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Winning at the Interview

We've devoted several columns, including the past three, to networking generally and getting in the door for exciting opportunities. Much of that discussion correctly focuses on helping others, listening and avoiding a self-promotional mindset.

For a formal job interview, you need to switch gears. This is now a competition, pure and simple, and there is no prize for second place. I've placed well over 100 attorneys into inside counsel positions, and along the way, my thoughts on what it takes to win have crystallized.

Most importantly, decide beforehand that you want the job. It's ok if you're not really sure. You can always say "no" if offered the position, but indecisiveness or playing hard-to-get usually leads to a "no" from the employer before you get to make that choice. Interviewers respond well to candidates who express some enthusiasm. So, don't worry about coming across as overeager. A little eagerness beats cautious and unsure.

When asked about your experience, be specific and avoid the bull crap. For example, let's say you are interviewing for a general commercial role, and you get asked if you have experience with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Your interviewee gut tells you the correct answer is "yes." Certainly, if the interviewer is asking about FCPA, then she is hoping you can offer this expertise. However, don't mistake this as a prerequisite to winning and trap yourself. If you have little-to-no experience with FCPA, the correct answer is "no." You can and should supplement that answer with a short and sweet follow-up comment along these lines: "I'll get up to speed for you quickly on FCPA, based on (fill in with related compliance experience, or perhaps mention a CLE course you took recently on the topic)."

Saying "no" in this context demonstrates candor. Too many interviewees panic a little and stumble about to avoid saying "no" or, worse, lie with a "yes" and risk getting caught on specific follow-up questions. Interviewers have excellent bull crap radar, and they are not interested in a speech about how your general skills and talent make up for lack of specific experience.

The interviewer has already screened you and your competitors on paper for the requisite core experience for this position, either directly or via their search firm. So the experience-related questions will be at the margins. You are really being judged on how you come across--even if the interviewer herself does not realize this. The winner is almost always the candidate who is most genuine and, to be blunt, likeable.

Likeability is not to be underestimated in winning at the interview. Given candidates with similar credentials, decision-makers will always gravitate to the person they believe will make good and loyal teammates. Be the person who gets along well with others, who is self-confident but not arrogant, and who demonstrates the likelihood of a good culture fit.

How do you do this?

You accomplish likeability with short answers. Long answers psychologically send the death knell message that you will be needy. They also run the risk of boring your audience. If you get one critical take-away from this column, it's to avoid lawyerly speechmaking. You also become likeable in more superficial ways. Excellent posture, eye contact, a smile, self-assuredness (but not cocky) and even humor (but not sarcasm) will help you win. If this kind of demeanor does not come naturally to you, invest in interview training with a good career coach. I can refer you to one if you wish.

Now, here is the main difference between networking and interviewing. In both situations, you want to ask intelligent questions that demonstrate an interest in the other person and her company. In both cases, you want to listen well and hopefully connect on one or more life experience commonalities. In networking, however, it's all about the other person. But in an interview, it's correct and powerful to say things like, "I know I would excel in this position," and/or "Your opportunity fits ideally with my career goals," and/or "I would welcome this challenge." You get the idea. Be sure to highlight your best examples of relevant experience. Get your competitive juices flowing and persuade the interviewer to choose you.

The formula for winning at the interview: 1. Be genuine and avoid speechmaking. 2. Show enthusiasm for the position and make the case that you are the best choice to fill it. 3. Be likeable and, if this does not come naturally, get specific interview training.

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Mike Evers

Mike Evers recruits attorneys for corporate legal departments throughout the United States. Please visit www.everslegal.com. His...

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