Listening During Interviews: Advice for Law Students

A job interview presents a listening challenge: Of course you want to show you are a great listener, but it’s also important to talk. “Most impressive are interviewees who are able to enter into a dialogue with their interviewers,” advises a hiring attorney quoted in An Insider’s Guide to Interviewing: Insights from the Employer’s Perspective, available from the National Association for Law Placement here and probably from any law school’s career services office.

Real dialogue requires real listening, which takes preparation beforehand and execution during the interview. You can continue to reap the benefits of good listening with a thoughtful thank-you note afterwards as well.

1. Prime yourself to listen by preparing beforehand.

Listening is very difficult when the listener is confused or nervous. Interview preparation helps cut down on both of these problems.

To minimize confusion, study for the interview. Learn about the type of interview you are facing and what to expect. Review your own resume and make notes on experiences to highlight and themes about your work history and ambitions. Research the interviewer—the agency, firm, or organization, as well as the individual lawyers doing the interviewing, if possible.

To cut down on nervousness, make sure to take advantage of practice interviews. You can practice on your own as well: role-play questions and answers out loud. All of this preparation will help you listen more effectively in the real thing.

2. Eliminate distractions and use effective nonverbal behavior.

Distracting behavior is terrible because (1) it can actually distract you; and (2) it can make you look distracted—and therefore like a bad listener—even if you are neither.

Thus, don’t look at your phone during an interview. Ever. (Having a mortally ill family member might be the rare exception, with an up-front explanation to the interviewer on why the phone is necessary.)

Other objects besides phones can distract as well, from change in the pocket to a pen or corner of a leather folder. Practice interviews can help you identify and eliminate your potential distractions.

Conversely and on a more positive note, your nonverbal behavior can send a message that you are a fantastic listener. Particular cues consistent with effective listening include good eye contact and body posture. When you are listening, your body is likely to use these nonverbal cues on its own. But you can also help your listening by using the nonverbal cues to help yourself focus.

3. Have a conversation.

“Liking” is one of the crucial levers of persuasion listed in Robert Cialdini’s great book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (2006). Audiences are more likely to be persuaded by speakers that they like.

An extremely effective way to get someone to like you is to have a rewarding conversation with them. Good conversations generate positive feelings, advises Lydia Russo, Emory Law School’s Assistant Dean for Professional Development and Career Strategy:

“Doesn’t it feel good when you are sharing a story and the listener makes you feel like what you have to say matters? It’s the same in an interview. Do your best to convey that you are listening intently and genuinely – this makes the interviewer feel validated.”

Part of what makes a conversation effective is genuine, spontaneous responses, according to Daniel Diffley, a partner at Alston & Bird LLP and the chair of Alston’s Atlanta summer program. “At some point during interviews, I always try to give students the opportunity to ask questions of me, whether about the summer program or practice in general. And you can tell if they are not listening because they ask a question and then I answer it, and then they move on to an unrelated question.”

Diffley noted that the best listeners may use the interviewer’s answers as a chance to respond and ask more questions. “I’ve had some great interviews where I feel like I’m being interviewed,” he said. Effetive listeners also can use the flow of the conversation to smoothly work in their prepared talking points about their own experiences and interests, Diffley said.

4. Develop a framework for understanding the questions.

You are learning as you listen. Learning theory teaches us that we learn best when we already have a “schema” in place for understanding the new information. Basically that means you have a mental framework in place for how to think about the new information coming in.

Schemas help with learning new information in any form, including by listening. For example: as a first-year law student, your schema for understanding the law was probably not well developed yet, so listening to law school classes could be confusing at times. As a 2L or 3L, you should have a much stronger schema for comprehending and using legal information. (Caution: representative theoretical support on schema and listening comprehension can be found here.)

So in terms of job interviews, you can develop a schema for interviewing. Construct a mental framework for types of questions and conversations that take place in an interview. This does not mean a list of all possible questions that the interviewer could conceivably ask, but an overall framework of what an interviewer is after.

Here’s one nice breakdown of what employers are looking for, in documentation from the University of San Francisco Law School:

  • Can you do the job? (qualifications)
  • Will you do the job? (motivation)
  • Are you a good fit? (social skills)

This framework (or a similar way of thinking) should help you with listening and thinking during the interview. In particular, it should help you comprehend and formulate quicker, better responses to specific questions.

5. Listen to the interviewer’s words and actions.

The interviewer’s nonverbal behavior is sending you messages as well. Listen to them. As the Career Development Office at the UC Berkeley School of Law advises, “You should also ‘listen’ to body language. Be sensitive to cues of boredom or impatience.” If an interviewer indicates interest in a topic by leaning forward and making open gestures, then consider the cue to continue with more information about your point.

6. Listen to your inner speech too—but only if it helps.

 “Although most of us don’t like to admit it, we all carry on a stream of internal conversation with ourselves.” – Judi Brownell, Listening: Attitudes, Principles, and Skills 110 (4th ed. 2010).

It’s hard to listen when your brain is talking a mile a minute inside your head. Preparation can reduce some of these nerves, but inner speech will still be there. The trick is to use it to help you during the interview.

Inner speech sits at the intersection where listening and thinking come together.  Thus, it can help you “relate or link what you hear to your previous experiences,” as Brownell notes in her book. So in an interview, if your inner speech says, “She is asking about teamwork. Talk about the service trip!” then your inner speech is acting as your helper and advocate. Be thankful.

Inner speech can also help you “regulate or control your behavior as you reflect on the wisdom of your choices” (again from Brownell’s book). In a law school interview, your inner speech may say something like “You’ve been talking a lot. Try asking a question.” Again, here the inner speech is quite helpful.

But when your inner speech is too negative or too frequent, try to push it to the side and focus on the person and conversation right in front of you.

7. Follow up to show your listening–and your interest in the job.

Whether it’s in the form of a letter or an e-mail, your follow-up after the interview can reinforce your listening skills. Alston’s Diffley noted that follow-up notes are just “good form,” and can serve the further purpose of demonstrating your recall of the interview. He advises taking a few notes immediately after the interview to help with crafting a good follow-up.

In sum, effective listening can enhance your overall performance in a job interview in many ways. Good luck!

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