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Eight Interview Tips

Vivia Chen

April 12, 2012

© Eric Isselée - Fotolia.comIt's not just a friendly conversation. Nor is it true that there are no right or wrong answers. Not to be paranoid, but I think interviews are sometimes  power games in which the interviewer watches you—the crafty mouse—squirm in confusion and fright.

The good news for law students and laterals is that most firm interviews aren't quite as sophisticated about hiring as companies like Goldman Sachs or Google (click here and here for examples). But the bad news is that some firms are starting to adopt corporate hiring techniques. A few have adopted "substantive" interview techniques—like putting recruits through "personality" tests or simulated client meetings.

But even when firms don't use formal vetting devices, some have tricks up their sleeves. In his book Hiring for Attitude, Mark Murphy reveals the mind games that interviewers play to vet potential employees. For those who have little desire to slog through an entire HR book, Business Insider provides a nice synopsis:

1. Be wary of the awkward silence. It's not that the interviewer is socially awkward (though that might also be the case); rather, the silence might be deliberate. "When faced with an uncomfortable silence, people will start talking 95 percent of the time," says Murphy. The result is that recruits will probably say more than they should, revealing weaknesses and insecurities. 

2. Be egotistical. "High performers answered in the first person 60 percent more than low performers did," says Miller. So don't be modest—and use "I," "me," and "we" with abandon. Low performers tend to answer with "you" or in the third person, says Murphy. (Is that why Herman Cain dropped out of the Republican race so early?)

3. Don't get flustered if you're asked to spell your boss's name. It's not a spelling test, but a device to put you in your place. "It will immediately put the interviewee on alert because they think their former boss will be contacted," surmises Business Insider.

4. Cut out the adverbs. "High performers are far more likely to give answers without qualifiers," says Murphy. "Their answers are direct, factual, in the past tense, and personal. Low performers, on the other hand, are more likely to qualify their answers."

5. Use the active voice. To me, this is English 101. You shouldn't say, "I was asked by higher-ups to be a blogger." Instead, you should say, "I wanted to be a blogger, so I am a blogger."

6. Don't overuse "never" and "always." I'm not sure if I buy this, but Murphy says that employers actually track how often you use those words, and that "low performers use absolutes 100 percent more often than high performers." Using "never" or "always" is a sign of insecurity, reports Business Insider.

7. But use the past tense. If you are asked about your job, use the past tense to describe your performance. According to Murphy, high performers used the past tense, while low ones used present or future tense. The article didn't explain the reason, but I assume the past tense suggests the completion of a task.

8. Don't whine; give solutions. If you're asked to describe a difficult situation, be sure it doesn't sound like a complaint about your job. Real problem-solvers won't accept any situation as hopeless, says Business Insider: "You will continue to try until you solve or at least salvage some of it. In contrast, if you're a problem bringer, you will answer the question as is—you will tell the recruiter about a difficult situation and that's it."

Take all this with a grain of salt. I know not all interviewers are out to get you. But let's not deny that interviewing is a game. So why not use a little strategy?


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Thank you for this post. While some of the tips here are, as you say, aimed at corporations, it is solid advice for people speaking with firms and government agencies as well.

I often suggest that a good thing to do in an awkward silence is wait about ten seconds (it feels like forever) and then ask a savvy question about the employer. It shows you have done your homework and gets the focus off of you.

The key to interviewing is to elicit the interviewer's pain--i.e. there is a reason the employer is interviewing you--they've lost someone, they don't fully understand your specialty and they think they need it or they are super busy and need a new hire. These are just some examples of why you're there. What exactly is there problem/issue? Once you have that information, early in the interview, sell your ability to resolve their issue and let them go on to their other issues. If you can get them to talk about these problems, you have a better chance of being on target with your answers.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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