Interview Strategies: the Basics

Interview Strategies: the Basics

Valerie Fontaine and Roberta Kass
Special to
January 11, 2010

Editor's note: This is the first article in a 12-part series providing interview tips and techniques for attorneys.

In this slow time in the legal job market, interviews are few and far between. Therefore, candidates must make the most of each precious opportunity. This series will cover strategies for acing the interview in its various permutations.

We will review the basics in addition to presenting tips for handling many different types of interviews including telephone interviews, panel interviews, mealtime meetings, coffee "dates," callbacks, out-of-town interviews and videoconferences. We also will discuss how to prepare for and safely answer potentially dangerous questions, diplomatically handle illegal queries, and arm yourself with insightful and impressive questions for you to ask your interviewers. Finally, we will show you how to master the close and follow up for the best results.



A candidate who shows up to an interview armed with specific knowledge of the prospective employer makes a favorable impression. With the Internet, there is no excuse for not being prepared, as there is a plethora of information at your fingertips. Size, structure, representative clients, recent major cases and/or transactions, and financial condition are all accessible facts that can be ascertained through law firm or company Web sites, other sites such as those for Martindale-Hubbell, the National Association of Legal Placement, Hoovers and EDGAR, plus a Google or Nexis search for press coverage. Talk to your contacts who might have insights about the prospective employer.

Prospective employers expect that you have thoroughly researched their organization and the opportunity before you set foot in their offices for your first interview. If you ask or answer questions in such a way as to reveal a lack of easily acquired information, they will react negatively. Going beyond the obvious information sources to demonstrate more in-depth knowledge of your prospective employer's business can only serve to make you a stronger candidate.

To complete your interview preparation, confirm the date, time, address, contact person, the names and backgrounds of your expected interviewers if possible, directions to the interview, travel time and parking instructions.


Good interviewing protocol includes being on time and, if late, calling; being polite to staff; and having a firm handshake, good eye contact and a confident smile. Arriving five minutes early allows you to relax and recharge. A few minutes in the reception area can speak volumes about the tenor of the place and gives you a chance to observe interactions of employees who are passing through. Profanity, gum-chewing and smoking are inappropriate at all times, even if engaged in by those conducting the interview.

You should bring to interviews extra copies of your resume, a list of references (having obtained permission to use them), a writing sample that demonstrates your research and analytical skills and lucid writing style (no typos, please!) and, if you are five or fewer years out of law school, a certified copy of your law school transcript.


Your appearance should be as professional as possible. Even in business casual environments we recommend formal business attire -- suits and ties for men and pant or skirt suits or dresses for women. Be stylish, but conservative. Grooming is of paramount importance as it demonstrates your attention to detail. Interviewers will notice shaggy hair, scuffed shoes, split seams, falling hems or missing buttons.


In an interview, it is essential to demonstrate your responsiveness, intelligence and personality. You want to be assertive without being cocky or arrogant, friendly without being overly familiar, and articulate without being long-winded. You must indicate a willingness to work hard and demonstrate a high energy level. It is important to communicate a grasp of what the position entails and sell your abilities to meet their needs.

Listen carefully to what is being asked, and be completely honest and not evasive in answering direct questions. In turn, asking some carefully designed questions demonstrates your interest in and knowledge of the potential employer, as well as your intelligent assertiveness. At the top of the "what not to do" list: Do not speak negatively of a former employer at any time.

No Money Talk!

Remember that an interview is about you demonstrating what you can contribute to the prospective employer, not what they can do for you. Therefore, especially in the initial stages of the interviewing process, you must not bring up the topic of compensation or benefits. The time to discuss those issues is when an offer is forthcoming. However, from the very first meeting, you should be working on proving your value to the prospective employer by showing how you are the best candidate for the job. This will establish your worth when it comes time to talk about the terms of an offer.


Each organization has its own particular style or culture, and a candidate, as well as a future employer, needs to assess the likelihood of a good fit. It is tempting, when scrambling for a job, to play down this aspect, but it really is a good indicator of future success.

The firm's Web site may give you a hint to how the firm sees itself and how it wants to portray itself to the public. You can get more information regarding the firm's culture from talking to recruiters and friends or classmates who have worked or interviewed there, or who have handled matters with the firm. Nonetheless, your observation during the interviewing process will be most important. Note whether first names are used, if there is banter in the halls, and so forth. Keep your eyes and ears open and match your degree of formality and energy level to that of your interviewers, within the parameters of your own personal style.

Besides fitting in on the personality level, you must also show you would be part of the team pulling for the firm's success. In your interviews, discuss how you have acted like an owner in your current or previous firms. Demonstrate, to the extent you can, that you learned the business aspects of your organization. Mention, if applicable, any committees or leadership roles you took on and what you did to facilitate the smooth functioning of your firm.

In short, be the kind of person that the powers-that-be want to invite into their ranks.

Follow up

At the end of the interview it is perfectly permissible for you to ask what the next step will be and when you should expect to hear from the potential employer. Immediately after the interview, it is good form to send a thank-you note -- making sure to get the names (and correct spelling) of the interviewers. If there has been no response in the time period stated, it is acceptable to make a polite telephone inquiry, but it is important not to be a nuisance.

We will discuss many of these subjects in more detail later in this series so that you are completely prepared to maximize the potential of each interviewing opportunity.

Read other articles in the "Interview Strategies" series:

  1. Interview Strategies: the Basics
  2. Interview Strategies: Telephone Interviews, Without the Hang-Ups
  3. Interview Strategies: Handling Mealtime Interviews With Aplomb
  4. Interview Strategies: Facing and Acing a Panel Interview
  5. Interview Strategies: The Challenges of a Coffee 'Date'
  6. Interview Strategies: Get Ready for Your Video Close-Up
  7. Interview Strategies: Navigating the Question Minefield
  8. Interview Strategies: What Questions Should You Ask?
  9. Interview Strategies: Mind Your Mannerisms
  10. Interview Strategies: Handling a Callback
  11. Interview Strategies: Taking the Show on the Road
  12. Interview Strategies: Be a Powerful Closer
  13. Interview Strategies: A Flawless Follow-Up