Get Your Head in the Game: a Playbook for Interview Success

So far, so great. Your first interview’s been scheduled. It’s actually going to be your first interview for three years. How do you make the most of it? And how do you stand the best chance of being successful?

Helping lawyers prepare for interviews is one of my favourite parts of being a recruiter. My time coaching elite athletes with British Swimming in the run up to the London Olympics has something to do with it. This is race time. It’s where a dream performance begins, where potential becomes actuality. Or not. After Beijing in 2008, the great Michael Phelps talked about going blind in an Olympic final. More of that in a minute.

I’m a really conscientious interviewee myself. Also, as a bright optimist, part of me can’t help but feel that an interview is an opportunity that could be life-altering. I stand in those shoes alongside the lawyers I work with. It’s one of the junctures where I have the privilege of being able to make a big difference. So where to start?

First by wiping away the myth that preparing for an interview makes for a stilted performance. It doesn’t. Not preparing or underpreparing does. If you come across as ‘rehearsed’, it’s because you’re under-rehearsed. Proper preparation takes you to a level where your performance just flows. What you do and what you say becomes natural, even instinctive. It’s why the virtuoso violinist Nicola Benedetti still puts in six hours’ practice a day when taking on a new piece, and Oscar-winning actress Dame Judi Dench still pours in weeks of fastidious preparation before performing (another) Shakespeare play. They rehearse so hard that their performance doesn’t look like they still are. That’s a lot of time. Which like most lawyers, you probably don’t have an excess of. Preparing smartly is the way to go.

Begin with not doing what you don’t need to do. Take, for example, research on the partners that you’ll be meeting. You want to be familiar with their work, their publications, even them personally (uncovering a personal Twitter account can add a useful dimension). Anything that can be found online is fair game. A great recruiter will do this for you. A really great recruiter will do this better than you. They’ll add the original insight that can’t be found online. Like the HR director at the top US firm who’ll appear dour and low on enthusiasm – and bring that tone to the first interview – but is actually looking for you to break through it and show yourself to be the exact opposite.

Next, think. Imagine what a successful interview looks like. Seeing what success looks like, means you can logically and smartly plan preparation to get you there. Preparation is both mental and physical. Consider likely questions. What question would you love to be asked? How would you answer it? Think through it. Perhaps write it down. Visualise answering it. Physically practice answering it.

Visualising success may sound simple, but it can be a mightily powerful tool. The brain can’t distinguish between actual and visualised experience; to the brain, a neural pattern is a neural pattern. MRI scans show that blood moves around the brain, even if you’re only visualising. For a lawyer short on time, it’s also something you can do in otherwise ‘dead’ time – that commute home where you’re so squished in on the train that all you can do is stand there.

On this point, let’s return to Mr Phelps. Michael’s known for spending hours visualising his races. He’d visualise everything going well – and things going wrong. He’d then visualise what he’d think and do to get through the bad moments that might come. Swimmers wear goggles, so that they can see clearly under water. Your goggles filling with water is about the worst thing that can happen during a race. You’re effectively swimming blind. That’s what happened to Michael in the final of his best event, the 200 metres butterfly, at the Beijing Olympics. On the third length of four, he described how his goggles leaked and filled with water. The pressure of an Olympic final is of a unique kind. A gold is the ultimate prize and it’s what you’ve trained four years for. Having to do it blind is unimaginable. Yet Michael had imagined it. He’d prepared for it. He talked about having trained himself to think and act correctly (even subconsciously) under pressure. Michael Phelps finished the race, broke the world record and picked up his fourth gold of the Games.

Unsurprisingly, Michael also does (a lot of) physical practice. Between 1998 and 2003 he trained for 1825 consecutive days. Dr Judd Blaslotto’s 1996 basketball experiment is a seminal authority on the power of visualisation, but also underlines the raw value of physical practice. Blaslotto got a group of student to take a series of free throws. He then then divided the group into three. Over 30 days they were asked to do different things: group one was told to take it easy and not touch a basketball at all, group two was told to practise shooting free throws for half an hour a day every day, while group three was told to spend half an hour every day simply visualising making free throws. After 30 days, all three groups retook the original free throw test. Group one did not improve. Group two, who had physically practised, improved by 24%. Group three, who had visualised success, improved by 23%.

Clearly then, you should physically practise too. The sheer volume of Michael Phelps’ practice is illuminating, but the quality of it is just as important to him. For a lawyer short on time, it should be too. Look to pack your physical preparation with high quality practise of the success you’ve imagined, centred on the questions and answers you’ve planned out and visualised. Practise aloud on your own, or better still with a friend or partner. A good recruiter can help too. A great recruiter can make a big difference and really help the quality of your practice soar. They’ll be happy to run a full mock interview with you and then help you dissect your performance to make every marginal (or major) gain possible, based on what they know will appeal to the firm and partners you’re meeting.

If your first interview’s been scheduled, as we said at the start, so far, so great. If it’s actually going to be your first interview for three years, it needn’t be. To make the most of it and stand the best chance of being successful, it shouldn’t be. Proper preparation – research, visualisation and physical practice – will ensure it isn’t.