Older but Wiser: Handling Touchy Subjects

Older but Wiser: Handling Touchy Subjects

Valerie Fontaine and Roberta Kass
Special to Law.com
September 14, 2009

Editor's note: This is the seventh article scheduled in the series about job transitions for older attorneys. Links to previous articles in the series are listed following this article.

Interviews are awkward enough as it is without the additional challenges facing the more mature job seeker. Anticipate and prepare to handle tough questions and situations with grace. Use humor whenever possible to diffuse uncomfortable situations.

We recommend that you practice responses to difficult questions and circumstances, such as those listed below, out loud and in front of a mirror to make sure that your body language, facial expressions and tone of voice do not indicate discomfort with your answer.


It is an improper question, and does not have to be answered directly. Pause a moment and take a breath; don't be defensive or apologetic. Ask what their concerns are, and address those. If you can find a legitimate business motive behind the question, respond with information that relates to the performance of the job for which you are interviewing.

If, however, you cannot discern a business motive or concern behind the question, 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 that the interviewer will catch the indiscretion and rephrase the question in a more appropriate manner.


You may be surprised at the relative youth of your interviewer. Don't react, and certainly don't comment on it. Don't assume that youth equates to inexperience or lack of knowledge. Remember that the interviewer is in a position of power and authority and should be treated with the respect due to an equal or superior. Don't be overly informal or familiar. And, certainly don't condescend. Remember in conversation not to make cultural references that the interviewer will not relate to or will date you.


If, once hired, you may be reporting to someone younger than yourself, you want to head off any potential concerns. Stress your willingness and enjoyment in working with people of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. State that you respect skills and knowledge, and that age has no bearing on leadership skills. Emphasize that you can learn something valuable from each person you meet. Give recent examples of your teamwork, flexibility, innovation and creativity, ability to learn new things and work in different and changing environments, as well as your ability to work long hours and to get along with a variety of people.


It is understandably frustrating to be judged overqualified for a position. Respond that you are "fully qualified" rather than "overqualified." Acknowledge that, while you may bring additional transferable skills to the table, your skills fit what they are seeking in an employee. Mention only your expertise that is relevant to the position sought -- not all of your experience -- and describe how it fits the requirements of the job. Be especially careful to avoid mentioning the number of your years of experience. State that you have "significant" or "in-depth" expertise. Describe how your background can work to their advantage.


If you have a gap in your work experience, briefly and factually state the reason (health or family issues, for example) and describe how the situation has changed. If you took time out to pursue another career direction, such as writing, teaching or running a business, elucidate how honing skills required to succeed in that endeavor add to your value as a lawyer.

You must convince the prospective employer that you are dedicated to returning to the practice of law. Emphasize that you are ready to fully commit to your career and describe what relevant activities you did during that time, if any. For example, mention how you stayed current with relevant legal and technology trends during your hiatus by reading trade journals, participating in professional organizations, taking courses or doing volunteer or freelance work, and the like.


Similarly, if you are a second-career lawyer, you might be asked about your commitment to the practice of law. Be prepared to explain how and why you came to make a career change. Mention what you like about the law, and how your previous experience built relevant skills for your legal career. Describe your long-term career goals and stress a positive desire to work hard in the position you are seeking. Sacrifices made in order to attend school mid-career, often while juggling work and family responsibilities, should demonstrate your commitment and capabilities.


If you are well along in your career path, you might be asked how long you plan to continue practicing. If you plan to retire in the near future, a prospective employer might be concerned about investing in you for only a short-term payoff, or that you will leave them in the lurch. You must convey your energy and vitality, and desire to contribute for the long term. Try not to put a timeline on your retirement plans, even if it is 10 to 20 years in the future. It is best to leave that horizon obscured in the mist.


These days, a number of career moves is the norm. Although excessive job-hopping is frowned upon, lack of movement also can raise questions about your ambition, flexibility and career growth. If you are questioned about a long tenure with a previous employer, state that your record shows commitment, loyalty, stability and a strong work ethic. It is important to stress that your career was not stagnant during that time, however. Discuss your growth, promotions, mastery of new skills and functions, and mention your contributions and track record.


Most interviewers will ask why you are looking for a new position. Never lie, badmouth or act like a victim. Couch your answer in terms of moving towards new challenges or a different situation rather than away from a bad situation. If you were laid off, be factual about your termination. If the circumstances were economic, state the minimal facts. Most prospective employers understand that reductions in force are affecting excellent lawyers in this economy.

If there were performance issues, calmly state them and the lessons you have learned, with any steps you have taken to remediate the problems. Be judicious about mentioning any legal action against your previous employer, especially if there are age-related issues. Get the discussion away from your termination as quickly as possible. Emphasize your transferable skills and interest in the potential employer and position. Show them how you can benefit their organization.


If you are asked why you want to work for that specific employer, use your maturity to your benefit in answering. Say, "Through my previous work experience, (not "many years of experience") I have learned what is important to me ... ."

If you have done the sort of self-assessment described in part one of this series, you have thought about the type of environment that best suits you and your long-term goals, career and otherwise. Then, bolstered by your research as discussed in part two of this series, you will be prepared to express to a prospective employer why it is a match for you and for them, and how you, better than any other candidate of any age, can contribute to their success. Show them that, as an older but wiser job seeker, you are a value-added candidate.


Read other articles in the "Older but Wiser" series:

  1. Winning Strategies for Older but Wiser Job Seekers
  2. Older but Wiser: Get With the Program!
  3. Older but Wiser: Resume Strategies
  4. Older but Wiser: Crafting Your Business Plan
  5. Older but Wiser: Finding the Hidden Job Market
  6. Older but Wiser: Acing the Interview
  7. Older but Wiser: Handling Touchy Subjects
  8. Older but Wiser: Stay the Course