What Are They Thinking?  Insight into What an Interviewer is Looking For – Part 2

Part 2:  The In-House Counsel Interview

Dale Carnegie told us almost a century ago that, “you can make more friends in two months by being interested in them, than in two years making them interested in you.”  Those words are as true today as when his book How to Win Friends and Influence People came out in 1936.  

What does that have to do with interviewing for an in-house counsel job?  Frankly, it is the key distinction between a good in-house counsel interview and a great one.  In your in-house interview, you want to make sure that you show the interviewer, and the company by extension, that you are interested in them.  

As with Law Firm Interviews, It Is All About Added Value 

In Part I of this series, we discussed the concept of “knowing your audience” in the context of a law firm interview.  Specifically, we noted that your interview should not be solely focused on your credentials, but rather on the value that you would bring to serve the law firm’s goals.

That very same principle applies to in-house counsel interviews as well.  Of course, during your in-house interview, you will be discussing your past work experiences.  However, your energy in the interview should not be focused on how solid your resume is, but rather on how your experiences and successes can help the company succeed.  In other words, as Dale Carnegie tells us, you will have more success expressing your interest in the company, rather than trying to make the company interested in you.

A View from the In-House Counsel Interviewer’s Side of the Table

While the basic principles discussed in Part I of this series apply to in-house interviews as well, we broke this subject out into two parts for a reason.  The specific things that an in-house interviewer is looking for differ somewhat from what the law firm interviewer is seeking.  

In Part I, we discussed that law firms are looking for three things:  the ability to do the work, the potential to bring in clients, and the personality to fit in the firm’s culture.  By contrast, an in-house counsel interviewer is not at all interested in whether you can bring in clients. The value add with in-house positions does not relate as explicitly to increased revenue for the company.  

Rather, management in the corporate setting has a need for counsel to possess a number of softer skills.  An interviewer for an in-house position will, as you would expect, want you to be able to do the work of the legal department, but the third factor above – the personality to fit into the organization’s culture – takes on much more prominence with an in-house interview than with a law firm interview.  

In that vein, during your interview for an in-house position, the interviewer will be primarily looking to learn three things:  

  1. Why you want to work for the company, 
  2. Your response to certain scenarios, and 
  3. If you fit the team.  

Indeed, whereas law firms are looking for an attorney who can work independently and bring in revenue, companies are looking for an attorney who can work collaboratively consistent with the tone and culture of the company.  Let’s take a closer look at those three factors.

Why Do You Want to Work for Our Company?

It would be no surprise if your in-house counsel interviewer leads with the question: “Why do you want to work for our company?”  Yet, even if the interviewer does not expressly ask the question, it will be top of mind during the interview.

Your interviewer, who may also be an attorney, will already understand that attorneys seek in house roles to find a better work/life balance, to get away from the grind of billable hours, and to be free from the stress of building a book of business.  Speaking to how these factors are attractive and how you might capitalize these positives to build and deliver value to the company that aligns with the position or company objective will position you well. How do you accomplish this goal?  

Key: You don’t want to be running away from a job; you want to run toward an opportunity. 

First, you need to do your homework about the company.  Understand the company’s business, its culture, and its mission.  Second, know the opening at hand, ask questions for clarification and to demonstrate interest, possibly make suggestions on what else may align or where else the position may succeed and how your performance will be measured. Then, you can build and present  your case as to why you genuinely think you can contribute to the position at hand, the legal team, and the company’s mission.  

Most importantly, you need to be genuine about what you like about the company.  Interviewers can detect insincerity. If you cannot find things about the company that excites you, then seriously, you may want to rethink whether it is worth interviewing at that company.   

Handling Certain Scenarios

It is highly likely that, unlike a law firm interview, you will get some type of “behavioral” interview question at your in-house interview.  A “behavioral” interview question is a question that asks you about how you dealt with a situation in the past. For example, it could be a question like “Can you tell me about at time when you disagreed with a supervisor’s instruction, and how you managed that interaction?” or “How did you handle a time when you missed a deadline?”  

The questions are really not designed to rattle you, but they can be challenging questions in an interview.  You want to make sure that you tell an engaging story, and you want to be honest. Yet, at the same time, you will instinctively want to avoid showing yourself in a negative light.  Overall, behavioral questions can be a bit of minefield.  

That said, there is a method to the madness.  The in-house interviewer is not really looking to have you say negative things about yourself by asking behavioral questions.  Rather, the idea is that past behavior is indicative of a person’s future behavior. Accordingly, the interviewer will take your response to a behavioral question as an indication of how you will interact in the workplace. Self-awareness, the ability to grow, adapt, or change and humor may also be assessed by leveraging behavioral interviewing techniques.    

Armed with knowledge, you should be sure to prepare for your in-house interview by thinking of some good and bad situations that have occurred in the workplace.  Then, figure out a way to incorporate them if you get a behavioral question, and how you can bring the answer back to how you would be an asset to the company’s work environment, even in difficult situations.

Will You Fit the Team?

Finally, an in-house interviewer will be considering, during your interview, how you would fit on the team.  Law firms can tolerate a fair amount of independence, and even some personality quirks, if the attorney has a substantial book of business.  In a corporate environment, however, teamwork is valued to a much greater degree. Accordingly, in-house interviewers want someone who is both professional and personable.

Now, everyone has a unique personality, and you cannot always predict whether you have the type of personality that will fit within a certain legal department.  That is what the interview is for. So, you just need to be yourself during the interview, and you will learn whether you are a good fit. That said, it might be helpful in the interview to try to flex to the style of the interviewer a bit, so you can make it easier for the interviewer to agree that you are aligned with the legal team. We can all flex our styles temporarily or for some prescribed amount of time during the day. (We may not behave the same way with family as we do at work or with friends- we frequently flex throughout the day.) The question for you to reflect on- is this the right for me?  

In sum, whenever you are preparing for an interview:

  • You want to be positioned as moving toward not running away from negative work experiences.
  • You want to be informed about the company’s business, culture and mission. 
  • Know the legal team their culture and if it differs from the company culture.
  • Is this the right fit for you? 

Hopefully, the insights above have given you some information about what the in-house interviewer is looking for.  And, true to Dale Carnegie, the company will be interested in you, because you showed interest in them.