Being Your Best Advocate During an Interview: Part One

On October 14, 2009, I attended a program titled Intelligent Interviewing: Telling Your Story, Selling Yourself at the New York City Bar Association. It was an excellent program, and one of the most useful programs I have attended in a while. In an economy that is so competitive, volatile and unpredictable that seasoned attorneys are applying for paralegal and secretarial positions, being smart and meeting a job posting’s minimum requirements are not enough to get you that dream job (or any job for that matter). You have to sell yourself by telling your story in the most compelling and persuasive manner. No matter what you may think, you do have a unique story to tell.

Panelists Lori Freudenberger, a former prosecutor, and Maureen M. Reid, principal of Maureen M. Reid, LLC, provided many useful tips on how to interview intelligently and purposefully. Both women are experts on what it takes to conduct a successful interview and job search. Ms. Freudenberger, a 1991 graduate of New York Law School, began her career as prosecutor at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. Since then, she has held a variety of career placement and administrative positions in law schools, and legal recruitment positions at law firms. Ms. Reid, who is not an attorney, was a human resources executive at several corporations and large New York City law firms. Some of their tips simply require a healthy dose of common sense (which is not always so common), and others will inspire job hunters to reprogram how they think of themselves and the job search process. Recent law school graduates, practicing attorneys who have been laid off, attorneys looking to switch practice areas and all other job hunters will find their advice to be invaluable.

Think of yourself as a client. When interviewing for a job, lawyers should not leave their advocacy hats at the door. The purpose of an interview is to demonstrate why you are the best candidate for the job. You have to highlight your strengths and skills, and provide the interviewer with evidence. The interview is not the time to be shy. It’s the time to toot your own horn. In order to overcome the difficulty that many people experience when faced with this task, Ms. Reid encourages job hunters to think of themselves in the third person. She noted that “as lawyers, you advocate for others. It’s easier to advocate for yourself when you think of yourself in the third person.” You are your most important client. How will you present your strongest case to the jury?

Know yourself and your “value add.” Ms. Freudenberger mentioned that you need to determine your “value add” or what value you can add to an employer’s bottom line. You need to assess your skill set and what you have to bring to the table. She then advised attendees to look at the job description, match it up to aspects of their skill set, and talk about this during the interview. During an interview, a candidate should be able to say “I have this experience, because at this job I did X, Y and Z.”

Do some research about the position for which you are applying. Ms. Freudenberger also recommended that job hunters research whether the vacant position is new or was previously held by someone else. If it’s a newly created position, candidates should find out what the company lacked that required them to create this new position. If a candidate would be replacing someone, she should find out whether the predecessor is still with the company and in another position, why that person left, and whether that person left voluntarily or involuntarily. Ms. Freudenberger pointed out that knowing this information will enable you to better tailor your interview and articulate why the employer should hire you.

Capitalize on your differences and uniqueness. Figure out what differentiates you from other candidates. What makes you unique or gives you a different perspective from other candidates? These experiences do not have to be law-related. For example, are you used to working with few resources or working independently? Did you do something before law school that broadened your perspective, exposed you to a particular subject matter or topic, or that was otherwise relevant to the vacant position? Did a former project provide you with transferable skills? One attendee took a two-year break to write a book. Although his book was not law-related, lawyers are required to write well and writing was his transferable skill. Perhaps a former job provided you with the insight necessary to better analyze certain situations? For example, Ms. Freudenberger explained how former prosecutors can leverage their prosecution experience when applying for criminal defense positions. She reminded the audience that “criminal defense lawyers don’t have a burden of proof when trying cases. They just need to poke holes in the prosecution’s case and point out weaknesses.” She further added that “former prosecutors make good defense attorneys because they know what has to be proved, and how to spot those weaknesses in a case.” Think about what you’ve done in your life and how you can use those experiences to differentiate yourself from other candidates. Be creative in telling your story. 

Have an “elevator pitch” and do not leave the interview without mentioning it. The panelists stated that you should have three main points you want to get across to the interviewer; three things that differentiate you from the other candidates. Ms. Freudenberger refers to these points as your “elevator pitch.” It’s short and to the point. Ms. Reid pointed out that interviewers often digress and talk about everything from the weather to the paintings on their office walls. If this happens, the interviewee must refocus the interviewer so that she can get her message across. The purpose of the interview is to get a job, not to meet your next hangout buddy or to get interior decorating advice. According to Ms. Reid, “You don’t want an interviewer to say, ‘Gee, I had a really nice conversation with that person but I don’t know enough about them to assess whether they’re a good fit for the job.’” Gently, but firmly, refocus the interview and get back to the topic of why you are the best one for the job. An unused “elevator pitch” is useless.

Show that you are more than the sum of your job tasks. Ms. Reid admonished job hunters to stop thinking of themselves as a collection of job tasks, and to instead think of themselves as a collection of accomplishments. She stated, “Don’t say what you do. Instead, say what you accomplished.” Ms. Reid used personal examples from her days as a Human Resources executive, such as “I’ve never been sued for wrongful termination” or “we’ve never lost a case under my watch.” Accomplishments do not necessarily have to be job-related or law-related. Look at your past jobs, internships, professional activities, and extracurricular activities and see what you’ve accomplished. Think about how success can be measured in those situations. Did you win a moot court competition? Did you start an organization or company? Did you have something published? Did you draft or negotiate a certain number of contracts? Did you try or settle a certain number of cases? How many cases have you won? Think about how you can quantify your accomplishments and talk about how those accomplishments relate to the job for which you are interviewing. 

Don’t make the interviewer work. Show, not tell. The panelists warned job hunters not to give “yes” or “no” answers. Giving such answers leads to blank stares and awkward silence, and forces the interviewer to scramble for another question. The interview should be conversational in style, and giving more detailed answers allows a more free flowing conversation to occur. The panelists also admonished against making general statements like “I’m a hard worker” or “I have great leadership skills,” because everyone will say they have these qualities when they’re looking for a job – even if it’s not true. In order to be taken seriously and viewed as sincere, you have to show that you have these qualities by providing examples.

Remember that all employers are looking for the same thing. The panelists pointed out that partners in law firms (and employers in general) are looking for certain qualities, and your job is to demonstrate that you have these qualities. All employers are looking for a problem solver and someone who has initiative, good judgment, resilience, leadership skills and the ability to work well with others. Look at your skill set and experiences, and figure out how you can use them to help an employer solve its problems. Come up with situations where you’ve taken the initiative, demonstrated good leadership and judgment, or had to be a team player. 

Stay tuned for Being Your Best Advocate During an Interview: Part Two.”

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