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4 Secrets To Ace The Interview For Your In-House Dream Job

Law360 | Michele Gorman - October 5, 2018

Law360 (September 25, 2018, 7:35 PM EDT) -- Whether it's a yearning to have an impact on a business or ditch the pressure of billable hours, there are various reasons lawyers consider jumping to an in-house role. But making that leap, or falling flat, can hinge on a strong performance during the interview process.

Regardless of why attorneys want to move to corporate law departments from law firms or different companies, in-house recruiters warn potential candidates that showing any nervousness can immediately disqualify them from landing the job.

"Nobody wants a nervous counsel," said John Gilmore, managing partner at executive search firm BarkerGilmore LLC. "You just need to be confident."

Beyond confidence, many think that candidates should consciously refrain from oversharing in their answers. The personal reasons that can spark a desire to go in-house may irk corporate interviewers who would rather hear about what attorneys can do for their companies.

Here, Law360 looks at four ways attorneys can shine when interviewing with corporate decision makers.

Keep It Positive

Candidates need to walk into the room with the intent of being hired, Gilmore said. An interviewer might ask if a lawyer has an issue with, say, frequent traveling as part of the job. In response, the candidate needs to provide a positive answer, and then later determine if certain aspects of the position pose a problem, Gilmore said.

"The word 'concern' shouldn't come out of a candidate's mouth when they're interviewing," he said, adding that sometimes the pros of an in-house job ultimately outweigh any cons. "The strategy is to go in and get the offer. Figure out if you want it after you get the offer."

He added, "Don't sit in the interview trying to figure out if you want to go work there or not."

Recruiters say keeping a positive demeanor throughout the meeting will be beneficial. Employers will likely ask why applicants are interested in the open positions. Job seekers should focus on the

particular opportunities and companies, not on why they want to leave their current roles.

"Whatever it is that's appealing to them personally about this particular company, I usually coach candidates to play on that," said Sharon McLaughlin, division director for Special Counsel's Parker + Lynch Legal.

Do Your Homework

Candidates for in-house positions must demonstrate they've researched their prospective companies; understand their challenges, strengths and weaknesses; and are passionate about the industries the companies are in.

When moving from one in-house role to another, it helps if applicants' experiences are somewhat aligned with the business. For job seekers transitioning from law firms, it's helpful if they can discuss clients they have served at similar companies or industries.

"There should be something about that particular industry you should find attractive," Gilmore said.

Self-assurance comes naturally if candidates not only thoroughly research companies, but also practice answers, preferably aloud, to hypothetical questions, recruiters say.

"You don't want to be a deer in the headlights trying to think of the perfect response," said McLaughlin, who hires, trains and manages a team of recruiters to place attorneys at corporations and law firms.

She said there are four main questions she cautions every in-house candidate to expect: Why are you looking to make a move? Why are you interested in the company? Why in-house? Why now?

"Those are questions that can make or break an interview," she said. "If candidates are not prepared for them, if their responses are not fluid or if they haven't practiced or thought through those questions, they can definitely flub the interview."

McLaughlin said she coaches her clients to form positive answers without mentioning any negative aspects about their current situations. She pushes them to express satisfaction with their firms or companies by underscoring how they have provided them with legal foundations and resume-building experiences.

Then, she said the job seekers can give forward-thinking responses about the aspects they're still seeking for their careers while simultaneously acknowledging how the hiring companies could provide those skills.

And while there are multiple reasons to want in-house roles, candidates should keep some of those thoughts to themselves, such as the anticipation of working without the pressure of billable hours or operating under a more predictable schedule, experts say.

"Obviously that goes into your calculus," said Valerie Fontaine, a partner at legal search firm SeltzerFontaine. "[But with] every question, the bottom line is, 'What you can do for me in my business?' It's not 'What can we do for you?'"

Prepare for Behavioral Questions

Behavior-based questions typically require candidates to share personal details from certain situations, such as how and why they missed deadlines or how they handled disagreements with clients. In-house interviewers often ask these questions because past behavior is a strong indicator for the future, McLaughlin said.

"If candidates aren't expecting those, they will definitely ... get hung up," she said.

To avoid hesitation, McLaughlin tells candidates to plan for these types of questions before the meeting by brainstorming a handful of difficult professional situations and the outcomes. Then, they'll likely be able to tailor their responses to specific questions during the interview.

Within the answers, it's critical for candidates not only to reveal their legal expertise but also their business judgment and interpersonal skills, because the winning lawyer will most likely be interacting with business professionals, from executives down to rank-and-file employees.

"You have to be able to understand the needs of the different constituencies in the corporation, as well as the business needs of the corporation itself," Fontaine said.

If job seekers can't point directly to examples of how they have spoken to a variety of clients, Fontaine suggests drawing on pro bono services or work in professional organizations.

Recruiters often remind candidates that an interview should be a dialogue. But it's a fine line — while applicants shouldn't interrupt the interviewer, they need to ensure they have opportunities to share their background and expertise.

A strategic business-minded lawyer is a good listener. Someone who goes into an interview and talks through it isn't a satisfactory candidate for the job, Gilmore said. But if hiring managers do all the talking, then they don't get to learn about the lawyer. Candidates should try to maintain balanced dialogues.

Bring Roadblocks to the Surface

At the end of interviews, when employers leaves time for candidates' questions, experts say applicants should be sure to have a list ready to ask, such as: What does success look like in the role? What's the biggest challenge? What kind of lawyer typically fits in best with the department and the organization overall?

Gilmore strongly recommends job seekers talk through any outstanding questions or concerns before leaving the room. Otherwise, they risk walking out the door with lingering misinterpretations.

And there are other important things candidates may need to tackle before interviews wrap up.

If candidates are juggling offers from other companies, they should be upfront — but not arrogant — about the fact that there's some timing-related pressure, while reiterating the importance of landing that particular role.

And candidates should end meetings by reiterating their qualifications for and interest in the company and the position.

Later that day, job seekers should consider sending individual thank-you messages to the people they met at their interviews. These can be handwritten or emailed, though McLaughlin suggests electronic messages because they're immediate.

And throughout the process, candidates should appear eager and easy to work with.

"I don't need you bouncing off walls with enthusiasm," Gilmore said. "But playing hard-to-get doesn't work."

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg and Alanna Weissman.

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