It was the afternoon of the biggest interview of my legal career – the opportunity to work at one of the largest, most prestigious firms with more than 450 lawyers. My burst of excitement reached its peak as I arrived 20 minutes early to the interview, and found a prime parking spot on the second floor of the parking garage, about 10 feet from the elevator.
I got out of my car gracefully, of course, because I was wearing a very expensive suit from Bloomingdales and my best pair of pointy-toed shoes that I reserved only for interviews. As I closed my car door, and took a step forward, I kicked something that sounded like a tin can. Suddenly, my left forefoot felt wet. I immediately thought, ah a pesky soda can. Yet, it didn’t smell like Coke or Pepsi. I looked down, and it was not a soda can, but a tin can of sardines. Yes, smelly, stinky, revolting, rotting sardines. The only person I knew who ate sardines was my grandfather, and when he did, my grandmother took the can, rinsed it with bleach, and threw it in the trash chute down the hallway from their apartment.
My mind went into a panic. I could not fathom that this was even possible. I smelled like the corpse of a decaying fish and I also ruined the shoes that only left my closet for interviews. Admittedly, I don’t handle stress well, and I ran up to the first group of women I saw. Like a bat out of hell, I began screaming, “Oh my! I stepped in a can of sardines! I have the biggest interview of my life and I can’t smell like a rotting fish! I need to find the closest bathroom right away!”
They looked at me the way you look at someone certifiably crazy. I was that crazy person that day. They told me there was a lobby in the bathroom, and I bolted for it. I locked myself in there, looked in the mirror, and glimpsed in disbelief that this was my current existence. I had to stop myself from crying in an effort to avoid destroying my makeup.
With my left foot shoved into the sink as I began lathering up my hands with massive amounts of soap, I had to perform calisthenics in my pants suit while praying that I didn’t split the crotch of the pants. Being only 5’1, I found it rather difficult to contort my body and I was grateful that this was a single-stall bathroom. I scrubbed as much as I could, as hard as I could, and sniffed my shoe and my foot. Guess what? I still smelled like rotten fish. I was mortified. The end was near.
I now had 12 minutes before the interview was set to begin. I took the elevator up to the 17th floor and the doors opened to a reception area. The opulence of the lobby was reminiscent of the scene in John Grisham’s “The Firm.”
“They are ready for you.” No, they definitely weren’t.
Hearing that statement, I walked into a conference room with a long table that could have sat 30 of my closest relatives. I sat across from three partners, adorned in their Brooks Brothers suits, and who seemed to be counting the minutes until they could go back to billing their clients a tedious $350 an hour.
The very first statement that came out of my mouth, unrehearsed and unfiltered was, “Am I on American Idol? I ask this because I want to make sure that I make the most eye contact with Simon.”
They laughed. I cried inside. I wanted to run and delve into a pint of Ben and Jerry's after I polished off a bottle of red wine and a few slices of pizza.
But, the ice was broken, and I pretended to concentrate.
They asked their questions, and I gave my answers. Whether it was about where I saw myself in 5 years, why I wanted to work at their firm, did I see myself making partner, could I bring in clients, my answers flowed naturally. The smell of the rotten fish became a figment of my imagination.
I saw myself working there of course, taking clients out to a steak dinner, putting in extra hours whenever needed because I loved to do legal research (particularly on insurance coverage issues dealing with hurricane claims – their specialty), I was a self-starter, and my biggest weakness was that I am stubborn because I refuse to give up until a task is completed to perfection. My answers were checked off on their list, one after the other. I clinched the interview – all 74 minutes of it – all while I was bathing in the delicious aroma of sardines.
Four days later, I received an email from the firm. I opened the email, and enclosed was a picture of a can of sardines and a job offer. The women in the parking garage worked at the firm and told the partners what had happened to me.
Stepping in a can of sardines was unexpected and horrifying. But, I still excelled in my interview, and here are 5 things that I did to shine:
I did my homework. I knew the type of work the firm focused on. I knew their specialty and I made it an interest of mine.
I created humor. I started off the interview with the American Idol analogy and it set the tone for the rest of the interview.
I rehearsed my responses to the standard interview questions without sounding like I was reading a script. There’s a laundry list of questions that interviewers ask. I prepared my responses accordingly.
I remained confident and likable. Both of these are integral parts to an interview. Confidence is the counterpart to success. Employers seek employees who are confident in their abilities and who exude a personality that coincides with a positive work atmosphere. Despite smelling like a rotting fish, I remained confident and likable.
I got personal and transparent. Share something personal about yourself that you are proud of, such as a hobby or an accomplishment. After I ran the New York City Marathon, I listed it on my resume. It was asked about time and time again on countless interviews. 26.2 miles? 6 months of training? Employers found it to be a very intriguing aspect about my drive and ambition. Stand out from the other applicants and be transparent about who you are.
The moral of my story: no matter how terrible you think your interview is going, you can still outshine and outsmell the competition.