In today’s competitive job market, with its abundance of candidates and wide talent pool, law firms and legal departments have become highly selective in their hiring practices. A recent survey by Robert Half Legal found that it takes an average of eight weeks for law firms and corporate legal departments to choose a candidate for a management-level position and six weeks to fill staff-level roles.
In contrast, at the interview stage, decisions tend to be made much more quickly. In another survey by our company, respondents said it takes just 10 minutes to form a “yes-or-no” opinion of a job seeker. But such snap judgments can be counterproductive if they cause you to rule out a viable candidate too hastily. It’s not unusual for qualified applicants to stumble during the interview, for one reason or another. Here are some examples of hard-to-interview types along with suggestions for seeing their best qualities:
The Over-Eager Over-Achiever. This job seeker aims to impress by giving elaborate, detailed responses to your questions. In fact, he barely pauses to allow you to get a word in edgewise. Rather than write this type off as an overbearing motormouth, remember that talkative candidates may suffer from interview anxiety. Their nervousness spills out in a torrent of words and possibly physical movements, such as foot tapping or excessive hand flapping.
The best way to deal with such a candidate is to be deliberate and calm when you speak. The applicant may pick up on your cue and downshift his delivery a bit or relax enough that his speech rate eventually becomes more normal. On the other hand, if the candidate seems incapable of engaging in conversational give-and-take, it could be a sign that he’s either not very perceptive or is more interested in talking than listening.
The Sphinx. As the name suggests, this type of candidate doesn’t say much. Though her resume is impressive, her behavior during the interview is under-whelming. She may give simple, sparse responses, making you feel as though you’re dragging information out of her. Such individuals are often shy and need more time to “warm up” enough to speak at length.
The key to drawing as much as you can from this type is to avoid yes/no or laundry-list questions (e.g., “What were your responsibilities at your previous job?”) and instead opt for open-ended queries that require longer replies. You should also allow plenty of time for the candidate to expand on her comments, and offer positive reinforcement by making eye contact and nodding your head whenever she makes a salient point.
The Smooth Talker. At first, this person may seem like the dream candidate. He’s confident, polished, prepared and answers every question just right. In fact, his answers sound like carefully scripted talking points – maybe even too much like a rote recitation, with no depth or real feeling.
The best approach with this type is to depart from predictable interview questions and throw a few curveballs. For instance, you might say, “Tell me about a challenge you faced at work that you weren’t able to overcome and why?” or “What type of work environment would you be least comfortable working in?” By challenging a smooth talker to veer from well-rehearsed answers, you will gain a better sense of his personality and how he would fit in with your firm.
The Perfect Worker. This applicant has never made mistakes on the job – or at least won’t admit to them. While perfect workers do excel at their jobs, they tend to blame any errors and miscommunications on other people. You may even get a “me-against-the-world” feeling from this type of candidate.
Is this a remarkably capable individual with ultra-high performance standards or an insecure person who’s unable to see her own flaws? Delve further to determine if the truth. You might ask, for example, about a time when her work was criticized. How did she respond? Did she agree with the feedback and try to incorporate it into her future performance? Or did she shift the blame to coworkers in order to preserve her self-image?
The point in all of these situations (and similar ones) is to avoid the temptation to immediately reject candidates who interview poorly and to focus instead on the job requirements. With gentle probing, you may find that what at first appeared to be shortcomings could actually be assets under different circumstances. For example, the Sphinx’s circumspection might be a prized trait in a corporate attorney, while the Over-Achiever’s garrulousness may make him an effective cross-examiner.
It’s also important to realize that a job interview is a highly artificial situation and not characteristic of the kinds of interactions that take place during the typical workday. That’s why it’s important to speak to a candidate’s former supervisors and managers, co-workers and colleagues, if possible, to gain a more three-dimensional picture of the applicant. That way, you’ll be able to determine if that “bad” interviewee would actually be a great addition to your team.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.