Editor's note: This is the seventh article in a series providing interview tips and techniques for attorneys. Links to previous articles in the series follow this article.
The hidden dangers lurking in virtually any interview are those tough or possibly inappropriate questions for which there seem to be no right answers, but many wrong ones. Listen carefully, determine what underlying information is being sought, and answer directly and succinctly without giving away any negative information. Don't let your body language indicate discomfort with the question.
Give some thought to these potential questions beforehand and come up with a loose script that amplifies your positive points and can be adapted to each particular situation, while sounding fresh in the delivery. If there are any obvious issues raised by your resume, such as a gap in employment, a change in practice area or several job moves, be prepared with positive responses.
• Tell me about yourself.
This is often an opening gambit. Be prepared with a short "sales pitch" highlighting a few of your strongest skills related to the position you are seeking and give specific examples.
• Why are you looking to move?
The interviewer may be looking for an underlying negative. Never badmouth any employer or person, but don't leave the impression that there is anything wrong with your abilities or personality. Couch your answer in positive terms: you aren't leaving a negative situation; rather, you are moving towards a better opportunity.
Tailor your answer to the particular situation and demonstrate how the prospective employer is a better fit for you than your current job. For example, you are seeking more hands-on experience, a wider variety of work, or a broader geographic or practice "platform" to better compete for and serve your clients. If your commute is too long, say you would rather spend time billing hours rather than sitting in traffic. Don't say you are seeking a lifestyle change. That translates as "I don't want to work very hard".
If you are between jobs, make sure you and your previous employer give the same story for your move. If you have been laid off, be honest about it. Downsizing is a fact of life and doesn't necessarily reflect badly upon you.
• Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?
Even if it's true, don't say you want to leave the practice of law! Respond that you want to be in an environment where you are stimulated by the quality of work, can be recognized as an expert in your area of practice, and are working with colleagues whom you like and respect. Then, you can make your pitch: "I see that potential here." If appropriate, you may conclude by saying that you eventually would like to be a partner in the interviewer's firm.
• What are your strengths/weaknesses?
The strengths you discuss should be of benefit to the potential employer and the practice of law, such as people skills, ability to quickly spot issues and find solutions, and a love of learning new things.
While you can't get away with saying that you have no weaknesses, try to find one that could possibly be seen as a strength, such as being too focused on your work to a point that you do not want to give up until you find the best solution. Or, your significant other says you work too hard. Another strategy is to mention a work-related problem you used to have, but conquered. Perhaps you had a hard time learning to delegate, but now know it's much more effective for you to concentrate on certain tasks that make the highest and best use of your time, while letting others take care of tasks for which they are better suited.
Back up your answers with specific examples.
• Why do you want to relocate?
If you are following a significant other, come up with a business-related reason as well. Potential employers are wary of candidates who may need to trail a significant other's moves every few years; they want a loyal, long-term employee. Similarly, they will be concerned you may not stay if the relationship falls apart.
A better answer indicates roots or a commitment to practice in the new locale. Mention any family you have in the area, or if you went to school locally. Or, cite better opportunities for a particular area of practice, such as entertainment work in Los Angeles, life sciences in Boston or San Diego, or regulatory practice in Washington, D.C.
Even if you have not spent much time in the desired locale, educate yourself so that you can make the case why it is special and a better place for you to settle down for the long haul.
• What do you do in your free time?
You are probably asking yourself, "what free time?!?" However, you want show that you are well-rounded, yet focused on the practice of law. State that most of your time is occupied by your work and much of the remainder by activities involving your family (if you have one), but you also enjoy a few outside pursuits. Mention professional or community involvement that could lead to connections for business development. Sports such as golf or tennis -- those where you could entertain potential clients -- are excellent. Other "safe" interests would make you a better lawyer, such as non-fiction reading or chess, or those that would add to your cultured persona, such as music and theatre. Don't invent or exaggerate hobbies or interests; you must be able to discuss them credibly.
• The Hypothetical
Unless you have handled a similar fact situation before, don't guess. The interviewer is looking at how you approach new situations and would go about finding an answer. If you bluff, the potential employer may think that you are a malpractice risk. On the other hand, don't just state that you don't know the answer.
Rather, listen carefully and ask questions to clarify facts or issues. If appropriate, mention that you would need to know certain additional facts to properly answer the question. Then, discuss how you would proceed to find a solution. If you don't know the law offhand, list resources you would review. State that you would formulate various options to determine which would be the best solution, both practically and politically. If the interviewer presses for a specific answer, you might respond that if you have to give an answer on the spot, you would say X, but you would give a much more studied answer in actual practice.
• Questions for which you don't have an answer
If you aren't absolutely sure of any answer, don't bluff or guess. Ask questions to clarify what information the interviewer is seeking. Restate the question in a way that makes it easier for you to answer, and give a short response. Then, ask whether you have adequately addressed the question. If you still cannot answer, tell the interviewer that you would like to give the subject more thought, and ask if you can get back with an answer at a specific later time -- and do so.
In this era of heightened sensitivity to inappropriate language or actions, interviewers generally are careful, but there may be an unintentional slip-up. If this occurs, avoid becoming defensive, and attempt to determine the motivation behind the question. If you can find a legitimate purpose, respond with information that relates to performance of the job for which you are interviewing.
• Marital Status/Children
The interviewer may be exploring whether you have other commitments that could interfere with your duties. Assure the interviewer that you are ready, willing and able to perform all the duties of your job; that you are available to travel, work evenings and weekends, and do whatever is necessary to fulfill the requirements of the position.
If you are lucky enough to look very young, the interviewer may be concerned that clients will not take you seriously. Emphasize your experience and give examples of where you have handled significant responsibility and worked directly with clients. If you are an older candidate, assure the interviewer that you have no problem working with and for attorneys and clients of all ages, including those younger than yourself. Emphasize that long hours and hard work don't scare you. Highlight your "real world" experiences that can be an asset to the prospective employer.
• Political, Religious and Social Affiliations
Unless relevant to the position, these questions are, technically, improper. However, the interviewer merely might be commenting on information on your resume or making small talk to break the ice. If you think the motive is to assess the extent of your potential rainmaking connections, discuss organizations and affiliations through which you have developed contacts or potentially could do so in the future.
• Nationality and Citizenship
While it is illegal to ask about citizenship, national origin or "native tongue," it's appropriate to ask whether a candidate is authorized to work in the U.S., and to ask about language abilities if they are relevant to work performance, such as for attracting or serving a diverse client base. If you believe the question was asked to determine your immigration status, state that, if offered a position, you'd be happy to provide appropriate documentation.
It's illegal to ask about a disability or to discriminate on the basis of a disability. However, it's appropriate to ask whether the candidate is able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without accommodation, based on the job description. You are not obligated to introduce the subject but, if you have an obvious disability, assure the interviewer that you are capable of performing the required elements of the job for which you are interviewing. Give examples of your past success. Be matter-of-fact and informative regarding any accommodation you may require.
If you believe that a question is offensive, illegal or insulting, you may want to (diplomatically) counter with a question of your own, such as, "I'm sorry, I don't understand how that relates to my ability to do the job. Could you please elaborate?" One hopes the interviewer will catch the indiscretion and rephrase the question in a more appropriate manner. If this tactic does not work, and the interviewer continues in an offensive manner, you may respectfully decline to answer the question, stating your belief that the question has no relevance to your ability to do the job.
In conclusion, if asked a dangerous or questionable question, preparation, judgment, grace and humor go a long way in turning a potentially negative situation into a success.
Valerie Fontaine and Roberta Kass are senior legal search consultants with Seltzer Fontaine Beckwith, based in Los Angeles. Valerie Fontaine is the author of "The Right Moves: Job Search and Career Development Strategies for Lawyers" (January 2006, NALP). They can be reached at (310) 839-6000, or visit www.sfbsearch.com.
Read previous articles in the "Interview Strategies" series: