It’s Not Enough To Be Smart When Job Seeking

It is a tough legal market out there. Firms are getting hundreds of applications for every position they post. The same holds true for judicial clerkships, governmental, in-house, and non-profit jobs. It’s tough.

As a career counselor at a law school, I get questions every day from nervous students and alumni about how they can set themselves apart from the vast competition. Even though they might have a stellar resume and rank highly in their class, they are still coming up empty in the job market, and they cannot figure out what to do.

My Best Advice

Improve your EI (your emotional intelligence.)

Sometimes they look at me strangely, wondering what I am talking about. Clearly, they think, I meant “IQ,” which they feel they have plenty of.

I explain that they must improve their EI, which is how they are able to perceive, manage, and evaluate their emotions. Otherwise said, they know how to control themselves emotionally and work well with others.

You may have heard this concept called “EQ” (to compare it to the more well-known intellectual quotient, IQ,) but no matter what you call it, the Harvard Business Review has cited emotional intelligence as “a ground-breaking, paradigm-shattering idea,” and called it “one of the most influential business ideas of the decade.”

According to CareerBuilder, a survey of 2600 hiring managers and HR coordinators revealed that 71% believed a candidate’s emotional intelligence (EI) was more important than a their IQ. In fact, 59% said that they wouldn’t hire a candidate who showed a high IQ but lacked EI. I have seen this play out time and time again. For instance, during a recent on-campus interviewing season, I saw a candidate with outstanding IQ and low EI receive 10 initial interviews and no call-back interviews.

Emotional Intelligence

Both employers and job seekers once thought that emotional intelligence was a “soft skill.” They considered it something that would be preferable in a candidate, but not required. Now, with the market as competitive as it is, employers find themselves with an overabundance of well-qualified candidates from which to choose. How do they make a decision on who to offer that coveted position to? They ultimately consider who is the best “fit” for their organization.

In this market, employers can be choosy. They want to hire and work with someone who can get the job done well, but they also want to choose someone who can do it with grace, staying calm under pressure. They want someone who makes the workplace a better place by resolving conflicts in a healthy way and getting along with their co-workers. They want to hire individuals who show leadership potential and make good choices for themselves and, more importantly, for their employers.

Application Process

Throughout your application process (from cover letter to final interview,) be sure to show that you can:

  • Handle pressure and stress.
  • Take and implement criticism and feedback.
  • Control your emotions .
  • Engage in positive, thoughtful discussions even when in disagreement.
  • Admit to your mistakes and take corrective action.
  • Listen well to others.
  • Be flexible and “roll with the punches.”
  • Demonstrate resilience and keep going even when it is challenging.

Demonstrate your EI

Even if you are heavy in the IQ-department, you can be aware of your need to demonstrate your emotional intelligence both in the job-seeking process and in the workplace.  Frame your skills and accomplishments through the lens of emotional intelligence, not just focusing on what you did, but instead on how you did it in a way that shows flexibility, adaptability, a good attitude, and an ability to work well with others.

You want to prove that you are not going to be a source of stress or problem in the workplace. In the legal profession, we are all under a lot of stress. Employers want to be sure that you are not going to add to the stress in your workplace by being overly dramatic, needy, back-biting, or otherwise emotionally troublesome.

Intelligence and competency are both required attributes for any job. But employers know that they can teach most people in the technical aspects of their job. In this market, there is no shortage of very bright new lawyers or laterals who can learn a new firm or organization’s way of researching, writing, or advocating. But your new employer knows they can’t teach emotional intelligence, nor do they want to.

It’s Not Enough To Be Smart

So be sure to show that you have the intellectual chops and the emotional intelligence to handle any position for which you apply. It will put you far ahead of the competition who thinks they can rely on their high grades and academic accolades. Those things will only take them so far, and right now many of those folks are still looking for work while others with strong emotional intelligence are enjoying multiple offers.

If you feel you are lacking in EI, it’s all right. It’s not a character flaw, but it’s a place where you need to do some growing personally and professionally. It won’t just help you in the job-seeking process, but it will make you a better lawyer and a better person for the rest of your life.



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  • AJ

    What a load of crap.

    • You just failed the EQ test.

      • AJ

        Because the EQ test is a load of crap.

        • You do an astonishing job at justifying your conclusory statements.

  • tracey

    I don’t think the author explained specific techniques on how to engage or use EI. Of course we’d like to know how to set ourselves apart but I don’t think she really explained that here…

  • Tracey – There are lots of good ways to set yourself apart and demonstrate that you have the emotional intelligence that firms and organizations are looking for in this tight legal market. First, when you are applying, make sure you use words and phrases in your resume and cover letter that show you have the emotional maturity and capacity to handle the job, the workplace relationships, and the stresses of the position (there are some examples in the post, and it means going beyond just listing your achievements.) Second, use the interview to reiterate those characteristics and demonstrate them by the way you handle yourself when meeting with others. Many interviewers are now using questions that ask how you would handle a certain sitation (“behavioral interviewing.”) Be ready for these kind of questions, as they will give you a chance to show you have emotional intelligence and savvy. Finally, if you feel like you want to improve your own emotional intelligence and capacities, get some support through your career services/development office at your law school (if that’s an option), a mentor you trust, or another professional.

    AJ: You may think this advice isn’t worthwhile. That’s fine. I’m just passing along what the firms and organizations that I work with and meet with every single day are telling me about who they are looking for and who they are hiring. Research supports what they are saying. So do with it what you will.

  • “Emotional Intelligence” and “EQ” are just cutesy buzzwords for being a good employee and co-worker. It means nobody wants to work with an asshole or a slacker.

    So make sure to (a) have a personality, (b) not be an asshole, (c) work hard, and (d) convey these qualities in your interviews.

  • While I don’t necessarily agree that “emotional intelligence” and “EQ” are simply “cutesy buzzwords” (I think the research behind the concept is deep and interesting, but that’s the psych-geek in me. To each their own …), your points are well-taken, Sam, and your synopsis is spot-on. No one wants to work with a jerk or slacker, and no one wants to hire one either, so applicants should make sure that they don’t come off the wrong way in their application materials or interview (or, ultimately, in their position.)

  • One more reason why no one wants “jerks or slackers” in their workplace:

    “Slackers and Jerks at Work Can Decrease Team Performance by Up to 40%, Study Finds”

  • Andy Mergendahl

    I have noticed that about 25% of my posts are about legal writing, 25% are about being a better courtroom lawyer, and the other half are about why lawyers should not be jerks or divas.

    • If that’s a reflection of the number of jerks and divas in the legal profession, it’s no wonder EQ is so important in hiring!

      • Andy Mergendahl

        Those numbers sound about right to me. Compounding the aggravation is the fact that the jerks and divas also can’t write and suck in court.