Building confidence for Big-Law

Interview with career coach Alex Conroy on how to build confidence for Big-Law interviews and careers

Alex Conroy is a former partner at Kirkland & Ellis and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. Following a career in corporate law she studied Coaching & Behavioural Change at the University of Reading and became a certified coach with The Life Coach School in the US. She now leads an independent coaching practice, focused on helping professionals build confidence at work and get their next dream job or promotion. 

Speaking as a coach, but also as a former Big-Law partner and interviewer, why is confidence important in job interviews?

Job interviews are essentially a sales conversation, where you’re attempting to sell your expertise, strengths and other value to an organisation. And, as with any sales conversation, certainty sells. One of the tools that helps create that certainty is confidence. The problem I see sometimes, is that people don’t take the time to build real self-confidence ahead of an interview process, they just try to fake it on the day. We’ve all done that I’m sure, but it’s not usually that effective. We probably won’t be projecting as much belief as we could in our value, and we’ll likely be under-selling our future capacity or business case. And then what I see all the time with my clients, is that even if they do get the job, without working on their confidence, they’ll step into it full of fears and anxieties about letting people down and not being able to meet expectations. So really, the importance of building confidence ahead of an interview, is not just to get the job, but also to step into it with real self-belief. 

How does confidence come across? How do you recognise it as an interviewer?

It’s important to understand that confidence is just a feeling created by our thoughts. It’s an internal process, so as an interviewer, you’re never certain about what another human being is feeling. Having said that, confidence does tend to help us speak with more clarity and certainty about the value we have to offer. It can help us be more open and relaxed with our body language and more engaging in the discussion. Those things are all pretty attractive to me as an interviewer. Employment is essentially an equation of value for money, and someone who speaks with certainty about their side of that equation, makes it easier for me to feel confident in the math. Of course, confidence is just one tool that we can use to create the result we want. Candidates who demonstrate enthusiasm, energy or ambition (to name a few…) can also generate a ton of confidence in others during an interview. 

What’s the biggest blocker of confidence for people going into interviews?

Well, given that confidence is a feeling created by our thoughts, the biggest blocker of confidence is always just other thoughts! In an interview, those tend to be thoughts that create self-doubt, discomfort or fear. Some of those might be very conscious thoughts, others might be more habitual or even unconscious thoughts or beliefs. Usually some version of ‘I’m not good enough” or “other people are better than me” or “this is uncomfortable”. We simply cannot feel those feelings and confidence all at the same time. Great news actually, because it means that we can find and change those ‘blocker’ thoughts to generate more confidence. It’s really important to understand that you can chase expertise all you like, but if it’s confidence you’re after, it’s not caused by expertise, it’s created (or blocked) by your thoughts at any given time.  

Is confidence an innate trait of character, or is it something that can be practiced?

Confidence is not an immovable personality trait – and it’s super unhelpful to view it that way. It’s just a feeling – sometimes we experience it and sometimes we don’t. Look, there are for sure people who experience more confidence than others, but it doesn’t mean they were born with a confidence gene. It just means that, during the course of their life, they’ve had experiences and been taught to believe things (about themselves and the world) that generate more feelings of confidence in them today. Understanding how this works is really important. Firstly, because you can stop judging yourself for not being a ‘confident person’ and secondly, because we have the power as human beings to change the way we think. If we want to, we are totally capable of generating more confidence in ourselves, by learning how to change habitual thought patterns and beliefs.  

So we established confidence is “simply” about changing one’s thought patterns. Is this a lengthy process? How can one go about facilitating it? 

It really depends on what you currently believe about yourself and your work. Just like any other habit, some are harder to break than others, but it’s 100% possible wherever you start. The first step is always awareness – and that’s why it’s so valuable to work with a coach. A good coach will help you look objectively at your belief systems and the impact they’re having on your career – and then guide you through changing any that are unhelpful (if you want to). 

If you’re not working with a coach, just start by raising your own awareness. A simple exercise is to write down all your thoughts about a situation at work (something you found challenging or something you’re worried about). Empty your brain onto a piece of paper, don’t hold back! Then go back and take a look at your thoughts in black and white. Start to realise that they’re not the God-given ‘truth’, they’re just interpretations and stories that your brain has created. Ask yourself, are these thoughts true? How do I know for sure? What result did they create? Just get curious (with zero judgement fellow lawyers…) about how your current thoughts shape your experience. You have to see them clearly, before you can make a change. 

Would you recommend any techniques for generating a short-term confidence boost, for example just before going into an interview?

You can see from what we’ve already discussed, that building confidence isn’t an overnight job. Best to start working on it right now. Having said that, if you want a hit of confidence before you step into an interview, my advice is to block out some time immediately beforehand to really manage your thoughts. Try to remember that an interview is really just about that equation I mentioned earlier on – ‘value for money’. Focus on the math of that equation rather than on yourself and all the drama your brain wants to send your way. What value is the firm looking for? What problems do they need solved, what aspirations do they have? What are ALL the ways in which you can create that value? Fill a page. 

Working on that basic equation is a big part of the work I do with my clients to prepare for interviews. You’d be surprised how many people haven’t really thought about it in economic terms or perhaps they can’t articulate very clearly how they make their current firm money. You need to be able to connect the dots between your particular skillsets, strengths, relationships etc. and the economic value those provide. 

So, to get back to your question, my advice is – keep your mind focussed on the math, accept the fact that nerves are normal and won’t kill you –  then take a few deep breaths to slow the adrenalin release, put a smile on your face and go for it! They’ll always be someone else wanting to buy your value if this firm chooses not to. 

How do you distinguish the boundaries of confidence vs. overconfidence? How to avoid coming across as bragging?

This is a very common worry, especially for women. My general advice is – if this crosses your mind, you don’t have a problem with it! If someone is actually arrogant, they would not be asking this question. If you’re worried about people perceiving you as over-confident, then the feeling you’re actually experiencing is doubt or fear, which is the opposite of confidence – and certainly is not over-confidence! Actually, if you’re thinking this, it’s a fairly good sign that you need to be working on building your confidence, not dampening it down. The most common consequence of this worry, is that we’re so afraid of coming across as over-confident or arrogant, that we go the other way! We shy away from discussing even the simple facts of our achievements and successes. We hide. Not a great strategy for interviews or promotion.  

Do you have any observations from your coaching practice on displaying confidence by men vs. women? Have you noticed any patterns we can learn from?

I’m going to generalise here, so not everything will be applicable to every reader, but it’s generally more common for people who’ve been socialised as women, to believe that it’s very important what other people think of us (and potentially dangerous for people to have negative thoughts towards us). We’re more likely to have been taught that it’s important not to be seen as pushy, aggressive or overconfident. We’re told that it’s good to be selfless, reliable, agreeable and so on. Then, we step into a modern corporate environment, and suddenly we’re told that we need to ‘speak-up’, be more ‘confident’, more aggressive. It creates cognitive dissonance and often a belief that there’s something ‘wrong’ with us. 

The most important lesson to learn here is that there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with you. The way you show-up is just a reflection of the way you’ve been socialised and the system that you’re operating in. Once you realise that, you can stop judging yourself and start deciding what changes you want to make (if any…). Sometimes, just stopping judging yourself in enough! 

As I say, these are obviously generalisations. I work with men who have similar experiences. I think high achievers in general often struggle with self-criticism and work anxiety. 

What are the ways you support your clients to build more confidence as a coach? 

There are two programs that I offer at the moment. 

  • The first is a 3-week ‘Interview Preparation’ program, to help you prepare for an upcoming interview. We work through (i) building your value proposition (ii) mastering interview technique and (iii) building confidence and overcoming any fears or doubts.
  • The second is my ‘Career Confidence & Advancement’ program. This is a 3-month program designed to help you get ahead in your career and build lasting self-confidence. We work through career strategy (building value, raising profile, making your business case for advancement) and mindset (taking a deep dive into how to manage your mind for success). 

Anyone who’s interested in either of those programs can sign-up for a free Discovery Call with me. We’ll chat about your situation, I’ll tell you more about the program and we can decide whether or not it’s a good fit. Just click HERE to book a call.  

Of course, people are also very welcome to take advantage of my free content. I put out weekly content on LinkedIn (Alex Conroy) and Instagram (alexconroycoach).  You can also go to my website (www.alexconroycoaching.com). The website includes a number of free resources, including a blog and a free exercise on confidence building.