offer an articulate, comprehensive response unless you’ve really thought one out in advance. Make sure that you are ready to tell your story in narrative form, without relying on leading questions to provide structure because you very well may be called upon to do just that.

Common Questions

There are certain questions which very commonly get asked at interviews for which you need to have answers in mind before you walk in the door. For example:

  1. “Why are you looking to move?” and/or “Why are you interested in this position?” In addressing this line of inquiry, remember first and foremost that it is never a good idea to bad mouth your current (or past) employer. Doing so can denigrate the quality of your experience and/or make you look like a malcontent willing to bite the hand that feeds you. No matter how justified your grievances against your current employer may be, an interview is not the place to air them. Instead, stay positive, and be sure to mention the good aspects of your current situation. Believe me, “I’m learning a lot and getting a lot of responsibility” comes off far better than “I’m overworked and getting too little supervision.” And give specific reasons why you think the particular job you are interviewing for is a better fit. (If you can’t think of those reasons, you’re either badly under-prepared or interviewing for the wrong job.)
  2. “Where do you see yourself in X years?” In fielding this one, you don’t necessarily have to claim that the job you’re interviewing for represents your ultimate career objective. Particularly for junior level candidates, potential employers are not typically looking for a lifetime commitment at an interview, and suggestions thereof by a candidate can in fact come across as disingenuous brown-nosing. What is important, though, is that you be able to explain how the job you are after fits into both your long- and short term career vision. Even if they don’t necessarily expect you to stay forever, potential employers do want to hear an explanation for your interest in a job that gives them reason to believe that you’ll likely be with them for awhile, and not just until something better comes along.
  3. “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” I know, I know, everybody hates this one, but it still gets asked with some frequency. Most people are comfortable handling the “strengths” part of this question, but have more trouble with the “weaknesses” aspect. I strongly recommend against the “my weakness is really a strength” approach. Answers like “I take my work too seriously” and “I’m too much of a perfectionist” are more likely to get you a surreptitious roll of the eyes or snicker than a job. My advice is to tackle this question head on: Go ahead and admit to an actual weakness that isn’t likely to be fatal to your candidacy, and explain how you intend to address it. For example, if you’re applying for a general corporate position, it’s OK to say that you perhaps haven’t done as much securities work as you might like, as long as you emphasize that you (a) are interested in doing more securities; (b) have taken or are open to taking steps to learn more about the area (such as taking appropriate CLE courses, working with a more senior mentor who has experience in the field, etc.); and (c) have very solid experience in the other types of work involved in the position (such as M&A, lending, commercial contracts, etc.) Note that any weakness you admit to should be one that can be easily explained and remedied (such as a gap in experience), rather than a more enduring character flaw—even if you think you should earn points for candor, answers like “I tend to be lazy” or “I don’t get along well with other lawyers” are not going to get you hired.

Present Yourself Truthfully in the Best Light Possible

Never, ever say something at an interview that you don’t believe to be true. Apart from the very obvious and very serious ethical/legal issues involved, lying at an interview doesn’t work from a practical standpoint. At some point or another, interview fibs are almost always exposed, whether at the interview itself, during a reference check or other diligence, or even after you start in the job. That being said, an interview is an opportunity to promote yourself, and you want to make sure you do that well. There is a very important difference between being truthful and selling yourself short. It’s really quite rare that any candidate will truly be perfect for a position in all respects, but successful candidates are typically those who focus the interviewer’s attention on what they do bring to the table, rather than on their possible shortcomings. Suppose, for example, a litigation position involves a mix of commercial, intellectual property, products liability, and white collar work. If you have experience in the first three of those areas but not the last you cannot claim otherwise at an interview, but neither should you dwell any more than necessary on this gap in your skill set. Instead, convey your interest in white collar work, and be ready with specific examples of instances in your career where you successfully got up to speed and tackled issues outside your existing area of expertise.

Your Questions
At some point, almost all interviewers will ask you if you have any questions. Obviously, this is a chance for you to obtain information about the job and the employer. Perhaps less obviously, it is also a good opportunity for you to demonstrate that you are sufficiently interested in the job to have done your homework. Don’t ask questions that you could have found answers to on the firm’s website, or that anyone off the street might have come up with. Instead, ask employer specific questions in a manner which shows that you prepared for the interview. So, rather than asking “How many attorneys are there in the group?” (the answer to which you should know before the interview), a properly prepared candidate can say “I notice that you have six attorneys in the group now—why are you looking to add another and what are your future plans for growth?”

Partner Interviews

While most of the foregoing points apply generally to interviewing for positions at various levels of experience, there are some additional aspects of preparation that pertain to partner-level candidates with portable books of business. For more on this, please see my article “Interview Tips for Partner Candidates.”