To be clear, I never recommend lying in an interview. The risk of a lie backfiring is high and, of course, it’s just plain wrong. Yet, many very bad interviews come down to the use of extreme honesty, or what I call “open kimono” syndrome. Here is the Urban Dictionary’s definition of open kimono: “To reveal what is being planned or to share important information.”
Out of every 100 attorneys I send to meet with clients, 99 report back that the interview was a smashing success. Accordingly, I only learn how we really did when I debrief the decision-making interviewer. Most interviews go well, especially since we do our best to screen out bad fits ahead of time. Still, I hear some horror stories.
While it pains me to write about bad interviews, I hope this column will circulate and help some good attorneys who may be falling into very avoidable interview traps. The bad interviewees are almost always their own worst enemy. Here are actual client accounts, plus my editorial take after each:
1. A 53 year old interviewee said to a 44 year old general counsel in an interview: “Although I think I belong in your job, I believe I would be happy working for you.” I’m still dumbfounded that someone actually said that, but it is my No. 1 example of when honesty is not the best policy. To this day, the interviewee believes he was extending a compliment to the general counsel.
2. When asked to explain a six month gap in an otherwise stellar resume, an interviewee really said this about his former employer: “The work (at XYZ company) was so boring that I just couldn’t take it anymore.” I have no doubt that was true. Find a more diplomatic way to say it.
3. The previous example is one of many that I put under the general warning sign: “Don’t bad mouth a previous employer.” It’s such obvious interviewing advice. Yet, attorneys make this kind of error frequently. Pride turns into defensiveness when discussing why an employment relationship failed, and surprisingly few attorneys have the wisdom to accept blame and discuss what they learned from the experience.
4. Along these lines, when asked why she was selected for a reduction-in-force, an interviewee replied, “I was reading the newspaper by 2 p.m. with nothing to do.” First, who still reads a newspaper? Secondly, that’s an excellent answer if you want to point out that you’re bitter and lack initiative.
5. An attorney with impressive pedigree, but three law firm employers over a 10 year period (not at all uncommon), was asked why he wanted to go in-house. He said, “I want to give practicing law one more shot, and I think the change to an in-house environment would be exciting.” The second half of that sentence is fine. The first half is a death sentence.
For attorneys coming from law firms to in-house interviews, I feel compelled to offer this basic advice. Do not, under any circumstance, indicate that your interest level is based in any way on your desire to achieve more work/life balance. Nothing insults an in-house interviewer more than the inferred message that you work harder than he does. The correct answer to the “why move in-house” question is always something like, “I consider myself a team player, and I’m excited by the prospect of partnering with business colleagues to help them get deals done and proactively avoid problems. I think it will be a fun challenge for me.”
6. When asked about her long-term career goals, one interviewee stated: “I’m hoping to grow beyond just a legal role and, in time, segue into a business role.” I have no doubt exactly what the interviewer immediately thought: “you will be unhappy doing legal work and reporting to me.” This example is the essence of bad open kimono interviewing. Attorneys mistakenly think it’s a good idea to prove that they are ambitious and goal oriented. It’s a trap.
The right answer is always something like: “My goal is to be very successful in this role and trust that such success will bring new challenges and promotions over time.” It you find that too corny, add to it: “I would love to hear how you would describe the likely career path for the person who you hire into this position.” By turning the long-term path question on the interviewer, you get valuable information and an opportunity to say her answer aligns nicely with your career goals. If it does, great. If it does not, you can always say “no” if an offer is made.
Do you have an interview story to tell, from either side of the desk? Please comment here and get a discussion going.