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Lexis+ AI
Calvin Gardiner

Vice President, Buchanan Law

Simi Bains

Principal Associate, Buchanan Law

Quotation Marks
Ultimately, [law firms] want to make sure that potentially strong candidates on paper are a good cultural fit in practice

Mastering the informal interview landscape

Mastering the informal interview landscape

By and

Calvin Gardiner and Simi Bains explore the shift from traditional interviews towards informal conversations in the legal sector

Few people can say that they love the job interview process. Watching politicians being grilled during the (recent) general election campaign, amplified by difficult questions from combative interviewers, their discomfort was there for all to see in real time. For lawyer candidates, the tortuous experience of a formal interview, a series of formal interviews, and perhaps most of all, a forensic panel interview, can feel every bit as daunting and uncomfortable.

Law firms recognise this. So, in addition to - and sometimes instead of - traditional formal interviews, panel interviews, behavioural type interviews, and competency-based interviews, informal interviews have become increasingly prevalent in the recruitment process. Their popularity has increased in recent years, not least because law firms are increasingly keen to showcase their relaxed culture to prospective lateral hires.

Reflecting the much less formal nature of modern offices, working environments, law firm hierarchy, - and society more generally - most informal law firm interviews are essentially informal chats or conversations that are designed to put interviewees at their ease. For law firm employers, they have become particularly valuable in determining, not just their attributes, competency and skillset, but critically, their personality. Ultimately, they want to make sure that potentially strong candidates on paper are a good cultural fit in practice for the firm.

As part of an increasingly casual recruitment process, most especially for more senior positions, they help to assess the abovementioned criteria, as well as an individual’s overall compatibility and competence, much better than the traditional formal or panel interview process ever could.

As an initial screening to ascertain if it is worth your while and their time and investment to continue a conversation, managing partners, heads of practice and newly appointed sector or practice area specialists undertake numerous informal interviews with relevant candidates.

Nevertheless, most conversations with those who might potentially add value to their teams do not result in people changing firms. But in a consistently dynamic legal recruitment market, they have become a routine feature of commercial life, with the number of informal chats ultimately leading to more such offers being on the increase.

So, how can lawyers succeed in an informal interview setting?

If you are invited to have a chat about a specific role, or to see how a potential role might work, the interview is going to be informal. Location may vary, but typically such interviews are held outside an office environment and often involve food; a café, bar, or restaurant is therefore the most common venue. Where the interviewee is more remote ie in another city or country, informal interviews can also be virtual.

However it is dressed up, an informal interview means you are in demand: an employer who wants to meet you may well know quite a lot about you already before you walk through the door – either by reputation, or through informal references or recommendations.

There are other potential factors that can dictate whether an interview is informal rather than formal. By assessing your skills, contacts, and what you could bring, it may help the firm to customise or adapt a role to suit both your and their needs.

It can also be a stepping stone on a longer journey towards an offer being made in 6, 12, or 18 months. Although there is no role for you currently, the firm is already impressed enough to want to get to know you when an opportunity or vacancy becomes available. Informal interviews can be used to gauge many things – from your level of appetite and ambition to your potential fit in a team that does not yet exist, but may be rapidly built once the right players become available.

Wherever the informal meeting takes place, you will be on show. Full business attire will not be necessary. But even if the location calls for casual wear, being casually smart still matters – unless the law firm attempting to lure you has a tech start-up vibe in which case, the black or grey t-shirt look may be just fine.

The right tone of an informal interview should be that of a good conversation at a comfortable dinner party. That means a two-way process and questions being exchanged on both sides, not a self-centred monologue that verges on narcissism.

You will be asked questions that enable the interviewer to understand your personality, probe your knowledge, and gauge how you manage a busy caseload. Inevitably, the discussion will turn to clients and building client relationships.

Although you may be likely to talk more, you should also ask more questions than in a typical interview – engage the interviewer, get them talking about their working life, their career experiences, and what they like about the firm, as well as exchanging more information about yourself than you would in a formal setting.

Find the right balance and where natural silences occur, be prepared to fill them with a good question. And listen to the answers – great lawyers know how to talk, the best lawyers know how to listen. You can demonstrate in your questions how much you have listened to the detail of what the interviewer has said.

Interviewer questions will often be more casual or indirect than a formal interview – in showcasing your skills without being boastful or hyperbolic, you may need to be careful in choosing the right moment and in being understated in singing your own praises. In calibrating your responses, much may depend upon the prevailing culture of the firm in question – aggressive billion-dollar billing US major or highly successful, yet understated English City firm. These days, the former tends to outnumber the latter.

In preparation for an informal interview, remember - despite the casual backdrop - it’s still an interview. So be prepared. There are three key elements that invariably apply in every context:

  • do your homework on the firm, their clients, their competitors, and any recent developments, as well as on the interviewer(s) and the wider team of which they are part.
  • carefully consider in advance the precise questions to which you need answers, so that you can drop them - casually - into the conversation at appropriate junctures.
  • prepare your responses to anticipated questions that demonstrate your strategic knowledge and understanding: your ability to articulate and explain yourself clearly is imperative.

Perhaps the hardest part of an informal interview is how much you should sell yourself, and when. Although you should be prepared to describe why you consider yourself to be a great fit for the firm - and vice versa - keep your powder dry. Wait for the interviewer to make the first move before pitching your skills as the perfect fit. And even then, you may want to reflect before making anything that approaches a commitment or being too interested, too soon.

Above all, remember that an informal interview is still an interview. You only get one chance to make a first impression – asking the right questions casually, listening carefully to the answers and presenting yourself informally in a pitch over the dinner table can be quite a challenge.

One important feature of informal interviews is that they tend to be used much more often, although not exclusively, with senior lawyers. This creates a division between junior and senior legal roles: structured interviews remain widespread for the former, while informal conversations are frequently replacing interviews for the latter.

Primarily, junior candidates need to impress with their technical competence to get the job, whereas for senior candidates there is a wider emphasis on a range of skills, as well as compatibility with the team and the culture of the firm. As firms try to entice partners away from competitors with seductive remuneration packages in a tight labour market, the informal interview process will continue to play a pivotal role.

Calvin Gardiner and Simi Bains are Vice President and Principal Associate at specialist legal recruitment firm Buchanan Law.

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