When looking to join an in-house legal department, you will meet a variety of interviewers. Some will be lawyers and others not. While your legal department interviewers may be excellent lawyers or business people, they might not all be the most effective recruiters. 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.
Regardless of their skill as interviewers, they are, nevertheless, the gatekeepers between you and the legal department.
It’s your duty, as an 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 handle the interviewer’s foibles in a manner showcasing your suitability for the position you seek. How you go about doing so can make the difference between interview disaster or job-search success.
The Unprepared Interviewer
The company’s lawyers and business people are very busy handling their everyday workload, so your interviewer may not have taken the time to skim your résumé, let alone study it—and possibly cannot even find it. Cheerfully offer a copy which you, of course, brought along. Then ask some version of, “May I take you through some highlights of my career as they relate to this position?”
The Inexperienced Interviewer
Interviewers unused to sitting on the employer side of the desk may be even more nervous than you are. They may have no idea where to begin or what to ask. If you come prepared with good questions about the company, its industry, and the position, you can subtly direct the interview if necessary. Conversely, your interviewer 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 the session off track or make the inexperienced interviewer feel inept.
To spotlight information you think is crucial but may not be “on the list,” ask if you can talk about a few relevant projects after you finish with their list of questions. The interviewer still will feel in control, yet you can present your qualifications.
The Distracted Interviewer
A busy attorney or businessperson may believe their work takes precedence over your interview. If you’re 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 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 emphasize 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 work at this company.
The Loquacious Interviewer
Some interviewers 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 company and position as possible, you also want to make sure you express why you’re the best candidate for the job. Wait for the overly talkative interviewer to take a breath and interrupt respectfully, refocusing the conversation on your skills. Try to segue with something like, “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 . . .”
If the interviewer transitions from discussing the job and the company to telling you about his or her personal life and everything else under the sun, continue paying close attention. Although the conversation meanders, you may get a better idea of the attributes the organization 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 company, help you make a decision should an offer be forthcoming or provide hints for achieving success if you accept the position.
If you need to end the interview, wait for a 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 and what you offer, regardless of the topics covered by the conversation.
Try not to shrink from an aggressive and direct interviewing style. Some interviewers, especially current or former 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’re cross-examining a hostile witness. While remaining calm and pleasant, match the interviewer’s cadence and intensity. Keeping pace will signal that you’re up to the challenge and will foster respect.
Responding to rapid-fire questioning is a great opportunity to show off your skills. While confrontational or formal interviewing styles aren’t the most pleasant to endure, 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 corporate culture.
The Silent Type
Savvy interviewers use silence as a strategy. After you respond to a question, they look at you in silence, trying to pressure you into filling the gap and saying more, perhaps something you might not otherwise disclose. Calmly 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 prepared beforehand to elicit the information you need to determine whether the job and company are right for you. If your attempts to open dialogue still aren’t generating responses, 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
You might encounter an interviewer who describes in detail the backbreaking workload and difficult, unhappy colleagues. Resist the temptation to jump in and dish about your current or former employers. Rather, remain neutral and ask follow-up questions. While appreciating the candor, you must consider the source. Try to determine whether the interviewer has 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 this description of the job, you think you wouldn’t be a good match for the position and offer thanks for meeting with you. The interviewer will value your honesty and that you didn’t waste time during the interview process.
Facing a difficult interviewer 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 negative interview experience, think about it carefully. If your interviewer is someone with whom you’d be working closely and the opportunity interests you, ask to spend more time with that individual. Sometimes people are uncomfortable in the role of inquisitor, but present themselves more favorably in another situation. Yes, a bad interview may indicate a bad match. But, possibly, the interviewer was just having a bad day.