An inscription found in a 3000-year-old Egyptian tomb reads, “Make thyself a craftsman in speech, for thereby thou shalt gain the upper hand.” Some things never change.
I recently went through New York’s law job recruit, also known as ‘hunting season’. The experience reemphasized the importance of craftsmanship in conversation.
Days after my interviews, I received an offer from every firm. Here’s how.
If you think that going to law school, achieving top grades, and doing every extra-curricular under the sun is sufficient to get you hired by a top firm, you are like most people, and you are wrong.
The unobvious yet central missing piece of the puzzle is a high level of proficiency in oral communication, which law school doesn’t teach you. In law school, we learn about advocacy, but not how to self-advocate. We learn how to read legislation, but not how to read people. We learn how to cite cases, but not how to verbally cite our potential with experiences as evidence. These are not deficits in the scope or depth of legal education, as it is not the responsibility of law professors to teach us how to speak like experts on our own selves. However, learning how to do so, a reasonable and achievable goal, is key to both landing your desired gig and finding further success once you’re a lawyer (so I hear).
The advantages of speaking skills in interviews are supported by research. A survey of more than 600 employers reveals that among the top skills that recruiters look for, “oral communication” is number one. “Presentation skills” is number four. You can be armed with quantifiable qualifications and have stellar academic grades, but your impressiveness evaporates into insignificance when you can’t communicate your point clearly.
Imagine what interviewers ask themselves while they’re interviewing you.
Can we put you in front of a client? Do you maintain eye contact when you speak? How do you respond under pressure when asked difficult or unexpected questions? Do you listen attentively while I speak? Are you nervous and unsure of your answers, or are you confident? Overconfident? Do you know when to stop talking? Do we want to work with you? Would our clients want to work with you? Could I stand the idea of working with you at 3:00 AM in the office?
The interview is the test of all of the above, and strong communication skills are the means to passing this test.
Communication skills are key to interviewing for other reasons as well. They are what ultimately set you apart from other candidates. Recruiting is like dating, and more specifically, dating on an app, such as Tinder or Bumble. Your resume is one of many attractive ‘profiles’ that the firm sees. The firm knows where you go to school, where you’ve worked, what your interests are, and other noteworthy facts. If they like what they see, they swipe right to preliminarily ‘match’ with you—and thousands of others. Your interview is like your first date, to see if they like you more, less, or as much in person as they do on paper. If the firm is especially impressed on your date, they ask you to be in a ‘relationship’—they make you an offer of employment.
An example from my own experience demonstrates just how level the recruiting ground is prior to interviewing. Before my interview at a major international law firm, I sat in an interviewee waiting room, sandwiched between candidates from Columbia and Harvard. During the thirty minutes we shared, I learned that we had more than a black suit in common. They, too, were editors of a law journal; they, too, volunteered at a legal clinic; they, too, had interviews at other top-ranking firms. We were equals; high-achieving law students who had relatively similar things to discuss. Your only competitive advantage is communication. Indeed, “it’s not about what you say, but how you say it.”
My advice to anyone entering any professional conversation is to invest due time and effort into preparation.
The ones who get the jobs are the ones who can answer any question with a logical structure, interesting content, smooth delivery, and an engaging tone. While this may be common sense, it’s not common practice.
In terms of content, learn to structure answers like mini-speeches, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Make a point, support it with examples, and conclude. Without structure, you risk rambling, getting bogged down in details, and getting lost in your own spiel. Having a mental roadmap to follow will keep you on track and ensure you actually answer the question asked.
In terms of delivery, learn to give your answers like mini-speeches as well. While the tone of interviews is conversational, the principles of good public speaking still hold. Use hand gestures, pace yourself, pause for effect, vary your volume and pitch, and maintain eye contact. Practice plenty, and seek professional help if you need it.
This is not about misleading firms to make you an offer instead of someone more qualified. This is about developing the skills that will make you the most qualified someone.
Public speaking is like a weapon that relatively few people have in the job battle. So when you get the inevitable interview question, “Tell me about yourself,” answer as a craftsman in speech, and “thou shalt gain the upper hand.”
About the Author: Jordyn Benattar is a JD/MBA candidate at the University of Toronto. She is the Founder and President of Speakwell Coaching & Consulting, where she trains others to be confident, compelling, and effective communicators.