Question: I am a fourth year associate at a large New York firm who has recently been interviewing with other firms. I just got a call informing me – for the second time in the last month – that “You were actually in our top three candidates for the position.” Is this just a bluff? If not, what can I do to raise my game those two extra places?
Answer: It may be a "bluff" as sometimes firms do not know how to tell you - a candidate - that you are not going to get an offer. In an effort to "soften" the blow, firms sometimes revert to clichés like you were in the "top 3". Another easy out for a firm is to tell you that while they liked you a great deal and thought your experience was excellent, you are simply not a "good fit" for the position. Sometimes the foregoing are true, i.e., you were in the top 3 or the firm really did like you and was impressed by your experience, but felt that overall you - maybe your personality or skill set - did not match perfectly with the group or current needs of the firm. We cannot learn anything from the clichés and bluffs so let's assume that you truly were in the "top 3" and try to determine how to set yourself apart from the other two contenders in future interviews.
Do your research! I have been a recruiter for ten years and I have noticed that in the last two to three years the thing that really distinguishes candidates is their ability to clearly state what interests them in a particular firm. Thoroughly researching a firm and being able to discuss - in detail - why you are interested can have a huge impact upon whether you are asked for a callback and/or receive an offer. It used to be enough to say that you wish to work in a "smaller setting" where you will get more "hands on" experience; or conversely, that you wish to work in a "larger setting" where you will gain exposure to more "sophisticated transactions". These answers do not make the grade in this market and are viewed as meaningless.
Firms want to know precisely why you want to work in their office; and you need to be able to communicate your interest clearly and succinctly. Be very familiar with the position description. If the firm is trying to fill a general corporate position, then reference - with specific facts - the firm's broad practice and how your experience dovetails with their generalist approach and current needs. If, on the other hand, the firm is conducting a very narrow search geared toward equipment financing, then you had better be able to either discuss your expertise in this area, or how your experience transfers easily to the specialized practice at issue.
Be enthusiastic! Evincing keen interest and excitement about a position and firm can work wonders in the interview process. I recently had a firm tell me that they had been very excited about a candidate in terms of his background and experience, but that when they met the candidate, he was so "low energy" that they simply could not envision him as an employee. It is extremely important to be energetic. If you are not showing a great deal of passion during the interview, then it is natural for a firm to wonder how you will behave once you have secured the position!