Master the Art of the Interview: Tactics for Hiring the Right Lawyer

Imagine a scenario where you need to hire an attorney, and your team is confident and organized in its interview process. After the interview, you collectively debrief on common sets of competencies, skills, practice areas and traits. That would be an ideal situation.

However, in most instances, the process is far less structured. So how might you create your process? A smooth process is important for external as well as internal reasons; lawyers are far more impressed when the process is well-organized. We have lawyers say they were pleased to see that the interviewer was genuine in her/his attention and took time to write notes on their resume, showing a level of interest. And we have lawyers say, “that was the worst interview I ever had. They didn’t ask me anything relevant to the position. They talked about a deal or a transaction.” Most candidates can tell whether the process is well-oiled—or not.

Our goal here is to give you a process and sample questions that may be useful in vetting candidates.

The Job Description

Is an accurate job description available? If yes, you are off to a solid beginning. If not, this is the starting point. A clear, concise and precise description will make the hiring process much more efficient. We have seen half-page descriptions, and we have seen six-page descriptions. For interview purposes, rank the responsibilities from most to least important and keep them to one page. Anything longer becomes unwieldy to track and vet.

List “hard skills/competencies,” which are measurable, and “soft” or “people skills,” which are traits that best describe someone’s working style. What’s the difference? A trait is an innate characteristic that’s part of an individual’s personality. A skill or competency is learned. Here are some examples:

Skills/Competencies (tasks that, when bundled, create a competency, which is a grouping of skills)

  • Brief writing, contract negotiation and drafting, data analysis, policy drafting, evaluation of compliance with regulations, development of an acquisition strategy, defense of a position and mediation.

Traits (generally adjectives that describe how we work)

  • Responsive, intuitive, perceptive, resourceful, inquisitive, patient and organized.

Sometimes traits can be skills, and sometimes skills can be traits. “Organized” is the classic example; some people are born organized, others learn organizational skills. When there is a question whether a particular attribute is a skill or a trait, it is generally best for the interviewee to decide (and if that’s not appropriate, then the interviewer).

Why is this important? It helps define required skills/competencies when contrasted with traits that make someone successful on the team and in the organization. Skills/competencies go to the heart of the responsibilities at hand. Traits relate to our work style, how we interact with others and how we fit into the organizational culture. Traits become critical when assessing which personality types work best with the team.

Corporate Culture

Once you have established that a lawyer has the requisite skills/competencies and will “fit in” with you and your legal team, the next area of assessment is to decide whether he/she fits in with the corporate or company culture. Organizations can have more than one culture, and they can be influenced in part by the senior leader. (See article, “Assessing Corporate Culture and Fit.”)

These questions might be helpful to you:

  • Can you define or articulate the company culture?
  • Can you define or describe the decision-making process within the legal department?
  • Can you define or describe the decision-making process of your key stakeholders?
  • Are the written core values of the organization consistent with the unwritten decision-making processes within your organization?
  • Do the core values drive the corporate culture or is the walking/talking culture different from the stated core values?

We have seen a division GC highly recommend or champion a lawyer only to have the corporate GC nix the hire. It would be prudent to secure stakeholder buy-in early on. (See article, “Building Key Stakeholder Buy-In: Don’t Hire Without It!”)

What Will You Ask?

Let’s pull this together in formulating a practical plan. The job description can be listed on the left side of the ledger, followed by necessary traits and skills/competencies. A line can be drawn down the center of the paper, and each candidate can be evaluated against the same criteria. Now you have a uniform starting point by which to assess a wide range of candidates. Opinions, interview dynamics and the interviewers’ skill in asking questions will vary, but with this method, you have one common place to begin. The form, A General Counsel’s Guide to Hiring Exceptional Legal Talent: Sample Interview Assessment Form, can be used as a starting point.

The next step is the interview itself and the start of a conversation to assess the candidate’s capabilities for the opportunity, potential future career trajectory and ability to fit within the legal team and company culture.

You may want to start with some transitional questions, such as, how was the trip getting here? How has your (winter, spring, summer or fall) been so far? Something light helps ease the tension generally inherent before an interview. You can then outline the role at issue, the importance of the role, how it fits in with the rest of the organization and what the expectations are.

Enthusiasm about the position and about your organization matter. If you are passionate about the work that you do and the products or services your organization provides, let that come across in the interview. The very best attorney candidates have multiple opportunities available to them, and some “selling” by you and your team is in order.

Then you can start with the heart of the interview—questions that will gauge whether this is a match. Below is a list of sample interview questions that could jumpstart your process and be modified to meet your requirements.

Questions Targeted Toward the Position

  • Can you give some examples of how you have successfully demonstrated ________ skills/ competencies in your current position/assignment?
  •  Where or how did you develop your skills and competencies in this area? Do you enjoy _________practice area?
  • In this role, you will need__________practice area experience. Can you give me examples of how you developed or used this practice area?
  • What additional skills/competencies or practice areas would you like to develop?
  • What has been your most significant accomplishment to date? And what about this accomplishment is important to you?
  • If we were to map your current position over this position description, where are the connects and disconnects?

Questions Targeted Toward Assessment of Traits

  •   Ÿ    How would members of your existing legal team describe you?
  •   Ÿ    What is your work style?

Questions Targeted Toward the Organization

  •   Ÿ    As you know, our organization has been_________.  What do you know about that?
  •   Ÿ    Do you have questions about how the legal team supports__________(business unit/group/ transactions)?
  •   Ÿ    What do you know about our company culture or what have you heard about our company?

General Questions

It’s perfectly OK to ask, “do you have any questions,” but you want to make sure you have the information you need to assess whether the candidate meets the criteria you are working from. It’s also OK to ask questions about the candidate’s qualifications as they relate to the position, what he/she may know about the organization/firm, and other information that may be on the resume.

We have seen organizations that have created elaborate charts and diagrams to guide their interviewing process. If that works, great. If that is not your organization’s style, you can easily begin by charting the position description and the necessary skills/traits, and using the questions above to decide on the best candidate. A sample assessment form is attached for use with your customized criteria. The Sample Interview Assessment Form will help with your customized criteria.

Interviewing is a time-consuming process with important consequences. Done right, it can produce gems. And once a gem comes through your door, your mastery of the art of interviewing will be instrumental to your success in hiring the very best talent.