What Are They Thinking? Insight Into What an Interviewer is Looking For – Part 1

Part 1:  The Law Firm Interview 

Know your audience.”  You likely have heard that advice countless times in your law school research and writing class.  For writers, for speakers, for entertainers, the mantra of “knowing your audience” is vital to getting your point across, to moving people at a commencement speech, or to making people laugh or cry in the theater.

Truly, it is difficult to write a brief, or make an argument, if you do not know who you are trying to persuade.  The same is true when you are in an interview.  If you have no idea what the interviewer is looking for during an interview, then you will likely not be able to be at your best or effectively demonstrate why the organization should hire you.

Accordingly, in this two-part series, we are going to delve into an aspect of interviewing that a lot of job-seeking lawyers do not consider enough – what the interviewer is thinking.  The first article in this series will focus on interviewing at a law firm.  The second article in the series will cover interviewing at a company seeking in-house counsel.

Think Less “Look at Me,” and More “How Do I Solve Problems for You”

Right now, you might be thinking, “Hold on a minute, I think about what the interviewer wants.  In fact, my interview preparation is entirely focused on that.”  While it may be true that you focus your interview prep on being the right candidate for the job, ask yourself – do you really consider what the interviewer is looking for?

Oftentimes our interview prep is all about us.  We plan to talk about our credentials, our grades, our experience, our accomplishments, and our career goals.  But what about the firm?  Without doubt, your background and achievements are important to mention in an interview.  Yet, we suggest changing your focus a bit by putting yourself in the interviewer’s shoes.

Consider making your interview all about the added value that you bring to the firm.  For example, say that you have had a considerable amount of client contact in your last job even though you were a relatively junior associate.  Your first instinct is to frame that experience as a demonstration of how mature you are as a lawyer.  But think again.

From the standpoint of the interviewer, the value of that experience comes from the fact that you may need less supervision than other lawyers, which is a major plus.  Or better yet, the value add is that you might bring more revenue to the firm because you are ready to attract your own clients.

In sum, when prepping for an interview, take the focus off of your career goals, and put the focus on how your experience will help the firm achieve its goals.

A View from the Interviewer’s Side of the Table

We all know the thoughts of uncertainty and nervousness that come when we are confronted with interview questions like “tell me about yourself?” or “where do you see yourself in five years?”  But let’s now focus on the thoughts of the interviewer (i.e., “know your audience”).  Each law firm’s needs and goals will vary, but generally speaking law firms are looking for three primary things from a candidate:  (1) the ability to do the work, (2) the potential to bring in clients, and (3) the personality to fit in the firm’s culture.

Thus, as you start interviewing with law firms, you need to be aware that the interviewer has some specific goals in mind from his or her side of the table.  The interviewer is not just there to get to know you.  Rather, he or she is evaluating whether you check off those three needs above.  Let’s talk about them in more detail.

  1. The Interviewer Wants to Make Sure You Can Do the Work

For any law firm position, the firm already has an idea of the type of experience level it is looking for in a candidate.  Thus, your job is to show that your work history fits the bill for that specific position.

In your previous position, particularly if you were a very junior associate, it is likely that you practiced in several areas of the law, perhaps employment law, environmental law, and commercial contracts.  Yet, if you are interviewing at a firm looking for an employment associate, then you need to be sure to emphasize all of your employment experience to show that you can hit the ground running.

In addition, consider carefully whether you want to say that you are “looking forward to learning more” about a particular area of the law.  The interviewer is less interested in your desire to learn more, and more interested in knowing that you already have enough experience to do the work in that specific department.

  1. The Interviewer Is Looking to See if You Can Bring in Clients

At the end of the day, a law firm is a business.  And as a business, a law firm has to focus on its bottom line.  While we all know that money should not drive all decisions at a law firm, it is a reality that a law firm needs revenue to remain a going concern.

Accordingly, you need to be aware that the goal to generate revenue will be a high priority on an interviewer’s mind.  Thus, if you already have a book of business (even if it is small), then emphasize that in the interview.  That kind of added value speaks for itself.

Of course, many candidates do not have clients yet.  Not to worry.  In that case, your goal is to use your previous experience to show that you now have the potential to bring in clients.  It is not the more noble side of the practice of law, but “money talks.”  So, be sure to address the interviewer’s unstated need to know that you have the potential to add to the firm’s bottom line.

  1. The Interviewer Is Getting a Feel for Your “Fit” in the Firm’s Culture

The third primary aspect that your interviewer is looking for is “fit.”  This element is probably the most subjective of the three because the question of whether you click with the interviewer, or would click with the firm’s culture, has more to do with personal chemistry rather than bullets on a resume.

The best way to satisfy the interviewer’s expectation in that regard is to do some homework on the culture of the firm.  Typically, you can get a feel about a firm from word of mouth, or from taking a close look at the firm’s website, publications, press releases, and social media.  Of course, you won’t be able to know everything about a firm’s culture prior to the interview, but doing your homework will put you in the best position for a successful interview.

To conclude, “knowing your audience,” gives you the information you need to please or persuade your audience.  So, as you prep for your next law firm interview, remember to talk less about the quality of your skills, and more about how your skills will add value to the firm.  Do that, and you will find that you are more likely to nail that law firm interview.

See you next month for Part 2 in this series:  The In-House Counsel Interview.