I take very seriously the job of interviewing potential candidates. There are certain things that a candidate can do or say to sabotage their chances at getting an offer. Many of these "offer killers" are more common than you might think. Many of the lawyers I've talked with have expressed frustration about similar behaviors from the candidates they've interviewed. In an effort to help future candidates, I humbly suggest some things to avoid.
Only Fools and Egomaniacs Submit a Less-than-Perfect Resume
No student should ever--and I do mean ever send out a resume that hasn't first been reviewed by several professionals. Whether it's through your school's Career Services department, through a formal resume-review program, or just by the smartest professional adults you know, there are plenty of resources for having your resume reviewed.
When I receive a resume that misses the mark in even the smallest way, I find it difficult to take the candidate seriously. It tells me that the candidate has one of two equally undesirable personality traits. He is either: (1) sloppy and lazy; or (2) thinks he is smarter than everyone else. There are no other explanations for a student who fails to have his resume reviewed (repeatedly) prior to submitting it. I do not want to work with a new lawyer who falls into either category.
One Error In a Cover Letter Is One Error Too Many
The same rules apply with respect to cover letters. I cringe when I think of the number of times I have seen a cover letter that starts with, "I am a second year law student" instead of the properly hyphenated, "I am a second-year law student." It's called a phrasal adjective, kids. It's ok if you don't know what one is but you'd better find someone who does so they can point out your mistake.
If a dork like me receives a cover letter that contains an error in the first sentence, you're facing an uphill battle. And not just because of your claim, two paragraphs later, that you have "outstanding writing skills." For me, the real frustration is that you could have gotten right, you just didn't bother to take the time to ask someone. You have a legal-writing teacher, don't you? Ask him or her to look at your letter and thank him or her profusely if they return it to you covered in red ink.
Get the Name Wrong and You've Got No Chance
The cardinal sin for cover letters, though, is not grammatical. It's far, far worse. Although far less common, I am still amazed when I read a cover letter that, at least once in the body of the letter, makes reference to the wrong firm.
Yes, it happens. Usually right around the third paragraph, which must be when students grow weary of editing their own work, the author reiterates how confident she is that she will be an attribute to Smith, Jones, and Smith, LLP. Except, I don't work for Smith, Jones, and Smith, LLP. Smith, Jones, and Smith, LLP, is my firm's competitor.
To me, this error demonstrates the candidate's lack of editing skills and, more important, lack of interest. Neither of which are positive qualities in a potential new hire.
Your Resume Is Not the Place to Demonstrate Your Creativity
Creativity is a desirable trait for a lawyer. But resumes are not the place to show us how creative you can be. Save it for your legal analysis. There are two common failures in this regard.
First is the Overly Long Resume. Legal resumes should be one page in length and no more. You are not, I guarantee, so amazing as to require additional pages. Brevity in writing is a skill, so start practicing.
Second is the Oddly Formatted Resume. Lawyers don't use crazy fonts. If you want to demonstrate your prowess for typeface, go into graphic design, not into the practice of law. Your resume is not the place to use distracting borders or other "fun" formatting techniques.
Mind Your Manners
Try to recall every lesson your mother ever taught you about proper etiquette. Then try harder to remember some more. And take them to heart.
My entire interaction with you is limited to a 20-minute interview. None of these 20 minutes should be spent slouched in your chair. Sit up straight. Look me in the eye when you are answering a question. And don't interrupt me when I'm speaking. The same rules apply in the courtroom and I don't want to have to teach these rules to you now--you've got plenty of other things to learn, trust me.
Speak Like a Grown-Up, Even If Your Interviewer Doesn't
Language matters. Word choice matters. We are lawyers and we care how you speak. Do not use any words such as "cool" or "yeah" during your interview. And, I know it's hard but try to limit the amount of times you say the word, "like." You wouldn't believe how many times a candidate utters that word during a short interview. It would make your head spin. I understand that this is a habit that is difficult to break. But try anyway.
Be wary if your interviewer is on the younger, cooler side of the lawyer spectrum. I am sure that I tend to come off as more casual than many of the interviewers that candidates meet. But don't let my preference for pink fool you. I still expect you to conduct yourself in the same way that you would if I was wearing black pinstripes.
I may be partly to blame for this casual leaning because of my inclination to be friendly and my desire to make the interviewee feel comfortable. But being comfortable in an interview is not the same as being comfortable in a college dorm room. Keep this in mind.
Some Parting Thoughts
Candidates of the future, you have been warned. Now that you know what bothers your interviewer, it's up to you to avoid these pitfalls. And, once you land the gig, consider reading this article about ways to make sure you get an offer to return. The cleverly named article was written by Ben Potts, an all-star summer associate who recently finished his first summer in our firm's summer-associate program. Take his advice, he writes from experience and his suggestions are dead-on.