Advice from law professionals on how to stand out from the pack, make a good impression and avoid common mistakes in an interview.
Law school is challenging enough, but landing that first job after graduation or competing for coveted internships can be nothing short of a battle. A solid resume and cover letter that focus on strengths and experience can land candidates an interview with law firms, private companies, government organizations and notary offices. But what happens during the interview process is the breaking point between securing an exciting new job and returning to the drudgery of an ongoing and protracted job search.
The secret lies in investigating your own background, harnessing the power of determination and strategizing how to best prepare for each interview. Below is advice from law practitioners with years of experience hiring new lawyers and notaries – including how to make a good impression, how to talk about strengths and weaknesses and what to avoid.
Being prepared and focused
The interview process truly begins before candidates and interviewers even meet. “Preparation is key,” says Michèle Denis, Director of Professional Resources at Stikeman Elliott and former Director of Student Programs, where she was responsible for recruitment for almost 10 years – she also practiced as a lawyer for 15 years.
“One of the first questions interviewers will ask is ‘Why are you applying here?’ ” says Dominique Tardif, Managing Director at the Montreal office of ZSA Legal Recruitment, and a lawyer herself and active member of the Québec Bar. “You can’t repeat the same story to 10 firms. You have to show that you know about them to impress them.”
Notary Louis Vincent, General Director at Prud’Homme Fontaine Dolan, S.E.N.C.R.L., part of the Quebec-based group PME INTER Notaires adds “there is a wealth of information and statistics on the web for almost all firms and companies, as well as on the websites of the Chambre des notaires du Québec or Emploi-Québec.” What kind of information should be sought out? “The candidate should know about my business, the focus of my practice, the names of my associates, and he or she can ask me questions – we can have a real conversation,” says Vincent.
Knowing yourself, being yourself
It’s understood by interviewers that most people going into an interview for a first job or internship have minimal experience in legal practice, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have valuable, transferable experience in other areas. Companies and firms are above all looking for people who are a good fit – a combination of skills, experience and personality.
Skills and work experience should be contextualized in terms of how they transfer over to a career in law. This requires some introspection: “Sit down and determine what it is that makes you tick, what you like and don’t like, what you’re aiming for, and have your objectives clearly set out,” says ZSA’s Dominique Tardif. “Interviewers look for resilience, work ethic, discipline, team spirit. There are examples of that in most people’s background, whether you’ve worked in a law firm before or not – you could have worked as a camp counsellor or a teaching assistant, for instance.” Tardif adds, “Give interviewers something to remember! They might be seeing 30 or 40 people – facts talk more than flowery language. If you’ve been a ski instructor and woken up at 5:00 a.m. four days a week to teach all day, talk about that experience.”
And be persuasive, Tardif continues: “The whole point of the interview is to convince someone they should hire you. You have to ask yourself near the end of the interview, ‘Have I given the interviewers enough reasons to think that they really need me?’ ”
“First and foremost, the interview is an opportunity for someone to get to know you,” says Stikeman Elliott’s Michèle Denis. “So authenticity, truthfulness and being natural is very important.” But how much personality can a person really share in a formal interview? “I think the most important thing is to show me your enthusiasm and convince me that you will become indispensable,” says Me Louis Vincent. “I look for people who already have a game plan, who know what they want to do and have clear expectations about working conditions.”
Vincent’s group looks for resourceful and organized people. “Beyond that, we try to attract different personality types depending on the specific position we have to offer. Because we are a private practice, we often seek candidates, for instance, who show they want to bring us new clients and develop our business.”
Making a first impression
Candidates can’t underestimate the value of making a good impression. Interviewers expect to see a certain degree of nervousness, but since working in law is often a high-stress environment, how candidates handle their nerves is important.
“It’s how you walk in, how you shake someone’s hand,” says Denis. Interviewers are looking for someone who is assertive yet polite, who makes eye contact and smiles.
“Smiling is underrated,” says Denis. “It creates openness and shows interest.”
Not making eye contact, looking all over the room while listening or speaking, or directing an answer at an interviewer who didn’t ask the question are all mistakes that can happen in interviews.
Me Dominique Tardif
Tardif says that sometimes people don’t ask relevant questions at the end of an interview and that this can make the difference between choosing one candidate over the other. “Don’t ask about work hours and salary, and don’t ask questions for which the answers can be found on the firm or company’s website, but instead ask a more in-depth question or say something that conveys your interest – even as simple as saying that you’ve learned a lot in the interview and are very interested in working there – employers want people who are passionate, work hard, are devoted, can be part of a team.”
Tardif adds that candidates shouldn’t just say what they think employers want to hear: “I have employers say to me, ‘We like this candidate, but we felt his answers were fairly superficial; we didn’t feel like we knew that person at the end of the interview, and we need to know a person in order to hire him or her.’ ”
Common interview questions and responses
Want to know what to expect in an interview? Here are some common questions that help interviewers determine who’s right for the job and general guidelines to answer them.
Why have you chosen law?
The answer should convey your personality, showing genuine motivations that drove the decision to follow such a challenging career path, since the purpose of this interview question is not simply to verify information on a CV and in a cover letter – every interview question, even the ones that seem out of left field, helps interviewers determine if a candidate’s personality and skill set are a good fit for the firm or company.
Why do you think you’d be a good pick for the job?
Answers should show you’ve done research on the firm or company and are even prepared to ask questions about it: “It’s nice to see someone who has thought of a deeper question, for instance about the culture or future of the firm,” says Denis. With that in mind, interviewers might also ask you about your own future, career plans and where you see yourself in five years.
Questions about past work and volunteer experiences
Answer these questions with examples that illustrate specific learnings and how they have been or could be helpful in a law career. These questions might also include experiences and accomplishments you’re proud of, challenges encountered, and how you might deal with a challenging situation in the workplace. Questions about being a good team player can be answered with illustrations from work experience and in team projects at law school.
What area of law interests you?
Don’t answer what you think the interviewers want to hear, but truthfully, even if you don’t know yet, says Tardif, who often hears the answer “International law,” though in the day-to-day reality of law practices there is no department of international law. “A better answer is that you’re interested in business law rather than litigation and can see the necessity of working with other countries in your job. If you don’t know, explain that you have diverse interests at the moment… The interviewers just want to see what you think and how you think.”
Questions about a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses
These questions should be answered honestly and with examples if possible – and “Please don’t say I’m a perfectionist – when people tell me that, I will say ‘Great, and what’s your other weakness?’ ” says Tardif. You could say you don’t focus well on subjects you’re not interested in – often cited as a reason for a poor grade on a transcript – and follow it up with examples of where your focus is clear and determined.
Questions regarding current events or recent developments in the industry
Browsing through a newspaper and online is a good idea during the week before the interview – if keeping up with current events isn’t already a habit.
Excerpted from Les carrières du droit 2013