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Inside Straight: Revamping Interviews Entirely

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the difference between résumé-based interviews and behavioral interviews. (In a nutshell, résumé-based interviews ask applicants for opinions about their personal histories; behavioral interviews ask for factual descriptions of how applicants handled certain situations in their lives.)

I really didn’t expect that to be a controversial topic, but I received messages by the e-mailbag full. Two folks recommended entirely revamping the way we interview candidates for legal jobs, and I’m sharing those two thoughts here — revealing the less controversial suggestion before the jump and the more controversial one after, just to leave you hanging.

My first correspondent, from a large West Coast law firm, said that he liked the idea of doing behavioral interviews, but he didn’t think interviews should be a game of “gotcha.” Thus, we should not surprise applicants at their interviews by asking an applicant to, say, identify a situation in which the applicant was forced to lead a group, what the applicant did, and how the applicant assessed the results. Instead, my correspondent suggested, firms should send to applicants in advance a set of behavioral interview questions that might be asked during the interviews, so the applicants would have a chance to think about their pasts, identify responsive situations, and give considered answers when later asked the questions.

I think that’s a fine idea, but I don’t think it’s a novel one. I recently saw several business school applications, and many B-school essay questions read strikingly like behavioral interview questions: Identify a certain type of situation in your past, and explain how you dealt with it. If business schools think that carefully crafted written answers to those questions yield meaningful insight into whether to admit an applicant into school, then there’s no reason why law firms shouldn’t ask similar questions and give applicants plenty of time to frame their answers.

But my second correspondent was even more radical . . .

The second person is a student enrolled in the JD/MBA program at Columbia. (He gave me permission to use his name in this post: He’s Alessandro Presti.) Alessandro criticized the entire idea of behavioral interviews. In his words: “Most people who know they will face a behavioral interview can (and do) prepare three or four canned stories from their prior background that will address 90 percent of behavioral interview questions.” The answers given at interviews thus don’t, in Alessandro’s view, adequately reveal an applicant’s true skills.

Rather, Alessandro suggests, legal employers should follow the lead of management consultants. During management consulting interviews, the applicant is presented with a business case study and asked to devise a solution on the spot. It’s much harder to game those interviews, and those interviews give some insight into how applicants structure problems, analyze issues, communicate their findings, and so on.

I’m not one to let students off easy, so I asked Alessandro to give me an example of what he had in mind for legal employers. He didn’t disappoint me: He suggested giving an applicant a relatively non-technical contract and asking the applicant to interpret it or identify issues that the contract left open. This might give insights into the applicant’s ability to identify issues and analyze them. Once the applicant identified the issues, you could explain that your client wants to launch a new product and ask whether the contract permits this. This would force the applicant to synthesize information and present it, thus demonstrating communications skills.

Why don’t legal employers use these types of interviews? That’s a little hard to understand. Since management consultants have been doing this for years, law firms surely know that the technique exists. Perhaps the legal world is just too mired in tradition (or precedent). We’ve been doing silly interviews for years, and the firm is still doing okay, so why should we change? Or maybe, as Alessandro also suggested in one of his e-mails, it’s fear of backlash: If one law firm conducted interviews that were tough and meaningful, applicants would fear that firm. Perhaps firms fear a backlash from applicants and thus refuse to lead the pack in this area.

That seems to me both timid and silly: If simulation-interviews permitted firms to judge the quality of applicants more carefully, then firms using those interviews would improve both their associate retention rates and the quality of candidates ultimately considered for partnership. Over time, firms that moved to a better interview system would surely see better results.

What’s my conclusion? I have only one that I’ll say with confidence: Hey, Alessandro, send me a résumé! Our interviews may be a little tough, but I’m pretty sure we can find a spot for you.

Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at

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