April 17, 2014

Some Advice on Job Interviews

Bow Ties
Image by shindohd via Flickr

If you know me, you know that I occasionally sport a bow tie. I’ve even been introduced as “the bow tie guy.” However, when I showed up for the interview for my current employment, sporting a black suit and a colorful bow tie, I was tactfully told by my future boss that I was probably over-dressed. Just a tad.

Yeah. The bow tie was out. I wear khakis and a tie, now. And on Fridays, Levis.

But I still landed the job. You see, they liked me. Let me explain.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to take part in mock interviews up at the local law school as an interviewer for 1Ls just beginning their second semester of school. It was a surreal experience to find myself on the other side of the table, to remember my own similar experience just a few years ago, and to wonder how I presented myself at that time.

To be sure, I did not have a lot of opportunities to interview–when I finished my first semester of law school, the economy was slumping, and the law industry was about to enter one of its biggest slumps in years. On-campus interviewers were few, and I lost track of how many resumes I sent out and how many rejection letters I received back. “Bullets,” my dad called them, harking back to his own grad school experience of job applications, because they were like gun shots to the ego. For a while I kept them, like badges of honor, until I realized that they just took up space, and besides, I got a better job that had not required a letter, anyway.

Which brings me back to where I was going: the interview and why I landed a job. A few observations, both from my experience and from talking with the mock interviewees up at the SJ Quinney College of Law earlier this week. Each impressed me as articulate, accomplished, and intelligent. They’ll make good advocates for their clients someday.

1. First observation: few law students have a clue about what they can do with their law degree, or, for that matter, what they want to do with a JD, other than pay off their loans. As I spoke with these students, most of them gave vague answers about their plans in terms of wanting to work for themselves, or work ineither transactions or litigation. It was clear they had little awareness for how broad a world the law encompasses within those categories.

Ironically, I don’t think I knew much better when I showed up to my interview wearing that bow tie. However, when asked, I immediately answered that I wanted to be an effective attorney, and I left it at that, without frills or garnishment. And that’s all my boss was looking for–an attorney to lighten his work load, albeit one he could get along with.

2. Which leads to my second observation: interviewees should try to be interesting and also interested, too. If you are in an interview, you are on paper at least minimally sufficient for the job. The question becomes Would I want to spend a lot of time with this person? All of the students I interviewed were interesting, and I don’t think any of them were unlikeable. However, there were some that made me feel more relaxed than others, and those were the ones I would want to hire. They also asked questions, were curious about what I did, what the office was like, and what skills I used.  In the law, or out of it, you spend a lot of time working, maybe even more time than at home, and you might as well work with people you like.

3. Last observation: law students think about future income, a lot, maybe too much.  As law students, unless they have a ton of savings, a sugar daddy, or some other way to pay for law school, they’re taking on a lot of debt. I know that, and every interviewer, unless they’re completely disconnected from reality, knows that. Nevertheless, it was disconcerting when interviewees noted, sometimes at length, that they were most concerned about how much debt they would have.Its a valid concern, but I don’t think it conveys to the right thing in an interview. It says: I need a job, any job, not I am an asset to you, which is really what theinterviewee should be saying. My advice: leave off the salary talk until the topicis brought up by the interviewer, and even then, deflect it until you’ve landed the job. At that point, the firm/company has made their decision, and you can negotiate from a stronger position. It’s going to come up; just don’t bring it up in your first meeting.

To sum up: if you’re a law student, start thinking about what you can do with a law degree, be interesting and interested, and don’t talk about your debt or income needs. Evaluate your interests, go to breakfast or lunch with people doing what you want to do, and start planning for it. Opportunities usually come while making other plans, but you only find those opportunities when you are out making, and working, those plans. We are drawn to a person with a plan, interviewers included. It shows leadership and that elusive, amorphous “self-starter” junk that seems over-advertised and under-available (why else would just about every legal listing be asking for a “self-starter”).

On the other hand, if a recent article on KSL.com is any indication, law schools could do more to help. Some already do a lot.  I do recall a few lunch time events that brought in various practitioners to talk about things like how they got where they are, as well as a solo practice seminar during the summer.  There was also workshops on networking and resume building, and opportunities for lunches with the local legal community. However, many, if not all, of my professors had very little experience outside of the university, and what experience they did have was usually in consulting. There were a few glaring exceptions (Ralph Mabey, a bow tie guy like myself, Amos Guiora, and Daniel Medwed are among a few exceptions at Utah’s SJ Quinney College of Law), but for the most part, most professors seem to have little experience looking for work, looking for clients, or the hustling necessary to make a good legal practice fly (or even find a job outside of a strictly legal career). It’s hard to ask a professor for career advice when most of their career has been in the ivory tower (which, recently, has come under attack for ostensibly bad ideas).

What would it take to bring in a rain maker or two, perhaps an upper level executive or entrepreneur who happens to also have a law degree? Even an occasional lunch or evening seminar with such individuals would broaden and expand the scope of law student career aspirations and ideas. Students shouldn’t have to wait until the have passed the bar to start looking around to form career paths.

As for me and my bow tie, well, I still wear it, just not to the office. It was the interview that landed me the job, not my cloths or my GPA, either.