1) It’s What’s on the Outside That Counts
Think that your “nothing lower than a B+” transcript will be your meal ticket forever? Think again. Sure you may be bright and really, really nice – but an un-pressed 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. At the very least, you may be giving people too much credit. 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, mustache, goatee (scratch that – no goatee – you’re a member of the Law Society not a biker gang, show some respect), food in the teeth, badly smudged glasses, un-pressed clothing, un-brushed hair, excessive hair gel, dirty fingernails and un-tucked 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. And let’s face it – everyone can afford a hair brush and can set their alarm 15 minutes earlier to properly iron a shirt.
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 2 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 fielding HR hypotheticals, but the nose has a far better memory. For the smoker – we live in a culture where you’re either a smoker or you’re someone that thinks smokers should pay higher taxes. As such, your interviewer will either curse you for the cigarette they skipped out on to make your interview, or worse. Either way – you’re screwed. For those who feel they have less control over their situation, I have not much sympathy as I have a hard time believing there is anything that cannot be masked with generous and frequent applications of deodorant. Whatever the offense, 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. An equally important point – this is not a license to swallow up half of your cologne on one outing. This can have an equally undesired effect and send staff with allergies off the deep-end.
3) The HR hurdle
For those that still harbor a dismissive attitude when it comes to the role of HR 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 far removed from reality, HR is often an influential contender in the recruitment game. So you better make nice and get really good at answering 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 are not only “people too”, they are often the gate-keepers and decision-makers. They are a savvy bunch not to be underestimated and are often lawyers –ones who knew better too. Even without the credibility of an LL.B., the ones who last, last for a reason and are generally better entrenched at firms than the fixtures. So please, don’t screw up by saying something like “Oh, I wasn’t aware that I would only be meeting with HR” or do something equally bone-headed like send a thank-you e-mail to everyone except HR. Remember – HR are people too!
4) Don’t Let the Lazy Out
Everyone knows you don’t wanna work that 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 at the outset (so you can either bail or beg for the job on this basis) don’t do it. There is no other impression this gives than, “give me your money and I’ll give you my all… just not before nine or after 5 or during my hour and a half 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 of finding out what your colleagues are making. Be creative. A good starting point is to ask what the billable target is. This should give you some sense of what the approximate expectations are 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 re-runs of Friends every night. The best resource is to speak with other lawyers in the group that are around your year of call. They will be the most inclined to give you a real sense of what time you can expect to get in and leave every day. 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
Now, I am not sure this can be taught. That is, 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 so many don’t get the formula right and confidence can quickly teeter towards arrogance. The worst offenders are the shameless self-praisers, the name-droppers and the awards-listers, but most are more subtle in their arrogance. The result, however, 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 –ie “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 on Bay Street 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 5:1, it can really turn off a potential employer.