To make it onto a prospective employer’s short list of top candidates, job seekers would be well advised to take the Hippocratic Oath—“first, do no harm.” Be vigilant with your resume and think ahead about interviews to get the edge on other contenders.
The notion that job candidates need to market themselves like a product to be “purchased” by employers seems dehumanizing to many, including this author. Are job seekers really the subject of a grocery-shelf analysis by potential employers, who already know what they’re looking for in the “candidate aisle” and thus just select the most attractive package to take to the checkout line? Well, that is one theory—but the reality is a lot messier.
Nonetheless, while candidates may not be “products,” they do need to exercise whatever control they can over how potential employers perceive them if they hope to make it through the first stages of the selection process. So here are tips on how to “package” yourself by focusing on your strong points in job-search documents and in interviews.
Be Fastidious with Documents: Think Musical Chairs
The early phases of the job search are not unlike the children’s game of musical chairs—your goal is to not be eliminated simply because you made a minor wrong move. And indeed, even the smallest missteps in the documents you provide to potential employers can remove you from consideration for an interview.
When it comes to the standard tools of a job search—including a resume, cover letter, thank-you notes and professional references—each document must be perfect. Especially in a profession like the law, which is fraught with the need for accuracy in details and research, you want to avoid making any minor misstep that would signal to an employer that you are not fastidious in your approach to written work.
Even if you want to keep your job search confidential at the moment, get at least one or two people whom you trust to proof all documents you’ll be distributing to prospective employers. They can help you avoid seemingly minor but potentially deadly errors in your documents.
It’s also critical that you position yourself well by focusing your resume on your strengths and accomplishments as well as the job responsibilities you’ve held. Many resumes are nothing other than straightforward job descriptions on paper. Yet what the reader really wants to know is what you, as a person who has held a given role and responsibilities, have done with that job description to move your organization forward.
How have you added value, saved or made money, developed yourself and others, or otherwise contributed? Generally, how will you leave your current organization better than you found it? You also want to include a few words about the organization’s scope and size, to add perspective on your contributions. Don’t forget that people who read your resume may know little or nothing about the organizations listed in it.
Some other points of advice on job-search documents: You are marketing yourself through these documents, so their appearance is very important. Refrain from using the standard Times New Roman font, which, while popular for lengthy text-filled documents, translates poorly to the computer screen, where most resumes are now read. Instead of the traditional serif fonts, use a sans serif font, such as Ariel, Calibri, Tahoma or Verdana, as these have much greater readability on a computer screen.
Similarly, large blocks of text are unlikely to appeal to your reader. Don’t stuff a page and a half of text onto a single page just to keep the resume to one page. These days the length of a resume is less important when it’s read online—readers will scroll to a second page. Anything longer, though, is too much.
Prepare to Tell Your Story in Interview Responses
A key benefit of having a resume focused on your accomplishments rather than just your responsibilities really comes into play during the interview process. Your resume will be the basis for your responses to the interviewer’s questions. And while interviewers are unlikely to remember a litany of numbers and factoids concerning your prior employment functions, they do respond (like all of us) to stories.
There is a simple formula for developing the vignettes that will serve as your interview stories: S–Situation, A–Action and O–Outcome. So, for each one of the key accomplishments you want to highlight in an interview based on the contents of your resume, you should be prepared to briefly and succinctly describe the circumstances or situation surrounding it; relate the actions that you took and were responsible for; and explain how the end result or outcome of your actions benefited the client or organization.
Note, too, that this can be particularly valuable in organizations that employ so-called behavioral questions during the interview process. Behavioral interviews, in fact, are often the norm in larger organizations with human resources departments. The premise is this: Past behavior projects future performance. As a result, interviews may include a litany of questions that start with “Tell me about a time when…” Or you may be asked to talk about a situation where you would have taken a different action or performed differently if you had a chance to do it all over. Thus, you need to have a number of stories following the S-A-O pattern that fit different kinds of scenarios that should be based on the requirements of the position you are seeking. These scenarios might describe your skills in leadership, legal acumen and analysis, teamwork, supervision or overcoming obstacles, just to name a few examples. Remember to prepare some stories that show reflection.
Remember as well that not all interviewers, regardless of the organization’s size, are equal in their skill or expertise in conducting these all-important conversations. If you find that you are talking to a less-than-stellar interviewer, there are always certain key points that you’ll still want to get across, whether or not you are asked the questions that would elicit these responses. So prepare not only for the skilled interviewer, but also for the person who is less adept. Some interviewers will barely take the lead and will expect you to carry the load. Be prepared to do so.
Next Steps: Going Deeper into the Interview Process
If you pass through to a second interview phase, then you've probably proven that you have the requisite background and skill set for the job. Accordingly, in this next phase, questions will become more pointed. And it is more likely that people will seek to explore your “fit” with their organization at this juncture. For example, various questions could be designed to elicit factors such as these:
Once again, success stories and real-life examples will help your audience get an idea of you in action and help you stand out from the other finalists.
Make It a Two-Way Street
While you are doing your utmost to nail your interviews in order to get the job offer, remember that you also need to be assessing the employer to determine whether this position and organization will actually be a good fit for you. Otherwise, you will probably not come across as a confident candidate. When it comes time for you to ask questions of the interviewer, you need to have inquiries ready that speak to how you will be evaluated and advance in the organization, as well as what will be measured as hallmarks of success.
Wendy L. Werner is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She is a member of the ABA LPM Section’s Law Practice Today Webzine Board.