Essential Tips for Law Firm Job Interviews – Part Two

Before reading this, you should read Part One on job applications.

Lord Bobo has been greatly disturbed by reports of appalling job applications and interviews involving law graduates in Malaysia. His Supreme Eminenceness in all his benevolence proceeded to mind-control five minions to sit their busy (but undoubtedly well-formed) bottoms down and type up these essential tips for law firm job applications, targeted at applicants for pupillage or first/second year associate positions.

The contributors are Donovan Lee Shyun Hyn of eLawyer, Fahri Azzat of Messrs Azzat & Izzat, Goh Siu Lin of Shook Lin & Bok, Lee Shih of Skrine, and Marcus van Geyzel of Peter Ling & van Geyzel. They represent the full spectrum of the legal employment market in Malaysia – big firms, medium-sized firms, small firms, and a legal recruitment agency. Part One addressed job applications, and if you stuck to the tips in that article, then you will find this Part Two relevant, as it deals with job interviews. These tips are required reading for anyone applying for a pupillage or junior associate position in a law firm – you no longer have an excuse for that shoddy job application/interview!

How important are first impressions when it comes to job interviews? What are the things that make an immediate impression (positive/negative) on employers when conducting an interview?

Donovan: Just like applications, first impressions are also very important when it comes to interviews. You would have worked hard to get shortlisted for the interview and you will need to pass this final hurdle now to nail that job. Do continue to impress your potential employer if you really want that job.

The things that make an immediate impression on employers when conducting an interview are the interviewee’s punctuality, the way the interviewee presents him/herself from the beginning to the end, and especially the first sentence that comes out of the interviewee’s mouth.

Fahri: What I said about first impressions in Part One also applies here, and you should go and re-read that.

How the candidate is dressed is the most immediate impression I will have – so it’s important they are suitably dressed. Showing up in a jacket that is too big or a poorly cut suit gives the impression of a lack of meticulousness and care. That impression will assume to be extended to the quality of your work. As someone once said, “If the jacket ain’t right, it’s thank you and good night!” (Actually I made that up, but things sound more authoritative when they rhyme.)

The quality of conversation during the interview is crucial. It gives some insight into the quality that can be expected of their language and thinking abilities, and whether they are kind to their parents. But by far the most immediate of impressions I will have is whether the candidate is aware of his body odour. And I don’t think anything more needs to be said on that.

Lee Shih: Too late, too early – It sounds very basic but it still occurs where the applicant arrives at the interview late. This leaves an immediate bad impression. On the other end of the spectrum, don’t be there too early. Arriving 10-15 minutes early is good. But once you stretch into the region of 30 minutes to 1 hour earlier than the scheduled time, that is too early.

Smell well – A small interview room is a bad combination with overpowering perfume or body odour. Please do not go overboard on the perfume, but do ensure that you smell pleasant as well.

Dress well – When in doubt, err on the side of conservative dressing. For the men for example, you cannot go wrong with a plain black or navy blue suit, long sleeved plain shirt and a plain tie. Read “How to Dress Like a Lawyer”.

Social media – Assume that your interviewer would have done some cursory check on your social media presence online. So if you maintain a blog, have a Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter account, or if you have written for LoyarBurok, assume that the interviewer has read some of these posts and may have already formed an impression of who you are.

Marcus: As I mentioned in Part One, by the time you step into the interview room, the decision on whether or not to hire you is usually already 60% made. The point of the interview is just to get to know the applicant better, to confirm whether the applicant is “the right fit” for the firm. You should ensure that you do not jeopardise your changes by making basic, avoidable errors.

Being called for an interview means that the employer was sufficiently impressed by your application to set aside some time to speak to you. Do remember that your interviewers are law firm partners and their time is valuable. The worst thing you could possibly do is to be late for the interview. I would recommend being there 10 minutes before the scheduled time (and please don’t be too early either, which can be irritating – if you happen to get there early, kill some time in the car or around the area).

Obviously you should be well-groomed. Dress professionally – you are applying to work in a law firm, and you should dress like a lawyer. If you stick to the tips in “How to Dress Like a Lawyer” you will be fine.

Be confident with the first words that you say – firm handshake, don’t mumble, show that you can carry yourself well and are keen on impressing.

Siu Lin: Be on time. Don’t observe Malaysian time.

First impressions are visual. Dress conservatively and professionally. Minimal make-up and accessories for the women. This is not the time to be a fashionista or decide to push fashion boundaries. A dark-coloured suit is the safest choice. For women, be careful about skirt lengths. It is very rare for candidates called for interview in my firm to fail in this department. Use basic common sense.

Be courteous and warm, make eye-contact, greet the interviewer followed by a firm handshake. Appear confident, not arrogant. If you are an associate seeking a change of firms, the interviewer will enquire the reason for doing so. In this kind of situation, resist the temptation to criticize or bad-mouth your current employer. It’s unprofessional and indiscreet. Focus instead on other non-emotive issues leading to your decision to change firms, which may include a recommendation received, a change of practice area or preference for a different law firm set-up.

If you are an associate with a few years of practice, show some knowledge of current affairs and legal issues. Talk about your past legal experience and the types of work handled and if you enjoyed it, share what aspects you found interesting and how it has enhanced your legal skills. Try to build some rapport with the interviewer who is using this short time to gauge your personality and fit to the firm. In my office, usually those called for an interview have satisfied the minimum academic requirements and we are assessing in the interview the unwritten qualities of the candidate and the manner in which he/she responds to questions posed.

Should the interviewer ask a question on a topic about which you know nothing about, be candid and say so. There was one candidate who tried to “fluff” around a banking law topic to her detriment. She was unable to answer follow up questions, and this made her appear incompetent.

I recall one London University candidate whom we interviewed on Skype, pre-GE13. She spoke with passion about her editorial experience with Loyarburok (a plus point?). By highlighting this interest, she showcased her flair and command of English and knowledge of some of the issues happening back home.

Name three common things in job interviews which would ensure a rejection.

Donovan:

1. Bad-mouthing your previous employers. Regardless how unhappy you are with them, you should never utter any unpleasant things about your former employers in front of your potential employer. Your potential employer will think that there is a possibility of you doing the same in future to them, which puts their reputation at stake.

2. Giving the impression that you’re not serious about the job. Arriving late, not bringing your CV (never assume they have printed the copy that you sent them!), not switching off your phone (busted when someone calls/ messages you during the interview!), lacking eye contact and giving single word answers. These are actions which will convince your potential employer that you are not serious about getting the job.

3. Over confidence. Having self-confidence is good; but over confidence or over ambitiousness is not good, as it may make the interviewer feels that you do not clearly understand your ability. Moreover, when you are over confident, the interviewer may feel that you are cocky and not teachable.

Fahri:

1. Baring one’s prejudices openly. Happened before with a couple of male candidates who had the gall to be dismissive of my female colleague who conducted the interview with me.

2. Poor speaking and thinking abilities. Unfortunately, the quality of language is a big problem – in both languages – verbal and written abilities.

3. Lack of ethics. This is not common, but every once in a while, a candidate proposes a crooked way out of a problem question I pose to them.

Lee Shih: Again, I can only think of two.

1. Bad command of English. If the applicant’s spoken English is poor, this would very likely result in a rejection. The interviewer and applicant should be able to engage in a fluent conversation, and where at the initial stages, the interviewer would often be asking open-ended questions to start a conversation and if the applicant struggles in speaking in English, that quite quickly brings the interview to an end and with a rejection letter to follow soon after.

2. Not being able to explain your CV. If questions are asked about specific parts of the CV, the interviewer would expect the applicant to know their CV inside-out. So for instance, I have had a case where I asked the applicant the title of the final year dissertation paper and the applicant struggled to remember exactly. When I asked the applicant to describe, in a nutshell, what the conclusion of that dissertation was, the applicant again struggled to explain.

Marcus:

1. Poor communication skills. If you are unable to carry out a simple conversation in English, you will not be hired. I don’t expect you to be able to show extraordinary diction or turns-of-phrase, but you must be able to confidently engage in a conversation. If you think you are unable to do so at the moment, there are many classes/courses which you can enroll in to improve – if you are serious about a career in the law, you should spend the time and effort to better yourself in this essential skill.

2. Bad attitude. We want to hire people who are not just good lawyers, but also good people. Some examples of a bad attitude are bitching about former employers or colleagues, insisting on only working on major/important transactions or very specific practice areas, being argumentative or confrontational, appearing arrogant or using unnecessarily foul language.

3. Lack of focus. Some interviewees turn up with an overly-casual or unfocused attitude. They do not know what areas of practice interest them, or expressly say that they just want to “try out” being a lawyer. This can also be gleaned from the list of firms they have applied to (I always ask), which sometimes comprise of firms of different sizes and in completely different practice areas. If you do not show that you know what you’re looking for, then you are almost certainly not the candidate an employer is looking for.

Siu Lin:

1. Inability to converse in English or intelligently articulate an idea/conversational topic.

2. Overly boastful and arrogant interviewees. For example, an interviewee continuing to defend his erroneous point of view despite having been told otherwise by the interviewer.

3. Display of low confidence and low energy levels. Poor social skills. Weak eye contact and handshake.

What are your top three tips for interviewees?

Donovan:

1. Be prepared. Please visit the firm’s website or read the job scope in order to understand more about the firm and the job. Prepare some questions to ask about the job and the firm to show your interest in the job and the firm. For example, one good question to ask during the interview is “What do you expect from a candidate who assumes this role?” This question demonstrates that you care about meeting the expectation of your potential employer. Try to impress your potential employer with what you know about them e.g. the notable cases/deals that they have handled or advised which will make your interview outstanding.

2. Do not raise the issue of salary before the interviewer raises it. If you raise it first, your potential employer will think that your motivation of applying to join them is merely financial gratification, although it may not be the case. If your potential employer does not raise it at all, it essentially means that it is premature for them to even discuss this with you.

3. Do not avoid any question. Be honest and if you do not have a particular experience, just admit it, but do not just stop there. You should qualify by saying that you are willing to learn and you believe you can pick up the new skill fast based on your experience and skills acquired. Never ever beat around the bush in answering questions that you do not know the answer to. Your potential employer would have the answer already. This is to test your level of knowledge.

Fahri:

1. Be presentable. Dress well. Invest in your wardrobe. For men, try to have at least one quality tailored suit to use.

2. Learn to speak well and clearly. Use short sentences. Keep things simple. Get help if you need to.

3. Be interesting. Think about what you want to tell the interviewers. Think about why you want to do your pupillage, and at that firm; why do you want to practice law?

Lee Shih:

1. Show us your passion. I do like to be able to get a sense of passion from the applicant. A pupil applicant for instance may not be entirely sure of the area of work they want to chamber in, and that is perfectly fine. But I want to be able to understand what subjects interested you during your law degree and why. If you have done attachments at law firms, explain to me what was interesting for you.

2. Be aware of current issues. I would expect an applicant to have some knowledge of current issues in the news, and even some awareness of corporate news. So anything from the Allah judgment or anti-competitive arrangements may be a topic of discussion during an interview.

3. Ask well-researched questions at the end. Please ask questions when invited to do so. That shows that you are interested to find out more about the firm. Ask questions that show you have researched a little bit about the firm, for example about the firm’s professional development program, or the different practice areas, or the rotation system during pupillage.

Marcus:

1. Be honest, and let your personality show. If this sounds familiar, thank you, it means that you paid attention to Part One! This is probably the whole point of the interview, for me. To be completely honest, while a good academic track record is obviously something of value, I prefer to look beyond grades. I have known excellent lawyers who had awful grades in law school, and I have also known first-class, award-winning students who turned out to be rather mediocre lawyers, or who were not really interested in building a legal career. Be yourself, be honest – you really should not pretend to be someone else, because it is difficult, tiring, and impossible to maintain a façade for too long. Be true to yourself, and do your best to ensure that your personality shows in that interview room. Share about your interests, and your passions, and your dreams. I believe that anyone who has a law degree has the basic foundation to be a good lawyer, and that what sets apart the ones who I would want to hire from the ones I don’t are their character and qualities such as willingness to put in the work, desire to learn, humility, and thirst for knowledge and enlightenment beyond the law.

2. Do your background research. Read the firm website. Read whatever you can about the partners, and the work the firm does or has been involved in.

3. Ask questions, but don’t make demands. Interviewees will always be invited to ask questions, so come prepared with a few (about the firm, type of work, work culture, or career path). Do not make demands – employers unsurprisingly do not look kindly upon interviewees who demand flexible working-hours, or to leave the office at 5.00pm everyday, or talk about their expected remuneration package before they’re even offered the job.

Siu Lin:

1. Research your future employer/firm. This shows that you are serious and have put in the effort to learn about the firm’s culture, practice areas. Where possible, speak to pupils/associates/alumni of the firm you are considering to gain better insight. Usually you will be invited to ask questions about the firm and you should do so, talk about current deals/briefs the firm is handling or which appear in legal publications. It is also to be appraised on news items on legal issues reported in the press. Other common questions would relate to career progression in the firm.

2. Show that you are serious and committed to a long-term legal career in the law and are prepared to work hard. In this day and age, there is more emphasis on work-life balance. However, to raise this concern at the threshold of one’s legal career (unless you are a young mother/father or a care-giver for someone with special needs) sends a negative message, conveying a lack of commitment.

3. Be well-groomed and convey a professional image. Send out a positive energy which is displayed through your facial expression, voice and overall body-language. As lawyers, we need to interact with people on a daily basis, be it clients, judges, court-personnel, governmental agencies, firm staff. Develop good people skills. Be approachable and not aloof and this will go a long way.

Donovan Lee is a Recruitment Consultant with eLawyer, the leading legal recruitment agency in Malaysia. His portfolio includes sourcing legal talents for law firms and corporations. He was in private practice for a short stint wherein he was exposed to litigation, corporate and conveyancing before he decided to take a leap of faith and do other things in life which are close to his heart – headhunting, dragon boating, fitness instructor, etc. He is reachable at [email protected].

Fahri Azzat is an actor who plays the role of a professional advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya during office hours and during official business of the same name at the firm of Messrs Azzat & Izzat. The role of court going lawyer for this series is with the director’s consent. At all other times plays he plays the role of his namesake to his family, friends and foes. He performs on occasion as @LBMinion1 for LoyarBurok and the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights events and initiatives. He has not performed in any other role and has yet to be nominated for any acting award despite critical acclaim (mainly from his mom).

Lee Shih is a corporate litigator and partner at Skrine. He has recently been spending a lot of his time looking at pupillage applications and sitting in interviews. He tweets at @iMleesh and blogs at leeshih.com.

Marcus van Geyzel is a founding partner of Peter Ling & van Geyzel, a corporate/commercial law firm. He believes that lawyers (and all workers/employees in generally really) would be a whole lot happier if we stopped measuring success by how “busy” we are, and striving for more and more money and titles just because that’s what everyone else is doing. There are more important things in life. He hasn’t quite figured out what these more important things are, but believes that finding out is part of the fun. He tweets at @vangeyzel, and is almost permanently mind-controlled by Lord Bobo to run the most awesome blawg in the known and unknown universe, LoyarBurok. He rather enjoys referring to himself in the third person.

Goh Siu Lin is a daughter, wife and mother of two young children. Partner of Shook Lin & Bok, Chair of the Practitioners’ Affairs Committee, Kuala Lumpur Bar, Vice President of the Association of Women Lawyers. Mensan. Budding interest in women’s issues. Addicted to Latin Dancesport. Tweets at @ChachaSiu.


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8 Responses to Essential Tips for Law Firm Job Interviews – Part Two

  1. curiouspupilwannabe

    I've asked interviewers what were they looking for in a candidate, the answers were the same – attitude.

    But how would you judge a person's attitude in a 30-minute interview?

    How would you know if that person sitting in front of you is who you are looking for, among 30+ applicants?

  2. james

    We are always looking for executive assistant biography samples for the best job criteria which is basic thing to get job.

  3. Laura

    There are numerous web resources that can help the young aspirants to find job online, and reduce the unemployment ratio with complete ease. Therefore, if you are talented, then you should not hesitate in showcasing your skills in the resume.

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  5. John Baptist

    I wonder what sort of questions Fahri would pose me if I were to be an interviewee. A question like "Why should we hire you?" would be replied to with "Well, I know all your secrets…what you did last summer." ;)

    But seriously, I appreciate the advice that the 5 of you are giving to the young-very helpful. Going through the two parts published, I keep thinking of what some senior lawyers have told me. "You arrive early at the court. Check for your case and the coeram to hear your case. You thank God, your lucky stars or Lord Bobo for a relatively intelligent and good coram. You then find out that your opposing counsel calls in sick (he/she isn't happy with the coram). Or that when you appear before the coram, they proceed to tell you, "Learned Counsel, we have 20 cases on appeal before us today. Please tell us in 10 minutes, your 3 main points." But Yang Arif, Yang Arif, I have 10 points of equal importance. "Please pick 3, counsel!" They pretend to hear you and then proceed to dismiss your appeal. :)

  6. WTLow

    My pupil master once asked a first class graduate why she did the CLP and not the Bar. She tried to justify that doing the CLP meant she would be better at Malaysian law and procedure. My pupil master asked whether that meant Tun Suffian or Gunn Chit Tuan were not well versed in Malaysian law simply because they did the Bar. My pupil master would have offered her pupillage on the spot if she was honest enough to simply say that the Bar was too expensive. It did not help that the candidate did not even know who Tun Suffian and Gunn Chit Tuan were.

    On the other hand, for those privileged enough to do the Bar, do not belittle the CLP or local law degrees. Do not be arrogant. Do not assume. Do not stereotype. You are not necessarily a better candidate, and will not necessarily be a better lawyer.

    Read widely, not just law. Employers will be able to identify, and will appreciate candidates who have a real appreciation of current affairs, local and international. You don't have to be world-weary, but having an idea of how the world works goes a long way. The employer also has a legitimate interest in finding out whether you like reading, because you have no idea how much reading is or will be required of you in practice.

    Try not to say things like "this firm is a good place to learn". To such a statement, a senior lawyer i know once replied "but we are not here to train you so that you can go work for one of our competitors."

    Be mindful of your body language. Don't look at your watch or your phone. Don't fold your arms or cross your legs. Don't get too comfortable.

    Be humble, be polite, be honest and do not lie.

    Be realistic. Read this before you attend any interview: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wait-but-why/genera…

  7. LeeKokHoong

    Allow me to add.

    (1) Don't oversell. Some candidates have a tendency to talk too much during an interview. Ask them one question, and we could be sitting there and watching them speak for a good 3 minutes, like they are hosting a tv program, sitting down of course. Law graduates are taught to be precise and concise in their arguments, so keep it that way during the first face-off.

    (2) Show interest. Body language cannot be taught overnight. But the basics of sit upright and maintain eye contact is elementary. If last Saturday's #gerrymandering speeches is anything to go by, one presenter's eyes were darting across the ceiling of the room, everywhere except towards the audience. Good content, but poor presentation skills destroy it. Never do that in an interview. Some degree of animation may express interest, increasing it does not reflect a higher level of interest. It can be distracting and annoying when gestures and facial expressions are overdone.

    (3) Forget about canned answers. From those guide books, you can find a lot of suggested answers to "How do you see yourself in five years' time?" or "What is the biggest challenge in your life so far?" and a whole lot of other questions, but beware, interviewers read those books, too. Read those books by all means, they are good guides, but be yourself, and speak your mind. It is an opportunity for you to show the real you, instead of having them find out later on the job that it was all a farce. And when that happens, you may soon be job hunting again before the probation period is through.

    (4) Be an adult. You may be fresh from university but please act like an adult. I remember asking a fresh graduate if his expected salary is negotiable. He told me that he had to go home and ask his mother first.

    (5) Know your public profile. Recruiters sometimes may research on you, whether you have a Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn account or other social profiles, and may ask you questions relating to some of those postings you made previously. So, please beware. Try googling your birth name, your mobile phone number, or the email address you used in your job application, and see if there are anything you left somewhere, including in the cache. Or your classmate or schoolmate may have mentioned your name somewhere, too. The recruiter may have googled that if you didn't, that may be fodder for conversation in the interview. You would not want to look surprised, or shocked, would you?