Thinkthat your nothing-lower-than-a-B+ transcript will be your meal ticketforever? Think again. Sure you may be bright and really nice — but anunpressed suit and blatant bed-head won’t get you far in an interview.
While you may be tempted to flip the page, unimpressed by this seemingly obvious point, you may not be aware of how big a small oversight can be when it comes to making an impression. Beyond hard skills and the ability to hold a conversation, people will judge you on the memory they are left with after you walk out of the door. Often, this will turn on very superficial points. Big blunders are unshaven faces or a poorly groomed beard, moustache, or goatee (scratch that — no goatee — you’re a member of the law society, not a biker gang), food in the teeth, badly smudged glasses, unpressed clothing, unbrushed hair, excessive hair gel, dirty fingernails, and untucked blouses. And though I do have a soft spot for mismatched socks, it can be distracting. Only the supremely vain will discount you for not having that designer suit or being blessed with good looks, but in most cases it’s more about neat than anything else.
2. Cigarettes and other menacing odours
Again, while an obvious point for some, it is usually the worst offenders that think that an Altoid and the two-minute trek from the smoking section to reception will do the trick. Not so. Odour (and I include all strains, including the more organic kind that can only be blamed on bad genes or poor diet) is probably one of the most influential elements in the impression we make. Sure, you may really hit it out of the ball park when it comes to HR hypotheticals, but the nose has a far better memory. For the smoker — you’re either taking away from an interviewer’s own smoke time or you’re bothering a non-smoker with your breath. Either way, you’re screwed. As for other odours, I have not much sympathy, as there is rarely anything that cannot be masked with generous and frequent applications of deodorant. Whatever the offence, people can be surprisingly unforgiving when it comes to an assault on their olfactory senses. I don’t claim to have all the solutions, but if you have an addiction, an affinity for smelly food, or bad genes, just find a way to smell pretty — or at least not smell of anything. But equally important: this is not a licence to use half your cologne on one outing.
3. The HR hurdle
For those who still harbour a dismissive attitude towards the role of human resources in decision-making, you are probably reading this at home . . . on your couch . . . unemployed. While the HR hurdle is a process that can be highly bureaucratic and removed from reality, HR is often influential in recruitment. So you better make nice and get really good at dealing with questions about how you would handle situations you have never encountered, nor likely ever will encounter. Your success may just ride on your ability to answer questions in the abstract. HR people are often the gatekeepers and decision-makers. They are a savvy bunch not to be underestimated and are often lawyers. Even without the credibility of an LLB, the ones who last do so for a reason and generally are better entrenched at firms than the fixtures. So, please, don’t mess up by saying something like, “Oh, I wasn’t aware that I would only be meeting with HR,” or doing something equally boneheaded like sending a thank-you e-mail to everyone except HR.
4. Don’t let the lazy out
Nobody really wants to work too hard, but you don’t have to spell it out for a potential employer. As tempting as it may be to ask what your hours will be like — so you can either bail or beg for the job on this basis — don’t do it. There is no impression this gives other than, “Give me your money, and I’ll give you my all — just not before 9, after 5, or during my lunch break.” Now, this is not to encourage going into a new job blindly. But, please, take this inquiry on with the same trickery and discretion you’d use to find out what your colleagues are earning. Be creative. A good starting point is to ask what the billable target is. This should give you some sense of the approximate expectations but will rarely be indicative of what hours people are actually pulling. Even with this question, you must ask quickly and move on. Dwelling on the point may have the same effect as asking directly whether you’ll be home in time to catch reruns of Friends every night. The best resource is to speak with other lawyers in the group that are around your year of call. Just make sure your resource is a good one. Setting the bar according to someone who gets sacked a week later for poor hours can be a costly mistake.
5. Eat some humble pie
I am not sure this can be taught: the fine line between selling yourself and shoving your credentials down someone’s throat. It is such an important point, though, that we ought to try a quick lesson. We all know that confidence inspires confidence. If you have no mojo, you certainly cannot expect a stranger to place any stock in your abilities. But many don’t get the formula right and confidence can quickly teeter towards arrogance. The worst offenders are the shameless self-praisers, name-droppers and awards-listers, but most are more subtle in their arrogance. The result is just as obnoxious. It really boils down to how you treat your interviewer. So, please, turn your BlackBerry off, do not look at your watch, make eye contact, ask questions without interviewing your interviewer (“What do you think the key departments in this firm are?”), and don’t slouch in your chair. No one is telling you not to talk about yourself. Just take the proper cues and when someone actually asks you what your strengths are, be prepared to give them some solid material with a dash of modesty. For those making the transition from a firm to a smaller in-house department, it is especially important to get some perspective. Lawyers who spend too long in big firms often get a distorted view of what they are entitled to. And though I personally enjoy the look of polite disgust I get after telling prospective candidates that the lawyer to assistant ratio is five to one, it can really turn off a potential employer.
Danya Cohen is a legal consultant with RainMaker Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org