Despite the economic downturn and law-firm layoffs, promising jobs are still available. But these days employers can afford to be more selective, and they may well ask pointed questions at an interview. To do well in your job interviews, be prepared to answer difficult questions?and be especially mindful of your online persona, your references, and your comments about former employers. Know the Market
In a down economy you cannot afford to be choosy, unprepared, or feel entitled. Carefully research and review every job opportunity. To avoid being screened out of the interview process, draft cover letters and résumés that target the specific employer. If you are called in for an interview, learn everything you can about the prospective employer. Never ask questions you could have answered by doing research online. When discussing your reasons for seeking a new job, give practical and forward-looking responses. For law firms, emphasize your desire to work in a certain practice area. For government jobs, focus on public service and hands-on experience. For in-house positions, mention your desire to pursue the company's goals, work with a team, and assist with diverse legal issues. Tackle Difficult Questions
What do you do when an interviewer asks if you were fired? Above all, recognize the distinction between being fired and being laid off. Never say you were fired if you lost your job to downsizing. Be up-front, but do not volunteer negative information without being asked. When discussing how you lost your job, be specific. Point out that 30 percent of fellow associates were let go if that is the case, or that 15 people from your department were asked to resign. By sharing concrete numbers, you can convince your interviewer that poor performance was not to blame. At the same time, don't be apologetic, defensive, or sarcastic. If you were let go due to poor performance, explain what mistakes you made and emphasize what you learned from them. Then quickly move on to your skills and strengths. Follow up with reasons for interviewing. For example, you may be looking for a new job because you would like to practice in a certain field (for which your interviewer has an opening). Or you may want to relocate, or obtain more hands-on experience. Whatever your reasons, emphasize them as the impetus for interviewing with this particular employer. Just make sure you refer to something that the employer actually offers! Be Positive
Even in a bad economy, an interview is not the time to ask about a firm's financial stability. First, you should know this information beforehand through online research and other sources. Second, such questions can backfire?the employer may think you are arrogant, uneducated, or naive. Instead, focus on the positive and stick with upbeat questions. Under no circumstances should you badmouth previous employers; such comments can lead a potential employer to eliminate you as a candidate. Be Careful
If you are employed, reduce the risk to your current job status by writing "confidential" on your application to direct potential employers to treat it as such. If a headhunter is involved, you may avoid this issue entirely. However, think carefully before turning to recruiters?in a down economy, hiring firms will be reluctant to pay their fees. That said, working with recruiters has its advantages, and if you do decide to use one, get recommendations from other clients. At the very least, find out more about the recruiter by looking online and asking colleagues. Be Prepared
When you do secure an interview, be sure to arrive armed with a list of references, and make certain you've obtained permission from those people to serve as such. If you were laid off, find former supervisors who are willing to share positive feedback. You also can provide printouts of your evaluations, complimentary emails from colleagues, and feedback from clients. Finally, research yourself online through a search engine. Make sure your Facebook, MySpace, and other website entries look professional and do not divulge personal information or feature improper comments or risqué photos (and be prepared to explain that college prank mentioned in your roommate's blog). Try to anticipate every question. Be ready to articulate without exaggeration why you are a perfect match for the position. Follow these tips and you will refine and improve your presentation and, hopefully, nail your next job interview. Natalie Prescott practices law in Los Angeles. She is the coauthor of Nail Your Law Job Interview (Career Press, 2009).