You are a law firm partner with a “book” of business that is not consistent year-to-year and may not be that “portable”, so you are concerned that you might oversell yourself in that interview you have scheduled tomorrow. Or you are a litigation associate trying to land that labor & employment position at a great firm, but you want to be sure that you explain that you are not a seasoned labor & employment guru. Or you are an established securities lawyer interviewing for that coveted in-house position that finally came your way, but you are a bit “light” on corporate governance experience. You want the job or promotion, but you have this nagging fear that if you “sell” yourself too convincingly, you are somehow misleading the employer. So you subscribe to the adage of “under-promise and over-deliver.”
What if that “under-promising” actually backfires? What if it conveys the sense that you are not sure you are suited for the job or promotion that you are seeking? The “under-promise” is what people remember, not necessarily the “over-performance” that occurs months or years later. Whether you are looking to make a lateral move (at the partner or associate level) to a law firm or in-house, or you are looking to be promoted from within your firm or company, read this article and ask yourself honestly – do I use disclaimers, and how are they hurting me?
As a legal recruiter, I routinely prepare candidates prior to their interviews, and I often find myself dispensing general career advice to lawyers that are seeking to take their careers to the next level. Throughout my years of recruiting, I have noticed a common tendency by women to “undercut” themselves by using what I call “disclaimers.” Technically, “disclaimer” is defined as “a statement that denies something” or “an act of repudiating another’s claim or renouncing one’s own”. It is often a defensive measure that we use to ensure that we are not misinterpreted. It reminded me of my college professor who had compiled research about the gender differences in elementary school, and concluded that when little girls chose to answer questions in class, they often second-guessed those answers aloud. That habit of doubting oneself audibly, which can lead to dilution of one’s answer, is what I am calling a “disclaimer”.
Eradicating the Disclaimer
- The first step is really to acknowledge that you are doing it. That is half the battle. As trite as it sounds, practice your interview answers out loud to yourself, and to someone you can trust. Really listen to your tone of voice and the amount of words you include in your answer that are unnecessary and detrimental. Frequently, we lead with our disclaimers, starting our answers with “I am not…” or “I don’t know if….” or “This may not be….” Those are disclaimers! Or if you are like me, you wait until the end of your confident answer, and then bam – throw in a completely unnecessary disclaimer like “I’m not sure if that answered your question fully”! You may think that you are merely qualifying your answers to ensure the utmost accuracy (that is my rationale for using disclaimers); however, you need to realize that those purported qualifiers are not putting you in the best light. They may unintentionally show uncertainty and doubt in your answers.
- Learn the power and art of “rephrasing”. I understand that if you are a partner at your current firm looking to make a move, and you are unsure any “book” of business will follow you, you want to be clear to the interviewer that you are not a big “rainmaker” yet. You do not want to misrepresent yourself, so you keep reminding the interviewer that you cannot “promise” any business. I understand and agree with the sentiment, but you need to rephrase. There is a palpable difference between stating that you “do not have a sizeable, portable book right now but are in the process of building one” and “have demonstrated success of attracting and keeping clients, some of whom may be tied to your current firm.” The former statement leads with the disclaimer and the latter eradicates the disclaimer, but still makes clear that you are not taking a large book. Remember – most firms will ask for your “origination numbers”, so you do not have to keep explaining them! The numbers will expose the fact that you do not currently have a “big book”, so you do not have to repeatedly put yourself down about it. If you are using a recruiter, that recruiter should have informed the potential employer about your origination numbers, so there is no surprise. If the firm is interviewing you, then there is something they like about your background/experience; therefore you do not need to continually apologize for the “lack of business.”
- Identify why you use disclaimers. If you know why you are doing it, you will be more likely to stop doing it. I believe that fear is the most common reason for undercutting oneself. Fear that you will actually get that job you want, but ultimately fail at it! Fear that if you “oversell” yourself, people will put unrealistic expectations upon you. Fear that the prospective new employer will be upset with you for “misrepresenting” yourself! Those are real fears, and I do not have the magical solution to them. There is a time and a place to let those “fears” out (the treadmill, perhaps?), but it is not during the interview or at the workplace. There are always going to be unrealistic demands on lawyers: distressed and unhappy clients; demanding bosses and the like. But the fear that is guiding your career path could be paralyzing you. The real fear you need to have is that you WILL NOT get that job or promotion because of your own disclaiming! The fear that you are, in actuality, under-selling yourself, as compared to your counterparts. Use that healthy and appropriate fear to ignite yourself in an interview and present yourself in the best and accurate light.
If you believe in yourself and project confidence that you are truly qualified to receive the desired job or promotion, your positive attitude and sense of commitment will become readily apparent to the interviewer. A prepared candidate is less likely to have a tendency to provide disclaimers around some of their responses. Nancy Peterson, VP/Deputy General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer at AlliedBarton Security Services, explained to me that the best candidate interviews occur when the candidate is authentic in tone and manner and presents her true self to the interviewer. Ms. Peterson also advised that when candidates are focused, enthusiastic, and "present” during the interview, a much more "valuable exchange” transpires between the interviewer and the candidate.
Of course this notion of “undercutting” oneself extends beyond having a great interview and landing that job. It carries over to our daily work life, and positioning ourselves for that next big project or promotion that is currently out of reach. If we practice the art of rephrasing, and focus on letting our confidence come through in our answers, it will become easier and easier to stop “qualifying” and “disclaiming” yourself. Certainly, there are times when disclaimers are appropriate: when you are explaining, for example, that you have limited expertise in a subject, or when you are accurately describing why your business has really decreased recently. The key is to use them when appropriate, not just as a habit. That being said, I am currently fighting the inherent urge to end this article with “I am not sure if this article was helpful…..” but I will not! Instead, I urge you to really think about how you are perceived in your job and at interviews. Are you leading with the negative? Are you projecting your own self-doubt onto your boss or the interviewer? Just asking yourself these questions will help prepare you for the next step in your career.
This article was originally published in the 6th Annual Will Platinum Gala Journal - page 51.