Most of my initial mock interviews with students go like this: they have good, well-researched answers to why law and why X firm, they’ve been following commercial stories well and they can talk about a recent deal. I know this because they’ve told me before in conversation. We then we set a time for the mock interview and everything changes. They’re rigid, they waffle and they grasp to say everything they can about the question. They speak quickly and often give irrelevant answers to the questions because they didn’t listen – instead they answer with the question they expected to be asked. All of a sudden it feels less of a conversation and much more like an interrogation.
I see nerves as one of the toughest battles to face because it often prevents good students from showing who they really are. But you can develop this skill and overcome it.
Break out of Interview-mode
One commonality I noticed between myself and many other trainees is we all started off with imposter syndrome – to varying degrees – when applying (which then came back when we started working). When I began my answers were very stiff. I had memorised answers and couldn’t adapt to tougher questions. I struggled to talk about everything I knew – and I had really researched the firm – because I was so nervous. It becomes self-defeating, I’d be convinced I wasn’t good enough and it showed (good-old mirror neurons).
Once I learned how to break out of interview-mode, it flowed much more like a conversation and I was able to be myself. In my view this is the key to a successful interview: it allows you slow things down, answer questions in a professional but conversational manner, and it gives you a degree of control over the direction of the interview.
There are a few things you can work on to develop better interview technique and break out of interview mode. The first is deliberate practice. That means you want to simulate a real interview, reflect on how you did and then do it again and again. I usually suggest students draw up a list of questions that you might be asked and find someone to give you a mock interview. If you can ask another law student or know someone in the field, great. If not, don’t worry – it can be anyone (even your parents). The point is to treat it seriously. The interviewer – whether they are in law or not – can offer feedback on your verbal and non-verbal communication (body language), which make a big difference in your performance. If you can record yourself that’s even better, it’ll feel a bit odd, but it’s a great way to identify areas you can improve.
I’ve just arranged mock interviews over Skype with some students, so feel free to drop me a PM if you’d like one, and I can offer feedback – but that’s completely optional.
Rehearse (but don’t script) answers
The second is to rehearse answers. That means outlining how you would answer a question. I suggest 3-4 bullet points which give you the flexibility to adapt your answers to a question and expand if necessary.
The key is not to script, a lot of students memorise answers and whilst you might get something out: it’s likely to appear robotic. Likewise, if the question is worded slightly differently, relying on your memorised answer will make it irrelevant.
On the other side, I note some people are against or just don’t rehearse answers – that doesn’t make sense to me. Think of it like an exam where you’ve been given half the questions in advance. That’s your opportunity to get bonus points and impress by preparing excellent responses to the ‘why this firm’ or ‘why commercial law’ questions, especially when many students will stumble on those questions. The key again is that you’re not simply offering scripted answers, but you’ve got a basis for a developed and thoughtful answer.
Fake it till you become it
The third suggestion is something I learned after a series of early rejections. Once I took this advice on board, I saw a dramatic shift in my performance, and now it’s something I tell all my students. Check out Amy Cuddy’s TED talk ‘fake it till you become it’ to see what this means.
Imagine you’re a very experienced lawyer already. You’re a senior associate at a law firm and you’ve established a great reputation. Visualise this. Now in your mock interview, pretend Legal Cheek have come to your office to ask you questions, you kindly offer to take a break from your busy schedule. Try answering these questions as if you were this person.
After the mock interview, ask the interviewer how you did. Were you more confident? Did you feel better able to tell your story? The key to tackle feelings of doubt is to embrace a growth mindset (see Carol Dweck’s work)
I note this technique has worked for students in other professions too – friends have turned around medicine rejections – simply due to this attitudinal shift. It might seem unconventional and feel odd to do a little acting, but see how it goes: I intend to do an article on this at some point but hopefully, that’s enough to get started.
A final point on this: have good eye contact, a firm handshake, an upright – but not rigid – posture and smile.
It’s OK to be vulnerable
If I could give my younger self a piece of advice before interviews, I’d say “ you’re going to be nervous but that’s OK”. Reaching the interview stage with any of these firms isn’t easy and some people struggle to get an interview at all. I know it’s scary but they’ve identified you as an applicant with potential.
Try to see this as an opportunity to get to know the firm and for them to get to know you, it’ll then feel more like a conversation. At the interview, it’s OK to pause and think about difficult questions. You can ask them for more time to think about your answer. You can say you don’t know if you don’t know. Often this leads to some of the most thoughtful answers.
I’ve found honesty to be one of the most powerful – yet rarely mentioned – traits which are important for the interview and in practice. When you start working you know very little and the more open you are to listening, the quicker you’ll learn.
If you get rejected after an interview, always ask for feedback. That’s tough to do – going through the interview process and receiving a generic email hurts. A little story of my own: during an interview with a US firm, the of counsel reacted to one of my responses with “that’s the best answer I’ve ever heard to that question”. I left completely confident I’d nailed it. I was very happy. Two weeks later – and after much internal celebration – I received a rejection by email. That hurt. After some time I had the courage to ask them for feedback. The first answer I received was: “it wasn’t what you said, but how you said it” – I had no idea what that meant, so after some back and forth, I learned that some of my answers weren’t relevant enough. That was really useful feedback. I suggest asking them to be as (constructively) critical as possible so you can improve, they’ll typically respond well to that.