By Joanna Nakamoto • April 05, 2017•Writers in Residence
When I initially applied for law school, I had a hard time coming up with something to focus on for my personal statement. Of course, there were the typical formats like “why did you want to go to law school” or “why do you think you’d be a great lawyer” that were suggested to all applicants. But I had a better, deeper, and more quality story to share that would answer all of those questions, but without directly answering them. It paid off. In fact, it paid off so well that I was granted a unique scholarship, which was only given to single mothers. It immediately (and thankfully) helped fund my law school education.
Fast-forward to my first round of interviews for those highly coveted summer law firm positions. You know, the ones where a law student is given an amazing and prestigious position to pad your resume, while at the same time getting paid ridiculous amounts of money? Well, after getting advice from career counselors and people who conducted mock interviews, I learned that some law firms might not want to take a single mother because they were afraid that she would not have the requisite time to dedicate to the work. So when the rounds of interviews started and they asked questions such as, “what are you most proud of” or “what do you consider to be your best accomplishment”? I would mention other things like, “getting accepted into law school” or something like that. My real answer should have been “my children” because it was the truth. So what happened? Well, I never secured one of those positions and I was devastated.
Shift time forward, and it’s after my 2L year. This time I’m back at another interview for another summer position. This time, I decided to just be myself…completely, utterly, and honestly me. I kept my charisma and goofiness that had always given me character. I spoke about my children at length, my hopes for the future, and threw out a few sarcastic jokes. The results? One attorney ended up giving me a quick tour of downtown Houston’s underground tunnels because I had recently moved from Denver and had no idea such a city gem existed. I successfully received a job offer and later on I found out that a large reason for it was that I was a genuinely, “real” person.
After this, I decided to do another mock interview. As I stood outside of the door waiting for my turn, I could hear the critique of the student they had just finished with. They told him to expand on certain topics and refrain from mentioning certain things. They gave a lot of advice to him before it was my turn. I sat down and played the part of myself. I was very optimistic, attentive, easy-going, and answered their questions with answers that resided in my heart. I got stellar feedback from both the attorney and the career counselor for my natural style and charisma. Later that day, the interviewing attorney sent me an email personally to let me know that I did a wonderful job, and there was one thing that he thought of that I could improve on long after I left. This meant that I had left a lasting impression on him; which is something all interviewees strive to do. Next, I applied for an internship, got an interview, played the role of my beautifully flawed-self and was offered the position.
I said all of this to say this: whatever flaw you feel needs covering, or whatever part of you that makes you-you, do not be afraid to share it. A lot of times interviews, especially ones for legal positions, seem like they are “all about business”. Never forget that the people who are doing the interview are also looking for a break and something refreshing from all of the day-to-day business dealings. They are looking for someone to connect with more on a personal level because although your work product can be outstanding, who you are as a person is who is going to be taking up the vacant space in their offices. Trust me when I say, they would like to fill that space with a real, genuine person rather than a trained law school robot who only is appealing on paper.
With all of that said, here are a few more tips for your next legal interview that I have learned in my experience in law school:
1. Dress appropriately, but comfortably.
I’ve heard it over and over again that women need to wear a skirt suit with pantyhose. Oddly enough, the interviews that I went to and performed well enough to receive an offer at, did not care that I was in a pantsuit when I showed up. I despise skirts and high heels with every ounce of my being because I’ve always been a jeans and t-shirt type of girl. Although I respect the need to dress professionally and appear put-together, a person shouldn’t underestimate the power of confidence that flows simply from being comfortable. If your wardrobe is on your mind while you’re doing an interview, chances are it’s taking away from your ability to focus and engage with the people asking questions. Although there are exceptions, try to be as comfortable as possible. Opt for a high heel with a strap if you struggle to keep your foot inside the heel like me, or a longer suit jacket if you’re conscientious about your posterior. Of course, if looking fly and amazing boosts your confidence, then do whatever it takes!
2. Arrive on time and be prepared, but not overly prepared.
There are generic questions that come along with every interview. However, don’t be so stuck in your formulaic answers that you miss an opportunity to be open and creative on the spot. Relax. You’ve got the interview, and that’s already a big step in the right direction. Research some history on the company and memorize some of it. Remember that not all questions and answers can be foreseen and calculated by you. Give yourself breathing room to showcase yourself and it will flow naturally.
3. Strike up a conversation with anybody, and not just the people conducting your interview.
I talked at length about football with a couple of security guards for the building while I waited for my interview to begin. Now, whenever I see the security guards, they ask me how my day is progressing and if my favorite NFL team is ready for the draft and the new season. Plus, they always offer me candy or warn me about things like inclement weather. If you take some of the spare time you have to get to know the people in the office, no matter their position, your chances of getting hired will likely go up, so don’t squander the opportunity to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger in the office.
4. Make the “Thank You” notes personal, and don’t be afraid to send it by email.
For those first round of interviews I told you about where I spent a lot of time being somebody I wasn’t, I hand wrote thank you cards to every person. Did it matter? No. In fact, they made their final decision while my thank you cards were still making their way to their offices in the mail. On the other side, I never sent any handwritten thank you notes to those on the hiring committees for the current internship and clerk position I hold now. I have a colleague who also wrote thank you notes by hand after he was done with an interview, and he too, did not get an offer. So, do I think that thank you notes are overrated and a waste of time and money? Of course, not! I think that so long as you can make the thank you note personal (by memorizing something the interviewer said), then it wouldn’t hurt. However, if you’re confident in your interview and the people seemed to like you, I don’t see any harm in sending a personal “thank you “ note via email. Of course, you have to remember to get business cards for the email addresses or write down the names of the panel doing your interview because if worse comes to worse, you can always look for attorneys on the internet, such as, through the law firm’s attorney directory on their website.
5. Be You! Be Yourself!
There’s a popular song lyric that goes “Everybody is somebody, but nobody wants to be themselves,” and I find that those words to be perfectly true. Law school will do many things to you. You’ll hear something on the news and analyze it as if it were a hypothetical in one of your final exams. You’ll have unique opinions on current events and politics around the world to offer. You’ll hear a myth about how the law works and shake your head towards the people who would believe such nonsense. But one thing that law school should never change is whatever characteristics make you, uniquely you. Even if it’s a tattered and torn past like myself, or you’ve turned a new page in life and are working towards being a different person. Law school shouldn’t change any of that, but the legal community could use a perspective like yours in it. So don’t ever lose yourself. Be smart, but be you.
I recently got invited to a federal judge's chambers to speak with students about my experiences in law school (they were aspiring lawyers). It was a right place, right time type of deal and totally impromptu. But the judge was so moved by my story of perserverance that he continues to help me find internships, fellowships, or jobs to further my blossoming legal career. All because I decided to share my story when someone asked. The lesson is this: you never know how much your story has the capacity to move people in their hearts and rally behind you for success in whatever way they can. So again, be you.