The Best Interview Question Yet – For the Candidate to Ask

One of the wonderful things about being a legal search consultant is that, even after over 30 years in the trenches, I learn something new almost every day. Today, I learned something from a candidate that I want to share, since it’s so good. This candidate, a mid-level associate, is wise beyond his years.

When debriefing this candidate after an initial job interview, he said he asked the question he always uses at the end of his interviews, as the answer reveals volumes about the actual job requirements, the interviewer’ expectations, and the priorities of the prospective law firm or in-house legal department. The answer lays out the road to success with that particular employer and allows the candidate to evaluate whether that is a path he can, or wants, to pursue.

The answer to this question gives him an opening during the interview to expand upon his strengths and fit for the position. Conversely, it also might reveal any weaknesses the interviewer perceives in the candidate, so he can address them before wrapping up the meeting.

So, what is this question? Drum roll, please . . .

Here it is: Imagine that you hire me for this position and, a year from now, we are sitting down for my performance evaluation. What could I have done during that year to exceed your expectations?

The candidate tells me that, usually, he is not too surprised by the answer, but finds it very helpful for him to wrap up the interview on a strong note. Today, however, was different. Today, the interviewing partner did not have a satisfactory answer to the question. The partner stumbled about a bit and could not provide any concrete information.

The candidate was surprised by this, but thought that the non-response was, itself, very revealing. It meant to him that the partner had not defined a clear role for the associate in this position. Since the candidate is interested in the law firm, based upon its reputation and other factors, he learned from the partner’s unclear answer that, if he is to pursue discussions with this firm further, he would need to make sure that other interviewers there could provide a much more substantive answer to this question. He wants to make sure that not only he, but also the lawyers for whom he would work,are clear about what it would take to succeed as an associate in that department.

He hopes to be invited back for another round of interviews, so he can ask that question again.

Valerie Fontaine is a partner in SeltzerFontaine, a legal search firm based in Los Angeles. The second edition of her book,“The Right Moves: Job Search and Career Development Strategies for Lawyers,” was published in 2013 by NALP. She can be reached at [email protected] or 310-842-6985.

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