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Four traits you must demonstrate in a law firm interview

Most people, including recruiters, divide an interview process in two parts: technical (the knowledge aspect) and HR (non-knowledge aspects on which you are to be tested, such as soft skills and manners). I personally do not see much significance in such differentiation from the point of view of the applicant. Your mind doesn't switch from a technical mode to a HR mode or vice versa during an interview. While you may not be tested on purely technical knowledge throughout the interview, your personality, communication style and such other attributes will be under constant observation even when you are dealing with technical questions.

Crossing the Knowledge Threshold is crucial, but that on its own is not going to get you the job. A lot of people who meet that threshold don't really get the job. There are a few reasons to this – to understand how it works, you should try to think about this from the point of view of the recruiter (few college students have the maturity to do this).

Once a junior from college called me up to complain about how good students are being overlooked in favour of 'pretty girls' by some recruiters. Lot of people find this to be perplexing and others see this as a manifestation of injustice. However, some understanding of the reality can easily explain why 'cool dudes' or generally attractive people sometimes tend to do better than those who earned their fame as scholars through hard work.

If you thought the world is equivalent of the college environment, think again. Academic success is not necessarily the best indicator of success in life or profession. Many more factors come into play and your recruiters are aware of this.

Once people meet a threshold of knowledge and intelligence, some other sort of concerns, like how pleasurable one's company is, whether one comes across as a reliable person, or how developed one's social skills are come into play. Law firms and companies want to know whether you will fit into their culture. They want to know how you react under pressure. They want to know whether you have professional integrity. They would like to hire someone who would impress the clients, not just with their work, but with their charm as well. They need to know a lot about you – which is often difficult to discover in an interview.

However, as human beings, we do not always have to dig out aspects of personality by asking questions and evaluating essays. For instance, one's social confidence is usually in plain view - a very short conversation will be enough for a person of reasonable experience or social intelligence to gauge this. Researchers from NYU found that we make eleven major decisions about one another in the first seven seconds of meeting. In business interactions, first impressions are crucial. While you can't stop people from making snap decisions, the human brain is hardwired in this way as a pre-historic survival mechanism – you can understand how to make those decisions work in your favour. 

First impressions are more heavily influenced by nonverbal cues than verbal cues. In fact, studies have found that nonverbal cues have over four times the impact on the impression you make than anything you say. Many things about you can be detected/ perceived from your body language, voice tonality, choice of words and expressions. Notably, these are things that you need to cultivate over time and cannot change overnight.

"There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis." - Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink.


However, there are some things that you can consciously deal with – which will communicate your value to the recruiters in a way that they cannot ignore. You cannot do this by uttering some magic words during the interview, but by going to the interview with a powerful mental frame. You need confidence, you need integrity – I don't know what sort of recruiters would hire a person who is shivering while talking to the interviewer or someone whose small lies can be detected easily.

Here are four things you can prepare for, mentally and logistically:

#1 - They will look for consistency in your story

People say all sorts of lies during interviews. Even those who do not resort to outright lies, tries to portray themselves in a more positive light than they should claim. Imagine when you are taking interviews of hundreds of freshers badly in need of a job – and talking to a lot of desperate job candidates. Candidates almost inevitably try to show them in very positive light, often better than what they deserve. Recruiters hear tall claims all the time and they know from experience that a lot of that is not close to truth. Even the most introvert guys who have never worked in a team to achieve anything significant will come and say that they are brilliant team players. A guy who has flunked a paper or two will say that he has always been a most diligent student. Everyone tries to appear more intelligent than they are; everyone says that they are hard working. While in many a case these claims may be true – but they often do not go down well with the recruiters. Facing these situations repetitively puts them in a very sceptical frame of mind.

An experienced recruiter has his 'bullshit detector' on when he speaks to you. They are extra sceptical of every positive claim you make and the facts you supply. It is not always possible for them to catch a lie, but they try to match what you communicate in front of them with your past and everything else you are saying, to see if two and two is adding up. They try to match what you are saying with the non-verbal cues you emanate. They look for patterns. They try to find corroboration and credibility. They believe your claims only when they see consistency in your story.

This is why lying is a huge risk in any interview. In fact, in any interaction, some people are smart enough to watch for your non-verbal cues apart from hearing the words you speak. Also, remember, "If you have to lie to get your foot in the door, then this isn't the job for you." - Rowan Manahan.

If you put forward your single moot win or paper publication as proof of your academic excellence or research and writing skills,  They would probably not accept it. They would want to see a lot more that corroborates your claim. For instance, if I see that a person has been consistently doing well in academics, I can assume that she is a hard worker and can keep at academic tasks over a long period of time. Topping in one subject out of the 50 you had in college does not establish that.

On the other hand, there are people who improve their academic records over time – for instance, my GPA drastically improved from my third year. When I was asked about this in one of my interviews, I explained to them how my productivity and approach had changed at that point of time, leading to better results. Not only did I explain my story, this also gave me chance to demonstrate that I am strategic with my goals and that I actively look for improving my performance.

It is not necessary to have an unchanged track record to establish consistence. We all have a story, and the story has to be told well. If there are twists in the story, they need to be explained. The claims you make about yourself should fit into the story. If you fail to do so, your claims are likely to be bunched up with other false claims and get discarded.

During my law firm interviews, all recruiters inevitably pointed out that I did not do any internship in my fourth year. I had to explain it to them by saying that I applied for internship at the top four law firms (other than two firms I had already interned at) and was rejected. I did not want to intern at tier 2 firms and chose to do my own projects. This was followed by telling them the legal work I did that summer, including helping a start-up to raise venture capital and working on a project for L&T. Not getting an internship at a top law firm did not show me in bad light – rather it showed that I was not afraid to admit something that did not go according to plan, how I stuck to my standards and pivoted the situation to do productive things that others would not have considered. This was my story. I was interested in commercial law, I knew what kind of firms I wanted to work with, and I acted on what I really wanted rather than taking up whatever came along.

This is a very important aspect. Before hiring you, anyone would like to know what sort of person you are. Everything you have written in your resume, your answers to their questions, your body language, all of these tell the recruiter a story about you, and it should be consistent. If the story is not congruent, even though they would not point it out, the recruiter will be very uneasy about hiring you.

It is not just about veracity of your claims. Do not write things in your CV that are not consistent with your personality and your stated goals. You want to work in a commercial law firm? If you tell them that your favourite subject is family law, it's totally inconsistent. If you tell them how passionate you are about working with NGOs, same effect. It will make them worried about whether you are going to like the work and stick around. Yes, people do these things, and it's suicidal.

# 2 - They will ask you to demonstrate your claims

So you can think on your feet, is it? They'll ask you questions that you would not know the answer of, just to see if you can really think on your feet. Do not make claims that you cannot demonstrate either on the spot, or by telling a story about yourself. Of course, whatever you write on your CV needs to be demonstrated too. You have worked in a law firm on project finance? They are going to ask you some questions to see what you worked on and whether you really understand what was going on in the transaction. I had said in one of my interviews that I am good at convincing others. The partner across the table asked me to convince him about this. I was a little stuck – how can I demonstrate this immediately? Then I proceeded to tell him a story about how I convinced a company to outsource me some of their legal work – and something about this was mentioned in my CV too. The recruiters liked the story and were very appreciative.

Some recruiters do not ask you to demonstrate. It is much better to take the initiative and explain it yourself. Keeping this in mind also gives you a clear path. Focus on the demonstrable skills and knowledge rather than the ones you cannot demonstrate. Identify these skills long before the interview and plan on how you can demonstrate them best. Think which of these skills are more relevant for your potential employers. If you do not remember what you did during your law firm internship, or didn't really understand what was going on – don't put that stuff into your CV. You cannot demonstrate those skills, and it can kill your chances to land a job. This approach will limit what you write in a CV and the claims you shall make about yourself in an interview.

#3 -They will test your temperament and patience

Some recruiters will intentionally put you under stress and pressure to see how you react. People behave very differently under stress. You are probably signing up for a stressful, high stakes, high responsibility job.

You need to maintain a positive vibe during the interview. Stay confident, if a question is something you cannot answer – probably it's too tough. No one knows answers to every question. It is not necessary to get every answer right to land a job. However, it is important to not crumble under pressure. Remaining positive when you are in stress is a big plus point of a professional. Don't give up during the interview, don't express disappointment. No matter how the interview proceeds, maintain a positive, calm body language and mental frame. Some positive non-verbal cues are described below:
  • Body orientation toward the other person
  • A slight forward body lean toward the other person
  • Openness of arms and body
  • Postural relaxation (but not too relaxed, not tense, but not slouched)
  • Direct eye contact
  • Positive facial expression
Disinterest and/or dislike for the other person is conveyed when the interviewee leans back too comfortably in his chair, is slumped on the chair, constantly looks around the room, avoids eye contact with the interviewer, drums his fingers, wrings his hands, plays with his rings - perhaps turning them on his finger, fidgets, is stone faced or expressionless.

Can you keep your cool when the guy across the table is being cocky or bitchy? Are you overly aggressive? Does stress shut down your thought process? This is the acid test you need to pass to get the best jobs.

#4 - They want to be sure that you are sociable

This is another crucial matter. People don't want to work with nutcases, gossip mongers, disloyal people – or anyone who is not pleasant to work with. That is something that all recruiters keep in mind. They look at you and wonder – will this guy fit into the culture of my organisation? If not, despite all the academic records you have, they may not hire you.

Human beings are inherently sociable. Imagine a six-month old baby – she's unable to talk, but she still expresses herself. Whoever spends time with her will easily be delighted, amused, and will feel comfortable and caring towards her. We have these innate abilities that allow us to reach out to others and relate to them. However, as we grow older, we become more self conscious and more afraid to make mistakes, and if these fears and self limitations are not controlled and managed early on, they make us less sociable.

Without sociability, it is difficult to get out of our comfort zone and develop relationships with other people, co-workers included. At work, anti-social individuals are loners and would prefer to stay in one corner instead of being with colleagues. A person who is unsociable finds it difficult to get the approval and support of others because they easily come across as unpleasant, arrogant, and difficult to deal with.

Are you too shy? Are you socially awkward? Are you under-confident and shaky? Is your English pronunciation atrocious? Do you speak in a high pitched nagging or obsequious tone? Are you paranoid about what other people are saying behind your back? Can you take out a client for a lunch and not creep them out by trying to over impress them?

Companies and firms need social people to work with them, not anti-social scholars with any understanding of social dynamics. Please work strategically on these aspects, identify problems and research about how you can improve. You may see significant difference in a month, but you can't change your social IQ one fine morning when you have an interview. I don't know if your recruiter will care about your academic records, but they will certainly bother about this, especially if the job in question is a lucrative one.

What else? Prepare well, prepare ahead! Good luck!


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