Surviving On Campus Interviews: Dealing With Adverse Facts During Interviews

Law Firm Interviews- On Campus InterviewsIt’s almost OCI time, so today we are excited to welcome Peter from Law Firm Interviews with the first in a series about On-Campus Interviews. This first article discusses how to explain adverse facts on your record and discusses how he got through the process with flying colors. 

Welcome Peter!

Everyone has weaknesses, even the strongest candidates among you. Even if it’s that one low grade on the transcript, the result of one aberrant class or badly executed exam, you’ve been obsessed about how interviewers will see it, and in moments of extreme doubt, you’ve worried that it would cost you your job.

We know what it’s like, because we’ve been there. However well we landed, we had our own weaknesses, and when we went into those interviews, we too, had inner struggles on how to deal with them. This article is about how we did it.

Step One: Have An Excuse

You have to be ready to deal with the adverse fact. This means having your story straight. If it’s a bad grade, you’ll have to explain to yourself in a convincing fashion why it happened, and why it is of no consequence to your wider transcript. If it’s a bad transcript, you will have to explain to yourself again why it happened, and have a convincing explanation of why it has no impact or implication on how you will perform as an associate in the interviewer’s firm. The key here is to be sure that the explanation is convincing, and that you can deliver it without hesitation or doubt.

Step Two: Make Sure You Never Have To Use The Excuse

Law firms are often like the military: hierarchical, absolute in the chain of command, and unsympathetic to excuses. The best way to minimize an adverse fact is to never get into it in the first place. By avoiding the topic entirely, you implicitly own the fact, and minimize any attention that may have been paid to it by the interviewer. You’ve got the screener interview, the interviewer has already seen your transcript and resume, and nothing you say will change the fact that the adverse fact exists. In such a situation, your goal should be to avoid drawing ANY attention at all to the adverse fact, and instead focusing on other things during your 20 minutes with the screener.

So, why did I tell you to have an excuse? Mostly for your own comfort. To be able to deliver an interview that convinces the interview to completely overlook what she already knows about your transcript and resume, you’ll need to be confident internally that you have a good explanation for the problem. You’ll need the knowledge that should the issue come up, you can deal with it. But your overriding goal in the interview, should be to avoid the fact at all costs.

Step Three: Avoid The Adverse Fact By Overwhelming It

It might be obvious that the key to avoid drawing attention to the adverse fact is to circumvent it. But how should you do that? Let me tell you a story. We interviewed a candidate recently who was below median at the school she went to. This was obvious to us because our grade cutoff is high generally, regardless of the school, and her transcript really stood out. My co-interviewer and I went into the interview with our minds fully focused on this fact, and both of us were super curious about how she was going to deal with it. Turns out that she succeeded in strides: in less than 15 minutes, she had inundated us with a slew of her extra-curricular and professional accomplishments, delivered with sincerity, practiced familiarity, and utter self-possession that showed extensive preparation and extremely thorough research.

She asked us detailed questions about our practices, responded effectively to any question we could throw at her about the content of her resume and conversation, and just generally impressed with her poise. The only thing she did wrong was affirmatively bring up her below-median transcript and offer us a pretty good reason for why it happened. This detracted from her well-orchestrated charm campaign, but the rest of her repertoire was so good, that by the end of the interview we both overlooked the main adverse fact that we walked into the interview obsessing over.

Our impression of her, initially dominated by her sub-par transcript, was completely reversed by her delivery and presence in person. We went back, and in our written assessments both of us specifically pointed out to the hiring committee that while we recognize she had below-median grades, everything else about the candidate more than made up for the deficiency. Both of us ultimately ranked her as a “highly enthusiastic offer,” and advocated for her in our assessment. I think my bit was the longest assessment I’ve ever written for any candidate.

What does this teach us? That a short interview, well-executed, can overcome just about anything. In fact, when she ended up bringing up her grades again, both of us had completely thrown it out of our minds! In so far as we thought about it, was about how we could actively help her minimize the fact in our written evaluations.

Amazing.

Step Four: Distillation

So, as you can see. The best way to deal with adverse facts is to overwhelm the interviewer with positive facts. Here’s what you do:

  1. Identify every positive accomplishment in law school, every success, every paper, every substantive subject area in which you’ve achieved something notable, and prep exactly how you’ll deliver these facts to the interviewer.
  1. The best way to deliver these facts, is to identify practice areas, cultural uniquenesses (real or perceived or advertised), and specifics about the firm, and link them in any plausible way possible to your achievements. So your delivery can be a smooth “I accomplished X, and this is how it enables me to excel in your firm’s Y practice/thrive in your firm’s culture of collegiality and commercial aggressiveness.”
  1. Be as knowledgeable as possible about the firm, the interviewer, and their background, be extremely prepared. No aspect of your interview can be left up to chance. Your goal is not to show you’re nonchalant, chill, or casually confident. You need to make it look obvious that you prepared for this interview to the hilt. Why? Because the interviewer will be walking into the interview with your adverse fact in mind, and you’ll need to impress upon her that you have done everything possible to overcome it in every other aspect of your life, including in prepping for this interview. The interviewer must be able to tell that you spent time in front of the mirror, that you mock-interviewed repeatedly until your speech was rock solid. Only with the evidence that you went above and beyond, can the interviewer be convinced that the adverse fact was aberrant, and that you have and will continue to hustle to ensure that such an aberration doesn’t happen again.

Adverse facts are unfortunate, and if they are aberrant, unfair as well. But no interviewer will see it that way, they will let it define you unless you attack that presumption relentlessly during the interview. If you do, adverse facts can be overcome, and overcome in a very very short time. To do so, just having an excuse is not enough, you will need to prove with positive evidence that you are not what the adverse fact shows. The most important evidence, will be how much you’ve prepared for the interview itself.

Thanks, Peter! 

More About Law Firm Interviews:

We’re big law associates at V15 firms in New York, we went through the process of OCI and stressed out through law school.  We got great jobs out of the experience but saw others strike out.

Now, we interview people ourselves and understand law firm life in a way we realize no law student does. Looking back on our experiences, we see mistakes we could have avoided, and looking at our interviewees, we see them make mistakes they don’t realize they are making.

We have been giving advice, coaching, and guiding law students privately for years, and over time we have seen the friends or strangers we helped achieve tremendous success in the job market. We decided to write this guide to share the knowledge and training that has worked so well for so many of our friends and clients. You can visit our site at lawfirminterviews.com or follow us on Facebook.

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