Interviewers are only human and, therefore, not always perfect. In your job search, you may encounter good interviewers having a bad day, inexperienced or unprepared interviewers, or those who have ineffective methods for eliciting the information they need to make the best hiring decisions. Unlike skilled corporate HR professionals, in the legal marketplace, many of your interviewers are lawyers. They may be excellent at their practice, but not the most effective recruiters. Regardless of their skill, they are, nevertheless, gatekeepers.
It is your duty, as interviewee, to make sure you understand the position being filled and to present your qualifications in their best light. Therefore, it’s up to you to make sure you handle the interviewer’s foibles in a manner that highlights your suitability for the position you seek. How you go about doing so can make the difference between interview disaster or job search success.
Unprepared interviewer – lawyers are very busy practicing law, thus your interviewer may not have taken the time skim your resume, let alone study it, and possibly cannot even find it. Cheerfully offer a copy which you, of course, have brought along. Then ask, “May I take you through some highlights of my career as it relates to this position?”
Inexperienced interviewer – a junior associate unused to sitting on the interviewer side of the desk may be even more nervous than you are. He may have prepared a list of questions and wouldn’t be comfortable with a less structured conversation. It’s best to go with the flow because, if you try to make some points out of order, it may throw him off track or make him feel inept. To highlight information you think is crucial—but is not on his "list"— ask if you can talk about a few relevant projects after he has finished his questions. The interviewer still will feel in control yet you can present your qualifications. Always come prepared with good questions to ask about the firm and the position in order to subtly direct the interview, if necessary.
Distracted interviewer – a busy attorney may believe that law practice takes precedence over your interview. If left cooling your heels in the reception area, wait graciously and use the extra time to review the points you want to make and questions to ask. Or pull out your smartphone and handle email (making sure it’s silenced already).
Ideally, once the meeting gets started, your interviewer will focus and not constantly take calls, answer emails, or allow other interruptions. Sometimes there are true client emergencies, and the interviewer may ask your indulgence while quickly handling the situation. In that case, sit silently (not eavesdropping). Use the time to assess how the interview is going, and how to direct the conversation to highlight your qualifications. If the interruptions persist, offer to come back at a less hectic time. If the interviewer accepts your offer, and is just as distracted on your second visit, consider this a sign of how things are at this firm.
Talkative interviewer – Most lawyers are excellent talkers, and some won’t allow you to get a word in edgewise. While it’s important to let the interviewer lead, and you want to learn as much about the firm and position as possible, you also want to make sure you express why you are the best candidate for the job. With a loquacious interviewer, wait for him to take a breath and interrupt respectfully, refocusing the conversation on your skills. Try to smoothly transition, such as, “I understand what you’ve said about that and I have some experience with . . . .” Or, “That reminds me of a question I’d like to ask . . .”
The rambler – if the interviewer has moved from discussing the job and the firm to telling you about his life and everything else under the sun, continue paying close attention. Although the conversation may meander, you may get a better idea of the attributes the firm seeks in a new hire, insight into your prospective colleagues, and what your life would be like should you join them. This information may stand you in good stead for further interviews with this firm, making a decision should an offer be forthcoming, or achieving success should you accept the position. If you need to end the interview, wait for the interviewer to pause, and politely convey your regret that you must get back to the office, expressing an interest in continuing the conversation at a later date. Make sure, however, before you leave, that the interviewer has a good sense of who you are, regardless of the topics covered by the conversation.
The cross-examiner – Some interviewers, especially litigators, seem to think it’s their job to see if the candidate is tough enough for the job, thus they act as if they are cross-examining a hostile witness. Try not to shrink from an aggressive and direct interviewing style. While remaining calm and pleasant, match the interviewer’s cadence and intensity. Keeping pace will signal that you’re up to the challenge, and foster respect. Responding to rapid-fire questioning is a great opportunity to show off your skills. While confrontational, or formal interviewing styles may not be the most pleasant, mirror the interviewer’s demeanor (politely); don’t try to fight it. Otherwise, the message you’re sending is: “I’m radically different from you”— a red flag to an interviewer looking to find a “fit” for the firm culture.
The silent type – some savvy interviewers use silence as a technique. After you’ve responded to a question, they look at you in silence, trying to pressure you into saying more — perhaps something you might not otherwise disclose. Return their gaze and ask, "Does that answer your question?" By turning it around and respectfully questioning the interviewer, you facilitate conversation. If the interviewer remains reticent, state the points you wish to communicate regarding your skills and fit for the position. Ask the questions you have prepared beforehand to elicit the information you need to determine whether the job and firm are right for you. If your attempts to open dialogue still are not generating responses, you might want to ask for a tour of the offices or whether there are others you need to meet. Before you leave the interview, inquire about next steps in the hiring process.
The negative interviewer – the interviewer describes in detail the backbreaking workload and difficult, unhappy colleagues. Calmly ask follow-up questions. While appreciating the candor, you must consider the source. Try to determine whether the interviewer may have a hidden agenda for dissuading you from the job, and then proceed with caution. If, however, you know in your gut that this isn’t the place for you, it’s best to be candid. Tell the interviewer that, based on his description of the job, you think you wouldn’t be a good match for the position and thank him for meeting with you. The interviewer will value your honesty and that you didn’t waste time during the interview process.
A bad interview is no fun. While you may not be able to control the interviewer’s behavior you do have complete power over yours. Regardless of the interviewer’s attitude, maintain your enthusiasm. A smiling, relaxed, and polite candidate is hard to dismiss, so you must be that person until the end of the interview, no matter what happens.
If you get a job offer after a bad interview, think about it carefully. If the negative experience was with someone with whom you would be working closely, and the opportunity interests you, ask to spend more time with the interviewer. Sometimes people are uncomfortable in the role of inquisitor, but will present themselves more favorably in another situation. Yes, a bad interview may indicate a bad match. But it could have been only that the interviewer was having a bad day.