It was fall of 2004. Chris Graham, then a second-year law student at the University of Toronto, sat down for an on-campus interview with the elite New York firm Sullivan & Cromwell.
“It was near the end of the day, and I was tired,” says Graham. “Most of the interview went well. But at the end, I said, ‘Thank you so much, it was great to chat with you and to learn more about Shearman & Sterling.’”
Immediately, he realized he misspoke the firm’s name. “Oh my god, it was totally awkward!” he recalls. But Graham didn’t panic in front of his interviewers. Instead, he said: “It’s been a long day. Sorry guys.”
A short apology was all it took to impress the recruiters, who thought he handled the situation well. And when the OCIs ended, Sullivan & Cromwell was the first firm to give him an offer.
Shortly after, three more offers arrived from New York firms Paul Weiss, White & Case, and Shearman & Sterling. But Graham picked Sullivan & Cromwell. He practiced there for a while, but left the legal field eventually. Today, he runs his own communication company TellPeople, based in Toronto. Among his services, there’s a workshop specifically designed to help law students prepare for the OCIs.
Like Graham, this month, many of you will also go through the OCIs. With only 20 minutes to impress recruiters, the stakes are high and the pressure can be overwhelming. If you flub a question, it can feel like it’s all over.
But mistakes happen. What’s important is how you address it and move forward. Here, Graham and Margaret Seko, manager of student and associate affairs at Bereskin & Parr LLP, offer their tips on how to save an interview when it’s gone awry.
Acknowledge your mistake and move on
“Messing up during an interview is actually a huge opportunity to demonstrate you can keep calm under pressure,” says Graham. “You could say: ‘All this is a little overwhelming. I still haven’t found my feet. What I meant to say is X,’ and you say it.”
Recruiters know it’s a hectic experience. So it’s okay to show some vulnerability.
Treat it as a conversation
Margaret Seko has interviewed hundreds of students in her career as a recruiter. She’s witnessed many interviews go sideways because the student didn’t prepare enough, or because they were too prepared.
Yes, you heard it right. Being over-prepared can also hurt you. “Sometimes, a student is so focused on their answer that they can’t see what I’m trying to accomplish,” explains Seko. Many students also get thrown off when she wants to get to know them personally, rather than their academic accomplishments. They didn’t anticipate those questions, and so they trip up.
To get around that, she says students should treat the interview as a conversation and just say what’s on their mind, instead of relying on canned answers. “We really just want to get to know you, why you’re interested in the firm, and a particular area of law.”
Give yourself a break
The interview is going well, but suddenly, you get a question that stumps you. You give an answer, not exactly the best you can summon, and you’re hung up on it. The rest of the interview gets derailed.
“When you’re nervous, you tend to interpret everything as confirming your worst fears,” says Graham. “The fact that you think it was a bad answer is a terrible gauge of whether it was actually a bad answer.”
He advises students to resist judging their own performance during an interview. “You just have to trust your preparation and ignore all the static.”