The interview process – a survival guide

Most of our clients move smoothly and efficiently through the selection process. Here’s an outline of how to cope with the interview ‘norm’ and the much longer alternative.

The first interview

In many cases, this meeting gives everyone the opportunity to make a first take on ‘fit’.

Often the first meeting includes a representative from HR as well as the partner or in-house counsel who manages the role. Be prepared for behavioural interview questions (we have some examples to help you practise) and try to focus on building rapport with your future manager.

Don’t assume the interviewers have read your cv in any detail – most have not. While we brief our clients on our shortlisted candidates, they are busy people and may be conducting a number of interviews for this and other roles. Taking them through your current role will at least set the scene.

Nerves can make a fool of us all: try not to babble. Be clear and concise. Unless they ask you directly, the interviewers don’t need to know what sport you played at school, why you chose your Arts major, that a board member is a neighbour, or that you have a problem with insecticides (all true examples!!)

Be clear on why you are there: your ‘elevator pitch’ or key selling points in a succinct statement should be clear in your mind, together with your interest in the role and what you bring to the organisation. Remember that at this first meeting typically the employer wants to know what you can do for the organisation rather than what the organisation can do for you.

The second interview

Well done – you’ve been selected to progress to the next round!

Often at this stage you will be introduced to a more senior decision maker who has a broader brush approach to interviewing and a larger vision for the function and the role. This means that the discussion may be more ‘big picture’ and conceptual in nature. You might be asked for your views on the future of the industry, the nature of the legal market, what makes a good litigation lawyer or a good in house counsel. Again, preparation and research is key.

An HR representative or another lawyer may attend both interviews. Don’t be afraid to repeat points you have made in the first interview for fear of boring them: you will be talking to at least one new interviewer and they may not have been briefed in detail.

Your ‘fit’ with the culture of the organisation will still be important.

Crunch time

Now at this stage, the ‘usual’ employer makes a decision: to select one preferred candidate, check references and, all being well, make an offer. This could be you. If not, you may be kept ‘on hold’ in case something goes awry with the preferred candidate (it happens – don’t feel offended that you were not the first choice, be patient) or you may be rejected.

If you are clearly unsuccessful, don’t take it too much to heart – it’s a competitive market and there may have been only a very small difference between you and the successful candidate. Try to get feedback so you can learn for next time. Feedback is sometimes very difficult to obtain, even with the help of a good recruiter, but it’ s invaluable. It may be that your legal experience was a little light on for the position or another candidate offered deeper expertise than you have just yet.

Feedback on your interview presentation is especially helpful as this is something you can work to improve straightaway (length and type of experience obviously takes time to remedy). Listen carefully for feedback about brevity, punctuality (no excuses), confidence, clear communication, willingness to listen and share the conversational space with others.


Some employers apply a much longer process to selection. This may include psychometric testing, usually conducted online in a timed and untimed set of questions. There is no right or wrong to your answers when it comes to work preferences – try to go with your first instinct. Trying to second-guess the machine is a no-no – the systems have inbuilt faker detectors!

More challenging is testing that aims to measure cognitive ability. Most lawyers find these intimidating. Again, move smoothly through the tests with a view to completing them in good time.

Sometimes testing will take the form of a ‘take home’ assignment or an on-the-spot task like commenting on a standard contract. You may also be asked to produce examples of your legal work.

Multiple interviews

Law firms tend to restrict the number of interviews to one or two, with an occasional ‘meet the team’ coffee to check compatibility and involve more junior stakeholders.

For an in-house role, there may be several more meetings: with representatives of key client areas of the business, with an overseas lawyer within the international organisation, with members of allied areas like compliance and risk, with the CEO or MD, or in some cases with an external legal service provider.

Some companies subject every prospective employee to a standard multiple interview process, often in succession on one day. This is tiring and repetitive for you as the candidate, but sometimes must be endured in order to get the job. Knowing that an exhaustive interview round will apply often helps get you through it: take a deep breath and go with the flow. Again, don’t convince yourself that each new interviewer knows everything about you. You will need to reiterate your key strengths and interest in the role but make sure you ask questions of each interviewer that pertain to their area of interest and expertise. Think through how your contribution will assist, for example, the CFO or the GM Sales. What are they interested in? Why will they value you? How can you help them?

Decision paralysis

The hardest scenario for a candidate (and for us too!) is the indecisive employer. They have all the facts, everyone has met you, you’ve done the testing but still a decision somehow evades them. They are busy and distracted but most of all they hate to make a decision.

Fortunately, we rarely encounter clients like this but, when we do, we will help get you through the extended waiting period. How you handle this situation will tell us and the employer more about your grace under pressure, patience and forbearance than just about anything else. Keep your recruiter informed if things change at your end (e.g. another role is in the offing) as this can help us help the employer ‘bite the bullet’. In my experience, the indecisive client is fully supportive and genuinely enthusiastic when they do finally engage their preferred candidate. Everyone is relieved and happy, including them!

6 September 2016

Katherine Sampson is the Managing Director of Mahlab (Vic) a specialist legal search and selection firm. In addition to senior corporate and partner level search, she advises clients on mergers, strategic partner selection, law firm management and legal department structures.