The recent employment figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing the smaller-than-expected gain in payrolls underscore a profound challenge facing today's job seekers. Even as we lurch out of the Great Recession, the anemic pace of job creation marks what economists are calling a "jobless recovery" far different from past post-recession periods.
Job candidates must contend with a cut-throat job market in which more and more applicants are competing over a limited supply of jobs. That's especially the case for recent law school graduates and attorneys. As law schools turn out 44,000 more graduates per year, they're seeking employment in a legal sector that's smaller, as a percentage of gross domestic product, than it was in 2000.
So when legal professionals go out for an interview, the stakes are enormous. Often facing off against ten or more candidates for the same position, they'd better perform effectively because they may not get another chance.
Fortunately, there are steps that legal job candidates can take to help outshine their competitors at job interviews. And while many of them seem like obvious, common-sense rules, the fact is that many candidates don't follow them. So, keep these steps in mind, and you'll give yourself an edge:
1) RESEARCH THE FIRM OR COMPANY WITH WHICH YOU WILL BE INTERVIEWING: One of the most common complaints you hear from interviewers is about job applicants who haven't done their homework. The fact is, however, that no two law firms or corporate legal departments are the same. Find out everything you can about the employer by conducting a general Internet search, by checking social media sites such as LinkedIn, and by networking with colleagues who work in the same industry. Commit to learn five unique facts about the prospective employer and be ready to ask about them. You'll be and feel more prepared and be far ahead of your competition!
2) BE THOROUGHLY FAMILIAR WITH THE JOB DESCRIPTION: Before you go in for a job interview, study the job description for the position and be prepared to discuss the specific skills and experience you have that pertain to each stated requirement. What if the job description you have is poorly written or vague? Do an internet search for similar positions posted by similar employers and see how they've described the job duties.
3) REVEIW, RECITE AND REHEARSE FOR THE JOB INTERVIEW: It's your resume -- which you wrote. And who knows more about you than you, right? And since you've always been fast on your feet, why not just wing it and "be yourself?" Because if you follow that strategy, you'll blow it. Chances are that if you had a business deal worth $1 million, you'd really prepare for the meeting. A job interview is nothing more than a type of business meeting - but one that can literally change the direction of your life. Spend at least one hour before every interview anticipating every question and practicing your answers.
4) DRESS UP FOR THE INTERVIEW: With informal dress codes becoming increasingly common in the workplace today, many candidates elect to dress in "business casual" mode for an interview. That's a mistake. Dress as if you're attending an important business meeting, which translates into a suit or sports jacket and tie for men, and the equivalent for women. The worst that can happen is enduring a little good-natured teasing from future colleagues who know you suited-up as a gesture of respect. In other words, it doesn't hurt to overdress!
5) DO NOT BE LATE TO THE INTERVIEW: You never, ever want to be late to an interview. If you arrive even one minute late, you'll probably blow your chances, however good the reason for the tardiness. This may not seem fair or even make sense, but is a fact of life. Plan your commute so that you arrive early to the interview site, and then walk into the Reception Area about five to seven minutes before the appointed time.
6) BE NICE TO THE RECEPTIONIST: The moment you walk into the Reception Area, the interview has begun. The receptionist is as much a part of an organization as the CEO and may be asked for his/her impressions of you as you waited for the interview. So observe good etiquette at all times and even engage the receptionist in some brief, light banter. You'll not only make a good impression, but might learn something about the employer you hadn't expected!
7) WALK INTO THE INTERVIEW WITH A LIST OF SPECIFIC QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT THE JOB AND THE COMPANY: Another big complaint you hear from employers is about candidates who don't ask questions during the course of the interview. Perhaps these candidates were trying to be polite and not impose on the interviewer's valuable time. The fact is, however, that candidates who don't ask substantive questions during an interview are viewed as uninterested, unprepared or unmotivated. Be sure to come in with at least ten open-ended, specific questions about the job and company.
8) DO NOT ASK HOW MUCH THE POSITION PAYS: The flip side to not asking any questions during an interview is asking questions that will exclude you from consideration. And the worst question one can ask in an interview is how much the position pays. At first glance, this rule may not seem to make any sense. After all, most of us have to work for a living, and it's perfectly reasonable to want to know how much a position pays. So why can't you just ask? The answer, unsatisfying as it may be, is "because." Simply put, asking about money in an interview is as scandalous as failing to hold out your pinky finger when you sip tea with the Queen. It's just not done, and for that reason comes across as unseemly.
9) DO NOT EXAGERRATE YOUR EXPERIENCE: We all want to demonstrate how qualified we are for the job. Still, no one knows everything, and if you try to bluff your way through an answer, you're putting yourself into a lose-lose situation. Either the interviewer will know you're faking and you'll be out immediately, or you'll be hired for a job you're not qualified to do, and be out later. It's perfectly OK to admit what you haven't done, and then describe comparable challenges or skills you've quickly mastered.
10) BE CONCISE: Most successful people, be they lawyers, plumbers or politicians, share one trait: they express themselves clearly and concisely. You want to demonstrate mastery of that trait during your interview, and can do that by taking three steps. First, do the preparation for the interview described above, and you will walk into the room focused, relaxed and ready. Second, listen carefully to the question being asked and be sure to answer that question in a responsive, interesting and upbeat manner. Third, no matter how broad the question may be, try to keep your answer to 60 seconds or less. That will allow your interviewer to follow-up with more specific questions, and make for a more effective, interesting and interactive experience for all involved.
A 1982 graduate of UCLA School of Law and former law firm partner, Todd Moster is the President of Los Angeles-based Moster Legal Placement, Inc. His company recruits and places attorneys and other high-level legal professionals into jobs with law firms and corporate legal departments. He also provides a specialized coaching service, Interview BootCamp®, which trains professionals of all kinds in effective job interviewing techniques. Todd's new book, The Underground Guide to Job Interviewing: A Quick and Irreverent Primer for the Working Professional , is a recent Amazon Best Seller in the Job Hunting category.