3 Ways to Project Confidence in Interviews

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I’ll begin this article with an anecdote. I have a good friend from law school. Very good guy, who was sort of confused about whether he wanted to work for a firm or not. A part of him wanted to, for all the same reasons you want to, but a part of him wanted to do the peace corps.

So he went into OCI with this conflicted state of mind, partly wanting the firm job, partly wishing that he wouldn’t get one. He bombed almost all of his interviews.

Nearing the end of OCI, he became convinced that he wasn’t meant for corporate law, and that public interest was the way to go. Nevertheless he finished the rest of his interviews since they had already been scheduled, and somehow scored an offer without putting any effort in. He’s now at a big firm.

A few years later on a Caribbean beach vacation, I was mocking him for being lucky and scoring a job even when he didn’t want it and didn’t think he would get it. He stopped me in the middle of a chuckle with a wave of the hand and said, “look man, let me tell you what it was.”

“When I finally decided that I wasn’t going to get a job, and just went into those interviews not worried about getting one, I was so confident. I just chatted with them. We had conversations, and almost didn’t talk about the job or the firms at all.”

This was an eye-opening revelation. When he still had hope and lingering desire for a job, he couldn’t be his natural, confident self. But when he didn’t care, he was capable of taking over the interview, and conversing as if in a completely normal setting, without the pressures and power-dynamics of a job interview.

This revelation conformed to what I saw during interviews: of those who came out with call-backs and later offers, some (a tiny minority) were naturally extremely confident people who held their heads high no matter where they went, and wore their suits with ease and composure into every interview. When I chatted with these few people, I found that they prepared minimally, and some just knew what they looked up about the firm and interviewer 10 minutes before the interview. My friend had somehow stumbled into this group by becoming convinced he didn’t want/wouldn’t get a job out of OCI.

The rest, and that’s the vast majority of successful candidates, also responded confidently about their interviews and prospects. But their confidence derived not from the luck of birth, but from something else:

Tip 1: Knowledge is #1:

For the vast majority of people, knowledge is the base upon which confidence is built. It is not the case that every interview will involve detailed discussions about the firm’s practice or the nature of an associate’s job, in fact, most good interviews are just like what my friend experienced: conversations.

But natural conversations only happen when one has the confidence to chat up the interviewer as if an equal. And for the vast majority of people, that confidence can only come from walking into the interview with the basic background knowledge about the interviewer’s job and world. Corporate lawyers have a vocabulary, a mentality heavily influenced by their jobs, and knowing the lingo, knowing what junior associates do, knowing practice areas, will enable you to engage with the interviewer on a similar plane and avoid awkward moments of blanking out on something industry-specific the interviewer may let drop. Without knowledge, a good conversation can suddenly halt due to such an awkward moment, or simply never get started because you failed to relate to the interviewer on some basic professional level from the get go.

Here are some specifics: know how a deal is staffed, how it’s run, what type of documents exist for each type of deal (finance is about credit agreements, M&A involves checklists and is about the process, in capital markets people go to the “printers” to print such things as offering memoranda).  If you’re talking to a Capital Markets associate and know that they spend time at the “printer’s”, they’ll see that you know more than most.

Here’s more basics: know what corporate is and what litigation is, know the individual practice areas in a  firm, know the person interviewing you. One common misconception is that you need to do exhaustive research on a firm, and candidates often wrack their brains to distinguish firms that from the outside seem indistinguishable.  The truth: no one expects you to know everything there is to know about their firm, they all know that firms are similar and if you know some basics, that’s enough. Truly learning about the firm is a task for the callback and re-visit once you have an offer in hand.

Tip 2: Clothes matter:

One easy way to project confidence is… whether you consider it unfortunate or obvious, to project it superficially. The interviewer has never met you before, and while you might convince them that you are worth hiring over the next 20 minutes with your erudition and intensely interesting conversation, it’s better not to have to convince them in spite of your extremely awkward looking suit.  Slagging pants, overly long or short sleeves (shirt or suit), collars that are too big or small, wrongly tied tie, good suit but terrible un-matching shoes? All of these are job killers. Law firms, whether true or not, consider themselves respectable places, staffed with attorneys who can be put in front of a court or client and not cause embarrassment. I have interviewed more than one intelligent candidate, whose appearance (slack, unkempt, messy, whatever) alone compromised their getting a job.

If you’ve never worn a suit in your life, like i did not until OCI, don’t just go blindly into men’s warehouse and buy a $200 one on the advice of someone who’s just trying to get you to buy, rather than look good.  Do some research, even spend a couple of hours looking at suiting fashion blogs, get a sense of what’s appropriate in a suit (but don’t go overboard with fashionability), before you go out and find one. For men, spend at least 800 dollars. For women, this can be less. And please, get a pair of matching, quality shoes (at least 200 bucks).

Then, before your interviews, wear the costume until you feel completely natural walking around, sitting, and talking to people in it. You would be surprised how many people will walk into an interview wearing expensive clothes, but visibly uncomfortable in them. Get your clothes right, and right away you set a great first impression.

Tip 3: Body Language

My friend described how he sat during his “confident” interviews: he sat back in his chair, eyes level with the interviewer’s, did not fidget at all, and was comfortable enough that usually within a few minutes of the conversation starting he had crossed his legs and had his arms resting on the armrests.

This is again obvious, but body language says enormous amounts about the mental state of the speaker. I don’t mean to say that sitting back in the chair with legs crossed is the best position to sit. it depends on the rapport with the interviewer. If you are confident that sitting this way won’t be taken as disrespectful, feel free, but each interview and individual will have a different way of projecting confidence through body language. Be conscious in the months leading to the interview about what positions you naturally gravitate to when not anxious or when feeling confident, and train yourself to consciously deploy the right body language when the interviews do happen.

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