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Why Interview Prep Matters
By Warren Smith 
Previously posted in Lawyers Weekly

I recently completed a General Counsel search for fairly specialized regulatory body, where the candidate who landed the opportunity beat out a field of talented candidates whose industryspecific experience, and/or subject matter knowledge, clearly dwarfed her own.  And yet, not only was she the finalist candidate, if you spoke with the CEO and their board of directors, you would know in choosing her for the role, they would tell you it wasn’t even close.  So, what happened in this process that led an otherwise dark horse candidate to emerge as the candidate of choice in a highly competitive, sought after GC position?
Here are four key attributes the leading candidate possessed to help her land the job:

  1. Preparation.  In the example above, in part because this candidate knew she was an outside choice for the role, she did an extraordinary amount of preparation for the role – she had researched the organization, its structure, recent media profile events for the organization, had a thorough understanding of the existing legal team and structure, external counsel relationships – in the interview at points it seemed she knew more about the organization than some of the senior executives in the interview process!   One key question interviewers often use as a proxy for understanding how a potential candidate approaches practice and role responsibility is to ask “tell us what you know about our organization.”  In this case, the candidate clearly demonstrated her thoroughness and attention to detail by the level of research and understanding she had both for the role and the organization. 
  1. Excellent examples.  In every interview, there will be opportunities where you will be asked to provide examples that demonstrate relevant practice experience or simply navigating complex issues; having three specific examples ‘pre-loaded’ for the interview, and then looking for opportunities to introduce these stories are an ideal way to showcase your talent.  Knowing your stories in advance – even go so far as to practice how you will tell them, allows you to both consider what questions your examples may generate (and have answers prepared), and also ensure your answers are tailored to speak to your key strengths in interview.  Where your experience may not specifically match the identified needs of a given role, consider how you can help translate your experience into relevant terms so an interviewer can understand how your experience may be beneficial to their organization. 
  1. Specificity. Both in answering questions, but also in asking questions when helping to create clarity in the interview process.  One of the great potentials for misunderstanding in an interview process is when two parties who have not had previous interactions rely on different shorthand – for example, one party may think “rarely relying on external counsel” means using them once a week, whereas another might interpret this as a “once a year” event.  Getting the conversation to convert to specific both highlights your strengths in attention to detail (widely considered a significant asset for counsel), but also ensures clarity of communication between parties (also, as it turns out, a key attribute for effective counsel).  
  1. 90 Days. Perhaps the most important skill you can develop in interviews is to convert the conversation from the theoretical to the practical.  One of the best ways to do this is to turn the discussion to what both parties envision happening in the first ninety days on the job.  This gets both parties to envision what the relationship might look like, and also creates an opportunity for the candidate to identify possible issues, opportunities, and challenges the role may face – which may help them equally assess whether the role is right for them.  Once the discussion has shifted from ‘whether’ to ‘how’ the parties are going to work together, the chances of that candidate being the finalist candidate increase exponentially. 

In the end, while there is no substitute for an exemplary career when considering new opportunities in the market, it is these types of issues that separate the finalist candidate from the pool of otherwise suitably talented options for a role.  As they say, people want to know how much you care, before they care how much you know – and interviews are no exception.


Warren Smith is the Managing Partner for Smith Legal Search. He was the first Canadian to be elected President of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC), North America’s leading legal recruitment industry association, and is a past recipient of Business in Vancouver’s 40 under 40 award.  You can follow him on twitter @lawheadhunter 



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