Asked and Answered: Dangerous Interview Questions

Asked and Answered: Dangerous Interview Questions

The hidden dangers lurking in virtually any interview are those tough questions for which there seem to be no right answers but many wrong ones. When one rears its ugly head, listen carefully, determine what underlying information is being sought, and answer directly and succinctly without giving away any negative information. Attempt to sell yourself in the process, giving specific examples of related skills from your background. Try not to let your body language indicate any discomfort with the question.

Arm yourself. Before you begin to interview, give some thought to these potential questions and come up with a loose script that makes your positive points, but can be adapted to each particular situation and sound 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, relocation, or several job moves, be prepared with positive responses.

Dangerous questions include:

  • Tell me about yourself.

This is your opportunity to give your “sales pitch”. Be prepared with a short statement (not more than two minutes or so) highlighting a few of your strongest skills related to the position you are seeking, and give specific examples.

  • Why are you looking to make a move?

Tailor your answer to this question to the particular situation. Demonstrate how the position for which you are interviewing is a better fit for you than your current job. For example, if trying to move in-house, you might say that you want to get closer to the action and the satisfaction of getting to know one client really well. Conversely, if you are leaving a corporate law department for a law firm job, your answer might be that you want to return to the traditional practice of law and represent more than one client.

If you are attempting to move to a smaller firm than your present employer, you can say that you are seeking more hands-on experience with responsibility for a matter from start to finish, or a wider variety of work than your present specialized practice group, or wish to bring in a particular type of client for which the larger firm is not appropriate. Conversely, if moving from a smaller to a larger firm environment, you might be looking for a broader geographic or practice “platform” to better compete for and serve your clients, or to gain a particular type of expertise or specialization. If interviewing with a boutique, you can say that the potential employer is one of the best in its particular field.

  • Why are you looking to make a move at this point in your career?

You must be careful with your answer to this question because the interviewer usually is looking for an underlying negative in your current employment. One of the cardinal rules of interviewing is to never badmouth any employer or person. At the same time, you do not want to leave the impression that there is anything wrong with your abilities or personality. Therefore, it is important to couch your answer in positive terms: you are not leaving a negative situation; rather, you are moving towards a better opportunity. Be sure that whatever factors you mention as constituting a better opportunity are available with the potential employer, and not available at your present firm. Such factors might include a more sophisticated practice, better training, career opportunity, and the like. Do not 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 in this market, and does not necessarily reflect badly upon you.

  • Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?

Here again, tailor your answer to the organization with which you are interviewing. Say something to the effect 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 ones that would be of benefit to the potential employer and the practice of law, such as people skills, quickly being able to spot issues and find solutions, loving to learn new things. While you cannot 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 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 have conquered. An example might be that you had a hard time learning to delegate, but now know that it is 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?

While it may be true that you are following a spouse or significant other to another part of the country, it is better to come up with a business-related reason. 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 that you may not stay if the relationship falls apart. Also, such an answer may indicate that you are more devoted to your personal life than your career.

A better answer would indicate 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. Another good answer is if the location is especially known for a particular area of practice, such as entertainment work in Los Angeles or New York, or life sciences in the Boston or San Diego areas, or regulatory practice in Washington, DC.

  • What do you like to do in your free time?

This question seems innocent, but requires that you walk a fine line. You are probably asking yourself, “what free time?!?” However, you want to give an answer that will show that you are well rounded, yet focused on the practice of law. A good answer would begin by stating that most of your time is occupied by your work, and much of the remainder by your family (if you have one), but that you also enjoy a few outside activities. Any professional or community involvement that could lead to connections for business development would be good to mention. Sports such as golf or tennis, where you could entertain potential clients, are excellent, as well. Other “safe” interests are those that would make you a better lawyer such as non-fiction reading or chess, or would add to your cultured persona such as music and theatre. Do not invent or exaggerate hobbies or interests; you must be able to discuss them credibly.

  • The hypothetical.

One of the most dangerous of interview questions is the hypothetical. Unless you have handled a similar situation before, do not guess. The interviewer is looking at how you approach new situations and the process you would use to find the answer. If you try to bluff, the potential employer may think that you are a malpractice risk. On the other hand, you do not want to simply say that you do not know the answer. The best way to handle the hypothetical is to listen carefully, ask questions to clarify certain facts or issues. You might want to say that you would need to know particular additional facts to properly answer the question, and discuss how you would go about finding the solution. If you do not know the law offhand, list the resources you would review. Then say that you would formulate various options to discuss with the client 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 in real practice, you would give a much more studied answer.

  • Questions for which you do not have an answer.

Breathe! If you are not absolutely sure of any answer, do not bluff or guess. It is fine to think a moment before you speak. 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 answered the question. If you still cannot answer the question, 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.

Valerie Fontaine
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