Dear 1L: Don’t Downplay in a Job Interview
by Amanda Haverstick
This article originally appeared here on writinglawtutors.com.
I will never forget the job interview I flat-out bombed.
From a young age, I had learned I should always downplay my accomplishments. To be humble. To be liked.
The lesson was “taught” to me by those in the early-teen “cool” cliques. They all hated school. They hated their mothers. They hated almost any adult-sponsored thing.
I was an A student. I was one of those annoying kids who actually liked school. And I loved my mom.
I wasn’t “cool.” Oh, but how I wanted to be. So, I downplayed my successes to try to fit in.
Many of us have some similar version of the story, I would suspect. It is certainly not novel or unique. And many of us have adopted some version of downplaying to become more likeable in various social situations. No one likes a braggart. But where is the line?
I don’t know the answer. I still struggle to tout my accomplishments. I push down any instincts to celebrate wins. I try to be humble, sympathetic, empathetic. To make others feel comfortable.
But one thing I know for sure:
🔹 Downplaying has no place in a job interview! 🔹
I had been working for five years at a top NYC firm. The commute from PA (where we had moved after our first child) was becoming too much, and I really wanted a comparable job as a senior associate at a top Philly firm.
How did I screw up? It wasn’t with the partners. Looking accomplished in front of them was easy—they were far more accomplished than me, so I didn’t need to downplay myself to make them feel comfortable.
It was that dreaded associate lunch. I relaxed from my regular interview mode when seated at a restaurant with three female peers. They seemed like close friends. I was uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to act. So what did I do? I downplayed.
I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be liked. I met their questions about me with mealy-mouthed, “they don’t give associates that much responsibility in NY firms compared with Philly,” so “I’m sure I did nothing nearly as exciting or skilled as you must do at your firm.” I went on and on.
I shudder when I think back. No surprise, a rejection letter arrived soon after—they didn’t feel I had the experience they were looking for.
I share my story for two reasons.
✏️ One, I hope it will remind you (if you are at all a down-player like me), that downplaying has no role in a job interview. Sure, don’t be a braggart, but you must be in “sell” mode at all times. Be careful of the “informal” associate lunch. It can’t win you the job, but it certainly can lose it for you.
✏️ Two, remember that we all have stories of failures. I was turned down by more firms than I would like to remember. Take your failures, learn from them, and go rock your next interview. All it takes is one.
Amanda is the author of the popular #Dear1L blog, founder of Writing Law Tutors, and legal writing coach for lawyers and law students.
Amanda previously spent 20 years as a Labor & Employment lawyer in BigLaw and as an in-house counsel at a Fortune 500 company. She has also served as a career services consultant assisting law students at one of the nation’s top law schools.
I aspire to simplify and improve the quality of your law school journey and to promote your greatest possible success.
Read more at writinglawtutors.com.
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