Facing and Acing Panel Interviews

Facing and Acing Panel Interviews

Rather than being intimidated by facing multiple interviewers at the same time, you can ace a panel interview with some preparation. Basically, you need to follow the rules for one-on-one interviews, but with a few tweaks. Just as with any interview, you must do your homework regarding the firm, job, and interviewers, and be prepared to sell your skills and appropriateness for the position. You should always be prepared for the possibility of a group (several interviewers at once) or serial interview (a series of individual interviews) as you may not get advance warning, so bring several extra copies of your resume to any interview.

Team interviews are favored by organizations for a variety of reasons. It allows the maximum number of the firm’s attorneys to meet the candidate in the shortest amount of time. This is especially useful when the candidate is traveling long distances, reducing the need for multiple trips. This format allows for a variety of viewpoints or areas of expertise to be brought to bear on the hiring decision. Furthermore, the interviewers are accountable to each other, so a panel interview tends to stay more on-track and reduces the impact of personal biases. If properly conducted, a team interview can give the firm a more complete picture of you, and you may get a fuller picture of the organization and the job opening. Another advantage for the candidate is that you can avoid repeating the answers to similar questions posed in each of a series of interviews.

As the candidate, your initial task in a team interview is to establish rapport with each of the panel members. If possible, before the interview, get the names of the persons with whom you will be meeting and research them on the organization’s website. This will give you a level of comfort with each of them as well as revealing possible bases for establishing initial rapport.

The interview should start with introductions. Greet and shake hands with each of the interviewers, attempting to remember their names. Do your best to ascertain the titles and functions of each panelist, and where they fit in the organization, relative to the position for which you are interviewing. A corporation may have you meet the General or Division Counsel, staff counsel, business people such as the CFO or CEO, and someone from Personnel. A law firm interviewing team might include the managing partner, the head of the department, other partners from the practice group or related practice groups, and associates.

If given a choice, sit where you can make maximum eye contact with all of the interviewers. Address your answers to the entire group, with eye contact starting and ending with the person who asked the question. Do not ignore any member of the group for a noticeable period of time. Be succinct with your answers so as not to lose the attention of any panel member. Aim your follow-up questions to each of as many of the interviewers as possible in order to engage them on an individual basis and to focus your responses to their particular concerns. Beware of getting pulled off course, however, with an extended exchange with just one or two interviewers.

You must muster your interpersonal skills in team interviews. Understand that you will be encountering a variety of personalities, interviewing styles, and agendas. Each interviewer will form his or her own opinion of you, so you must win them over individually. Watch the interviewers’ interaction with each other. These interviews can be quite revealing as they give the candidate the opportunity to see how the panelists relate with each other, i.e., whether they are joking, formal, or even adversarial.

Determine whether there is one member of the team whose opinion matters more than the others, or the opposite. However, each member of the team will participate in the post-interview discussions, and even seemingly less important members might play pivotal roles in swaying others either for or against you.

On the other hand, do not get too hung up on trying to ascertain the power dynamics of the group. It is more important to identify those who are in sync with you. (They may be nodding and smiling as you talk.) Then, attempt to establish connections with as many of the others as possible. Remember that you may not be able to please all of the interviewers all of the time. Ignore any signals between panel members. These may have nothing to do with you and will break your concentration.

One of the features of the panel interview format is that it reveals how candidates hold up under stress, and think on their feet with rapid fire questioning from many sources—valuable attributes for any lawyer. During a one-on-one meeting, the interviewer is likely to pause and take notes, giving you a breather. With a team interview, however, you may be fielding non-stop questions from several directions. While this format has the advantage of avoiding awkward silences, you may feel bombarded.

Do not panic if you are thrown more than one question at a time. Focus on one and answer it fully, then ask for the other questions to be repeated one at a time. Listen carefully and ask for clarification when necessary. Use humor to diffuse a tense situation. In the effort to answer a barrage of questions, do not forget to emphasize your strengths and sell yourself as being the best candidate for the job.

At the end of the interview, thank everyone for their time and, again, shake each interviewer’s hand. Follow up with a thank you note. While it is acceptable to address the note to one panelist (usually the most senior ranked), it is more effective to send a thank you to each member of the team, personalized to their interests.

Valerie Fontaine

Valerie A. Fontaine earned her JD from UC Hastings College of Law and her BA, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, from UCLA. She was on the Editorial Board of COMM/ENT, a Journal of Communications and Entertainment Law. Valerie practiced law with a prominent Los Angeles law firm and entered the legal search profession in 1981. Valerie is a member the Board of Directors of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC) and serves on its Ethics Committee.
Valerie Fontaine

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