This article is written by Ramanuj Mukherjee, CEO, iPleaders.
Not understanding what a legal career is all about can be quite costly.
Let me tell you a story of how I blew my interview with erstwhile AMSS (now split into two parts CAM and SAM) which at that time was the biggest law firm in India.
To be fully honest, while I was aware of its pre-eminent position in the legal world as the top most law firm in India, I had also heard some bad stories that made me kind of uneasy about joining this place.
However, when the Day 0 calls came, I did apply for AMSS, apart from Luthra & Luthra and Trilegal. AZB did not come to my campus that year, and while Khaitan also came on Day 0, I didn’t even apply for it. Somehow, I was under the impression that Khaitan isn’t that great a law firm so I skipped the interview. That was of course my ignorance. While in 2010, Khaitan wasn’t quite the giant it is today, it was one of the best. However, the brand had not quite caught up within law schools (shows why law firms should promote themselves in law schools).
I wish I had given the interview, then I would have another story to share.
Trilegal, on the other hand, definitely made the best impression by putting in the extra effort of making a presentation about the firm. It sounded start-uppy, entrepreneurial and a successful meritocracy. When I asked my mentor Shamnad Basheer, who used to teach at NUJS at that time, he also encouraged me to go for Trilegal.
I was leaning towards Trilegal, and also had heard great things about the culture in Luthra & Luthra so that was my 2nd choice. Yes, I know. Many lawyers will beat me up for thinking like that but that’s how I was thinking.
Trilegal was my first interview. I was done in 12 minutes. When I was walking out, I knew I made it. The partners were impressed. They mentioned later to a senior of mine who worked at Trilegal that they thought I had an X factor. When I heard that I gloated over it for at least two weeks.
Well, if you ask me now, X factor or not, everyone has to work their assess off if they go to a law firm. Once I joined the law firm I never felt again that I have any such X factor.
I also cracked the Luthra interview easily. I was not as sure here that I had cracked the interview as I was in the previous one, but I could tell that it went overall positive.
Then finally I had an interview with AMSS. I still remember that the partner who interviewed me was Mr. S.H. Bhojani. Mr. Bhojani is very senior, and he was kind and soft spoken during the interview. He was accompanied by an HR manager who also asked a bunch of questions.
My interview was going quite well. I definitely had the CV to make the cut. I answered some technical questions asked from my CV comfortably. Then, came my first blunder. Mr. Bhojani asked me which team I would like to work with. I said M&A. This was absolutely fine, in hind sight though, Mr. Bhojani was partner in the banking team, having spent many years at ICICI as the legal head. I was of course not very smart on that front, not having googled my interviewer beforehand.
That’s how it is. Blunders do not begin in the room where the interview happens, they usually start taking place much earlier, when you are supposed to prepare.
Anyway, Mr. Bhojani asked me “Why M&A? Why not the banking team?” I actually didn’t have much idea about what kind of work banking teams do. I imagined it must be boring stuff because I generally despise banks. I guess it is because as a kid I had to stand in long SBI queues with my mom too many times.
Even today, I associate bureaucracy and authoritarianism with banks. I would rather get a root canal rather than having to go to a bank. I try to limit my visit to banks to 1 in 10 years.
When I was asked why not the banking team, my inner feelings came out. I did not want to work in the banking team. I said “No, I wouldn’t fancy the banking team.” “Why?” Mr. Bhojani was curious. I was not sure what I should say. I hesitated for a moment and then said “I think banking law would be a lot of paperwork and sort of boring”. Mr. Bhojani was taken aback. He reflected for a moment, looking down at my CV.
Probably he considered if it is still worth continuing a conversation with me or if he should let me go.
Then he said with pity “Well, Ramanuj, all law practice is a lot of boring paperwork. You are in the wrong profession if that is what you are thinking.”
I actually am not sure about his exact words anymore. It has been a good 8 years since this interview. I am quite sure, however, that that’s exactly what he conveyed. And I can totally understand what he meant today.
I had an image of corporate lawyering, despite doing half a dozen law firm internships, that it is glamorous and totally thrilling. Well, that could not be any more untrue. I guess that excitement had built up thanks to reading books like “Predator’s Ball” and “Big Short”.
Blunder No. 1 – That was a huge blunder. I told the banking partner that banking law was boring and too much paperwork. I want to do something cool. Misplaced priorities but I suppose Mr. Bhojani let it pass.
Anyway, we continued with the interview, and it didn’t look like I was totally rejected. I was then asked several questions by the HR manager. He tried to gauge my interest in life. He asked me where I see myself in 5 years. I gave the standard answer we prepare for such a question. How I was going to become an expert in a certain area of law and then find my feet in the legal industry. It was all made up. Truth be told, I had no idea what I was going to do, and in fact I wanted to be an entrepreneur, so I hid my intentions and gave the textbook answer.
Of course, the HR manager was a smart person. This is what I can say looking back. I actually didn’t bother to ask his name, nor did I make any eye contact, smile or even acknowledge him during the interview. This is also a huge blunder but I would have gotten away with it. The right thing to do, however, was to respectfully acknowledge him and establish rapport.
However, I was not the person back then that I am today. I was focused on the more imposing person, the law firm partner and only cared about impressing that one person. For me, an HR manager was a side actor, not of much relevance. I noticed this happening in the moot courts also. I will make eye contact while speaking only with those who spoke up, had an imposing presence, or seemed threatening. In every other bench there would be someone who doesn’t speak up and keeps listening quietly. I would forget to make eye contact with them, to include them, or to even acknowledge their presence.
That sort of arrogance and ignorance never goes unpunished, one way or the other.
The HR manager deftly took me around some more questions and then sprung the same question again. “I am not very clear what you want to do in the years to come,” he said, “your goals in your formative years are critical”. I grudgingly came up with more things I want to do. More non-authentic bla bla bla.
The HR manager was having none of it. He grilled me again. “What do you really want to do?”
He was so right. He saw through me. You have that sort of superpower when you take hundreds of job interviews.
I didn’t have the courage to tell the truth. On top of that I was young and arrogant. I felt like I was being pressurised. I was not going to take it lying down.
I coldly looked at him and paused for a moment. Then asked “Should I repeat what I just said?” My irritation and arrogance showed through for a moment.
I knew that was it. Just the way I knew I was getting through Trilegal that day, I knew I wasn’t getting through to AMSS. I told myself who cares, I didn’t want to work there anyway.
By evening we found out the offers and began celebrating. I forgot that I made these huge blunders.
What was the last blunder? Was it that I was arrogant? Not really. Yes, it wasn’t the best thing to use my arrogance to hide my inability to answer a very pertinent question, but that wasn’t the real big blunder. My blunder was my fear of showing who I truly am. My inability to say the truth: “Actually, I don’t know what I will do in 5 years. I hope someone can show me the way. I need to find a mentor.”
It takes courage to say things the way you are, especially about your vulnerabilities and weaknesses. However, when we learn to talk about them in a matter of fact way, then our weaknesses turn into our strengths.
Look at this article for example. I am authentically writing about a time I screwed up. Does it make me feel worthless in your eyes? I don’t think so. I have turned a past failure into a useful lesson for you.
We all have wounds, weaknesses, doubts, incompetence, failures and terrible pasts. When we hide them, we become weaker. When we own them, stop hiding, we get stronger.
Blunder No. 2 – being inauthentic, synthetic in an interview, and thinking you are smarter than the interviewer.
Never do it, never.
Hope you learned from my mistakes.
I played a role in making a course around how to ace internships and interviews for big law. Check it out here.
I also created a program that helps lawyers develop powerful profiles that clients and recruiters lap up! Here is a link to the corporate law career development program. It is a one year plan to polish your resume, build a formidable professional network, and deepen your claim to expertise in your field. Check it out!
Do you have any interview blunders to share? Tell me in comments or hit reply. I would love to know more.