Newly Suited: How to snag your first law job

Dear Newly Suited

I have interviews for legal roles coming up next year and the only real job interviews I have ever done are for Starbucks and my after-school nanny position. I feel quite unprepared for interviewing for legal roles, especially at big law firms, and clerkship interviews are coming up. Any tips from those who have survived this daunting process?

Kind regards

#neverreallybeeninterviewed

Dear #neverreallybeeninterviewed

We feel for you. We all remember how it felt but rest assured it will not be as bad as you think.

Some interviews will be challenging but you will learn from them. So schedule interviews at the firms you are less keen on earlier so you can build some confidence for the ones you really need it for.

Interviewing for a legal role requires a specific toolkit of skills. Many are instinctual but some can also be learned. To nail the job interview, you need to demonstrate you are the best candidate for that role over and above all others, many of whom will be assertive, Type A personalities.

Unfortunately there are far more lawyers than legal roles in New Zealand, particularly at the junior levels of the profession. The competition is tough and interviewing well can help you to stand out from the crowd.

The first step is getting the interview and that step is premised on your CV. Make it stand out. Check out CV formats on Pinterest for ideas. Don’t go too crazy but don’t make it too plain either.

Do not include every job since your paper round at age 11. Hopefully you have had some relevant work or volunteer experience. If you haven’t, don’t make it up. Individualise your CV with your special interests or talents. We aren’t fans of including a photo but will leave that decision up to you.

It is time to reconsider your social media strategy. HR managers will look at Facebook and other social media sites you frequent to see how you present yourself and whether you fit with their brand values. This is especially true after the #MeToo movement in the law this year.

Do your homework. Law firms by nature are similar beasts; big firms, in particular, perform the same core services. What makes the firm you are interviewing at unique? Is there something about the firm the general public may not know – for example, does it support a particular charity that is close to your heart?

Much of this information is on the website but it’s better to dig out other facts. It is essential to prepare some questions to show you are applying because you truly want to work there and have carefully considered your fit with the firm.

Good examples can be how junior members of staff interact with clients (if at all) and how much court time you can expect. If a question stumps you, it is fine to stop and think about your answer.

Chat with friends and colleagues to find networking opportunities with people at that firm. Going the extra mile can give you the edge over other candidates.

Law firms are different from other industries, particularly in the way they interview. For junior roles, it’s not unusual for large law firms to have at least three interactions – a coffee catch-up, a drinks function and then the formal sit down interview prior to being offered a role.

It is a common mistake to forget that all these interactions are interviews. The law firm is assessing your fit for the role and within the team at every instance. In today’s legal climate, your alcohol intake will also be monitored.

Assuming the firm has loved you on paper, the formal interview is crucial. It goes without saying that you should not be late. Everyone who interacts with you, from the receptionist to the senior partner/HR manager, will be forming impressions of you. These may be relayed to the person making the employment decision. So you must be on your game from the moment you walk in the door. Don’t overlook any of these people. A smile, a firm handshake and a friendly manner can make a huge difference.

Interview clothing can be tricky. Dress for the role you want. Men should wear suits with jackets and ties, without exception. Women’s choices can be harder to navigate – dark, knee-length skirts or trousers and a blouse should be a minimum. Jackets are recommended. These rules also apply for Skype or video interviews.

At the interview itself there will usually be at least one lawyer and bigger firms will include an HR person. Try to speak with everyone on the panel and remember it is an interview, not a Ted Talk, meaning the conversation must flow both ways.

Make eye contact. Your language is important and being able to read the room is critical. What may be appropriate for one interview may be inappropriate for another. If in doubt, err on the more formal side rather than banter. Jokes in good taste are generally appropriate (they can show your personality) but you don’t want to give an impression you are performing a stand-up routine.

You need to show you are a confident, competent, professional who is an excellent candidate for the role without being robotic, lacking in personality or abrasive.

One way to do this is to use the phrase “people regard me as…” or “I have been told that I…” and give specific examples. This allows you to showcase your skills without appearing to brag or be obnoxious.

Finally, at almost every interview the candidate is asked about his or her weaknesses. This loaded question can be a great way to impress your potential new boss. The key to answering it is to have a legitimate weakness, but one that is not going to sabotage your role and is relatively fixable.

Answers such as “I’m too much of a perfectionist/I have no weaknesses/I work too hard” are terrible responses. An example of a genuine weakness could be poor delegation skills (not critical for a junior role) or public speaking (better suited for solicitors than barristers).

State your weakness briefly and concisely, and then explain how you are self-aware and are addressing it.

Hopefully you can put these tips and tricks into practice at your next interview. Best of luck from the Newly Suited Committee.

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