Almost anyone, myself included, who spent a significant amount of time at any level of competitive policy debate, be it high school or college, likely has a soft spot for R.E.M.’s 1987 song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” This niche popularity stems from the almost assuredly apocryphal rumor that the lyrics were inspired after a member of the band witnessed some rounds at a high school debate tournament. The connection would make sense since the cavalcade of horrors of which Michael Stipe sings in what could best be described as a verbal fever dream are, both in text and tempo, similar to what you can hear in the “tournament of lies” across high school and college campuses each weekend.
Sadly, what used to be limited to overtired students and college alt-rock bands can now be found on the front page, or for most people, the app version, of every newspaper in the country. A look at the general state of affairs in the United States at the halfway point of 2020 makes one wonder if we are all actually a portrait hidden away in a locked room, absorbing the sins of an unaging and outwardly happy alternate United States. The murder of yet another African-American, George Floyd, at the hands of, or in this case, the knees of, the Minneapolis police has touched off the largest public protests in the past half century of American history. In fact, these protests against racial injustice and police killings have spread throughout the world with the straightforward message that, unfortunately, goes unheeded by a portion of the population — Black Lives Matter.
In addition, Americans are enduring the worst economy since the Great Depression with unemployment forecast to stay at high levels for the foreseeable future. And lest we forget, as seemingly many Americans have, there’s COVID-19, which is killing hundreds of Americans each and every day.
Earlier this year, I mentioned to a colleague that my theme for 2020 was that “it is only going to get worse.” Prognostication is typically not my strong suit, see, e.g., the 2016 presidential election and every NCAA Men’s College Basketball bracket I have completed since elementary school in which I have Kansas as the eventual national champion — I did turn out to be rather prescient in 2008. However, while there is still six months remaining in 2020, I’m thinking I might have knocked this one out of the park.
Nor does it seem as if I am alone in my pessimism, as “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” once again charted on both the iTunes and Billboard Top 100. So in the face of these extraordinary times, it obviously makes sense to … talk about Zoom? Yes, discussing the intricacies of a video conferencing platform seems a bit out of place when the world is, both figuratively and literally, on fire, but seeing as how COVID-19 does not seem to dissipate based on collective boredom, we are all going to be Zooming for the foreseeable future.
Like many a failed media experiment, I recently pivoted to video, recording some Zoom interview tips for Vanderbilt Law students. Only those who are enrolled at VLS will get the rare opportunity in 2020 to see me wearing a shirt with buttons, but I can still relay some tips to the Above the Law readership that will hopefully help you stand out in your next Zoom interview.
The ubiquity of Zoom in our pandemic era is so vast, no less an authority than iconic fashion designer Tom Ford used the pages of the New York Times to provide tips on how to look one’s best on a computer screen. Those historical tomes you promised you would finally get to during quarantine — but instead you have been binging 30 Rock on Peacock — are great for elevating a laptop so that the webcam is higher than your head and can be pointed down to your eyes. Ford also noted that lighting is key, thus a lamp in the background or even a selfie light affixed to the computer are vital to ensure that you can be seen during your interview. A bit of face powder was the final suggestion, but I would say to follow that advice only if you know what you are doing. Legal employers are looking for future attorneys, not amateur clowns.
Surprisingly, the fashion designer did not discuss what people should wear on Zoom calls. Simply put, dress for a video interview in a manner similar to going to an in-person interview. This means not just the portion that will be visible on screen but proper dress from head to toe. While I can understand the desire to pair a shirt and tie with mesh shorts, employers have been known to ask candidates to stand up during video interviews to ensure they are dressed in a manner that indicates the interview is being taken seriously. Even if an employer does not engage in such an admittedly bizarre ritual, there is a significant chance you might have to get up in the midst of the interview, thus displaying the entirety of your outfit. I have to use both my hands to count the number of times since the onset of COVID-19 that I have had to get up during a Zoom meeting to pick up/tend to/deal with one of my kids.
While personal attire is important for a Zoom interview, it is equally important to be conscious of how the rest of what is on camera will look to the interviewer. In the absence of sporting events, evaluating the Zoom backdrops of total strangers appearing on TV has now become the great American pastime. Ideally, aim for something professional looking that has slightly more personality than a typical doctor’s office waiting room, while being careful not to go too far in the opposite direction either. Attempting to secure long-term employment is not the time to deploy pictures from your trip to Niagara Falls as a virtual background. In addition, avoid the hostage-video look, as it is hard for an employer to determine if they want to hire a candidate if the interviewer is spending the entirety of the Zoom call trying to discern if secret messages are being blinked out in the hopes of liberation.
As for the interview itself, eye contact is of vital importance in an actual interview and the same holds true for an interview of Zoom. But remember that your webcam is not located directly on the face of your interviewer. Figure out where your webcam is located and affix your gaze there when answering questions. Next, make liberal use of the mute button. Do not turn on your audio when initially connecting and only keep it on when you are speaking. No need to subject your interviewer to the neighbor’s lawn mower or other background noises. But while the mute button should be frequently used, the same cannot be said for your video option. Avoid turning off your video unless absolutely necessary and make sure to inform your interviewer if you do need to turn it off for a moment.
While every in-the-webcam frame will be visible to your interviewer, that does not include everything in the room. Take advantage of that and have some notes just off screen to which you can refer. The notes can be as basic as some facts about your interviewer or just how to pronounce the employer’s name. In a typical interview, you might well take notes, and since you are in front of your computer, the natural instinct is to want to type some notes as the conversation proceeds. Avoid that instinct. The sound of your typing will likely be picked up by your microphone, and those staccato keyboard strokes can be remarkably distracting. Go with the tried-and-true paper-and-pen method.
Finally, treat the aftermath of a Zoom interview just like an in-person interview. Thank those who took the time out of their schedule to meet with you, even if they did not speak during the video conference.
Look, I get it. Things are pretty bleak right now. Everybody Hurts. Conforming oneself to Zoom interview etiquette can seem to be, literally, the least important thing in the world right now. But since the official American policy on COVID-19 is seemingly to just give up doing anything about it, Zoom is going to play a massive role in the employment prospects for the law school classes of 2021, 2022, and perhaps even 2023. So unless you have some musical talent and can find a college alt-rock band to join right before they become meteoric rock stars, it is probably worth perfecting you video interview technique.
Nicholas Alexiou is the Director of LL.M. and Alumni Advising as well as the Associate Director of Career Services at Vanderbilt University Law School. He will, hopefully, respond to your emails at email@example.com.