Certain people just find the whole job-getting process easier than others, and it’s not their university marks doing it for them. Kate Gibbs reports that there is more to knocking the socks off an interviewer than meets the eye
Picture the sweaty palms of the recent law graduate going in for an interview. All suited up, brown leather briefcase stuffed with references — the potential candidate has everything, on paper, a firm could ever dream of. But chewing gum on the way to the escalator and apologising about being late because he slept in has lost him the job before he even makes it to the interview room.
The apparently fickle business of getting a job has allowed many publishers to make a few dollars on how-to books, while confused candidates shoot back down to the lobbies of law firms after cringe-worthy interviews, knowing a could-have-been career just slipped through their fingers.
In a strange contradiction, law firms around the country are crying out for new lawyers, of all ages. In an ongoing talent-short market, firms are spending fortunes on marketing and hiring strategies, in Australia and overseas, in order to snap up the best talent. So where is it going wrong?
In this disappointing picture, there is a vast gap between what recent graduates are offering, and what firms want. In a more happy setting, the well-suited candidate gets a few basic ground rules right and soon settles in to the vast desk overlooking the harbour.
According to Steven Corfield, recruitment consultant at Link Recruitment, a big turn-off for many law firms are soon-to-be lawyers who don’t appear to have much passion for the career they are going for. “Having an understanding of yourself, your ambitions, where you see yourself, is very important. Clients come back with feedback saying, ‘They are not really sure what they want to do’ or ‘We are not convinced their heart is in it’. But when a lawyer goes in and shows ‘I am an M&A lawyer’, or ‘This is the path I am on and this is where I am going’, the response from the firm is very positive,” Corfield says.
A key misunderstanding for many junior lawyers looking for work is the idea that they have to be the finished product, even though they’ve hardly ever stepped inside a firm previously. Thinking a partner expects a candidate to be well versed in all the laws relevant to mergers and acquisitions and have a whole team of potential clients is slightly unrealistic, says Corfield.
“Students go into interviews and try and be the finished article. But they don’t want the finished article, they want someone with certain characteristics who they can mould into what they want. Don’t try to be Justice Kirby before you have your practising certificate. They want you to have an understanding of the law and good academics, but don’t pretend to be a talented commercial lawyer before you have set your eyes on a document,” he says.
Chris Pagent, national recruitment partner at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, agrees: “Nobody expects someone applying to be a lawyer to be a great lawyer already”. He says firms, including Corrs, have other priorities. Knowing this about the interview takes the pressure off for many candidates, who now have time to put their energy into getting other, much more important things right.
“In terms of the interview process, the old rules still apply,” says Corfield. People that do well are those people who present themselves well, prepare well, and have an understanding of their own ambitions and strengths.
Elvira Naiman, director of recruitment agency Naiman Clarke, says presentation and basic manner are obvious, but often forgotten essentials in the formal interview.
“[The] pitfalls for people are not shaking hands properly, not standing up when a partner enters the room. There is a bit of that ‘minding your Ps and Qs’ and minding your manners,” says Naiman.
“Addressing someone the wrong way, and forgetting their name and calling them the wrong thing are things that happen. Have your wits about you from the word go. Some grads don’t anticipate they are being interviewed from the minute the interviewer walks into reception to get them. A lot of people forget, wait until they are sitting in a room and then go into interview mode,” she says.
Naiman has heard of interviewees chewing gum on the way to the interview room, and men in particular not letting women through a door first. “This comes down to professionalism,” she says.
Another big no-no is speaking ill of people you have worked for before, or divulging information about another company or firm. “Behave like a professional,” Naiman suggests. Law firms are professional institutions, and trust is very important in this environment. It is essential that an interviewer sees a candidate as trustworthy and professional.
Corfield emphasises the importance of preparing well for an interview. “Human nature is such that a lawyer who goes into an interview and has done research on the firm, trends and the current market climate, and who can talk lucidly about the area, is going to impress the interviewer more than someone who has obviously come in at the last minute with no idea about where they are,” he says.
“In an interview situation, if you can present well, show people that you have spent time thinking about them and what they can offer and what you can offer, you will do well. People do business with people they like; that rapport is very important.”
Corrs Chambers Westgarth’s Pagent, who conducts hundreds of interviews with colleague Ben Powell, national recruitment manager, says he will be impressed by somebody who has conducted some research into the firm.
“[It helps] when they come to us with general knowledge about Corrs, a knowledge about big deals in which the firm has recently been involved, knowledge about high profile cases the firm has worked on, a knowledge about the practice groups within the firm and, if possible, a knowledge about the firm’s culture and the firm’s performance recently,” he says.
On the other hand, the firm is unimpressed by people who have done no research about the firm and deliver rote or scripted answers without giving any particular thought about what they are being asked, Pagent says.
As well, Naiman suggests it is crucial that interviewees know their own history and CV as well as possible. “If you say you ran on the 100-metre Eastern Suburbs running squad, a partner may ask you how many races you have run, whether you ran in a national team. Be in a position where you feel comfortable talking about every part of your CV,” she says.
ATTITUDE AND EXPECTATIONS
Job seekers should be enthusiastic about every opportunity that becomes available, both firms and recruitment agencies agree. Although the market is talent short, there is a lot of competition out there and firms are only interested in the very best candidates. There have been suggestions in the market that many soon-to-be-lawyers are too relaxed about the interview process, believing that their degrees and high marks will get them everywhere. But scores of firms are rejecting candidates for this sort of laid-back attitude.
Peter Sheahan, author and consultant on workforce trends and generational change — who will give a speech at the LexisNexis Strategic Law Firm Management Forum at the end of the month that includes his views on what the quality candidate expects from a firm — says there is a generational gap affecting the way firms hire new staff. He told Lawyers Weekly thatgeneration X, which has been working hard for years, can find it difficult to reconcile the expectations of many generation Y lawyers now coming into the law.
“The gen Xer who’s been working for 10 years and really, really working, who was lucky to get a job and grateful for the opportunity, thinks these new recruits coming through are a bunch of cocky little bastards,” he says.
He suggests that incoming lawyers should be aware that many of the partners and senior associates interviewing recent graduates for positions are from this generation, and hold this view.
Naiman agrees that enthusiasm is essential if candidates want to impress. “People think ‘this firm is my third or fourth choice and I don’t really care if I get an offer’. And that comes through in the interview. Of course, the danger is that the first three or four don’t come through and this firm won’t because there was no enthusiasm. Interviewees need to be enthusiastic about every single door that opens for them. Have five offers and knock back four, which is better than having no offers,” she says. “Firms say, ‘They don’t want a job with us so we’re not going to offer them a job’.”