Interview questions for a young/unqualified lawyer.
September 15, 2021 10:04 AM   Subscribe

I am about to interview a candidate for a job she's not (yet) qualified for. I work as a lawyer at a consulting firm in a specialized field. This person is a new law grad, with an impressive educational background and interesting - but unrelated to position - experience. What kind of meaningful questions can I ask?

It's honestly not very likely that I will hire someone that needs to be trained up as extensively as she would, but...you never know. I want to ask questions that will get that across - to not get her hopes up too high, but give her a chance to share her side of why she could do the job.

I did look for this on AskMe and the The Google, but mostly I get the reverse, and the interview is tomorrow!
posted by Pax to Work & Money (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: I'm not a lawyer, but I have frequently interviewed people who were (at least on paper) underqualified for highly specialized positions.

Two of my main targets are 1) making sure they know they have a big gap between what's expected and what they know, and 2) seeing if they know what it'll take to overcome that gap. How, if at all, have they upgraded their skills rapidly in the past? How did it go, and what lessons did they learn from it? Which parts of the future work do they feel most prepared for, and which are they expecting to struggle with the most?
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:07 AM on September 15, 2021 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Presumably she worked summers either at a firm or at a nonprofit/government job of some kind. She was underqualified for those jobs, too--virtually every first year is formally underqualified for any legal job they take. Ask her how she got her hands around assignments there. How did she figure out when she needed to go back for clarifications or advice? What is the most important feedback she got?

I would urge you to consider that many many white men get their first job when they're underqualified because the interviewer likes the cut of their jib or whatever, an expression of faith much more rarely extended to those who are not white and male. I'm not saying you should reject clearly superior candidates for her, or hire her if it's clear she lacks basic prerequisites, but do consider just how specialized the work of this presumably still fairly junior job truly is and whether it would really be that much harder for her to grow into it.
posted by praemunire at 10:15 AM on September 15, 2021 [29 favorites]


Best answer: When I'm in that situation, I find the most helpful thing to do is to just start the interview being clear about it: "Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today... You have a really fascinating background and I wanted to get to know you better... I want to be upfront that I think you are a bit junior for the role that I'm looking to fill, but I'm open to being wrong about that... As we're talking today, let's both make sure that we're focusing on trying to decide if this is the right role for you at this point in your career..."
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 10:26 AM on September 15, 2021 [8 favorites]


Best answer: Taking the charitable view, it's possible that she's merely underqualified on paper. Perhaps she actually does work relevant to the position as a hobby. Maybe she has a parent who specializes in this area and so she's been around it her whole life. I never realized how much I knew about real estate law from my mom being a paralegal until my wife and I started looking for houses and I could explain the closing process to her. Or maybe she really isn't qualified. Maybe she has no idea this position is as specialized as it is. To that end, I would open with "what drew you to this position?", and then follow it up with "what do know about [specialized topic]?" The latter is an especially unartful formulation, but you get the idea I'm going for, and you can ask the question better in the actual interview. Then, depending on her answers, drill down beyond into specifics. This way, you can better ascertain her true qualifications while also making it clear that this is not a job that any new graduate can just walk in and pick up.

But really, what I'm trying to get across is that you shouldn't write her off just because she doesn't have formal qualifications. Presumably, there's a reason she got to an interview in the first place. Keep that in mind. Try to see how she could do the job rather than trying to get to realize she couldn't.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:40 AM on September 15, 2021 [1 favorite]


Sometimes I assign a little homework - I have X problem. Using Y resource, what paths might you recommend and why?

Google asks estimation questions (how many planes do you think are flying right now) less to get a right answer but more to see how you think, how you ask questions, how you receive feedback. Are there open questions like that in your field?

Show me your system for organizing your schedule - for taking action on your notes, reserach, interviews?

Here are some sample requests (delegations) I'll probably give you. What do you think they mean?




Finally, what's your performance assessment look like? How do you generally know if an employee is performing well? Do you have questions or tasks aligned to that?
posted by jander03 at 10:52 AM on September 15, 2021 [1 favorite]


Best answer: praemunire makes a really good point. The literature says that men tend to get hired on the basis of potential, whereas women get hired on the basis of track record. Men are generally assumed to be capable until proven otherwise, and women are assumed to be incapable until they've 100% proven they can do something. Same is true for white compared with non-white.

So it might be an interesting experiment for you, during the interview, to imagine her potential. What could she accomplish, if she turned out to be really good. Where might she really shine. What role could you imagine her potentially fitting into, in two or five or 10 years.

FWIW I also sometimes think about how far people have come from where they started. Like, if I have two candidates who are near-identical in terms of accomplishments, but one started with a lot of privilege and the other didn't, I hire the less-privileged one because I assume they're 'better.' Because they have traveled farther.

To your question: I would ask your ordinary interview questions, so you can compare her answers against other candidates'. Good luck :)
posted by Susan PG at 11:16 AM on September 15, 2021 [11 favorites]


Not sure of HR laws these days, but I used to give candidates a pencil and paper and ask for specific sort of letter. I was able to understand a great deal from those letters.
posted by zerobyproxy at 12:50 PM on September 15, 2021


I would ask her to identify situations in which she has had to rise to a challenge, or exercise some creative thinking to overcome a problem, things of that nature. Any job candidate brings a combination of natural talent, education, learned skills, and an ability to learn and grow. Is she a person who can become qualified over a reasonable period of time? You already seem to believe that she has some of these traits.
posted by yclipse at 1:19 PM on September 15, 2021


This is very generic, but what about asking for the interviewee to give you an example of something they recently learned and how they learned it.

Maybe a prioritizing sample? Give the interviewee a list of tasks and ask how they would determine the priority of the items. What would they do first and why? What next and why? The "why" answers pretty much reveal more than the actual priorities, though that is also interesting.
posted by shesbookish at 1:57 PM on September 15, 2021


Honestly this sounds like a humiliating waste of time for the candidate in question, you should do her the kindness of letting her know now that the interview is likely to be fruitless rather than bringing her in to condescend to her for an hour.
posted by saladin at 2:24 PM on September 15, 2021 [8 favorites]


What answers could she give that would convince you to hire her? Ask questions that would let her give them.
posted by Candleman at 3:40 PM on September 15, 2021 [9 favorites]


Best answer: zerobyproxy: "Not sure of HR laws these days, but I used to give candidates a pencil and paper and ask for specific sort of letter. I was able to understand a great deal from those letters."

yclipse: "I would ask her to identify situations in which she has had to rise to a challenge, or exercise some creative thinking to overcome a problem, things of that nature."

shesbookish: "This is very generic, but what about asking for the interviewee to give you an example of something they recently learned and how they learned it."


I want to respond to some of the interview advice given so far - all of it clearly well intentioned. But advice like this, which represents historical norms in interviewing, leads to tremendous bias in the hiring process. Just as a simple example: If two candidates both learned the exact same thing, but in two different circumstances - say, one while volunteering at a well known charity, the other while making dinner with their kids - you have two equally skilled candidates but you won't be judging them as equal. (Suffice to say, men tend to give one of those answers, and women the other.)

You need to take a competency based interviewing approach, which focuses on asking the candidates about real world situations they will face in this role, and asking them questions about how they would address those situations. You should be thinking ahead about the specific skill and abilities you are seeking to identify, and how you will be judging the strength of their performance. Use the same rubric for all candidates.

Honestly this sounds like a humiliating waste of time for the candidate in question, you should do her the kindness of letting her know now that the interview is likely to be fruitless rather than bringing her in to condescend to her for an hour.

I'm not seeing anything that is either fruitless or condescending in the question asked, or in what the candidate is likely to experience. The asker acknowledged that they are open to changing their mind about the candidate's experience and ability to perform the role. Interviewing people who are not sure things for opportunities, especially when evaluating them properly during the interview process, is one of the key ways we will eliminate discrimination in the hiring process.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 4:23 PM on September 15, 2021 [9 favorites]


Please don’t convey to the candidate that you think she isn’t qualified, she is likely to perform worse in the interview.

A perspective shift for me in learning about hiring equity is the concept of trying to rule candidates in rather than ruling them out. If you think she might have a skill, but aren’t sure, ask the question another way or more specifically.
posted by momus_window at 5:15 PM on September 15, 2021


Pardon me for being blunt:

You are planning to interview someone whom you have already decided "It's honestly not very likely that I will hire". And, a mere day before the interview, you are asking internet strangers what questions to ask in this kangaroo interview. This is... not good.

Unless you immediately and seriously change your thinking, it is likely that you will waste her time, toy with her emotions, and haplessly watch her failing to jump through the unrealistic hoops you have set up (as another commenter pointed out).

Instead: ask yourself how you can provide the training that will make best use of her talents, and how you can use the interview to prove to her that she will have a supportive place to work at your firm. It's not her responsibility to magically jump the chasm that you have created. You need to do your part of the work towards making this work.
posted by splitpeasoup at 5:16 PM on September 15, 2021 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: Thank you all for your thoughtful responses. I think some responses assumed too much about the control I have over who gets interviewed, and when (I work in a large company with a lot of stakeholders, there are multiple positions open, and this stuff moves fast when there is an urgent replacement hire need!), but that's on me in presenting the question - I tried to keep it simple, but, ah, life, it's never simple.

I wrote and deleted a bunch of details as background, but I don't think any more details matter as to the question I was asking - I got some good ideas, so thank you.
posted by Pax at 6:15 PM on September 15, 2021


Best answer: What kind of meaningful questions can I ask?

I am not a lawyer, but I work in a specialized field where a knowledge of relevant state and federal laws is a must. I am also mentoring new staff on how to answer questions/situations.

Today I sent them a recent question/situation and asked them to answer it. What I am looking for is:

Did they understand what was being asked versus missing the relevant question?

Did they provide an answer that addresses the issue without dissembling or being overy verbose?

In their answer, did they cite relevant laws, precedents, etc.?


All of the answers/legal citations to the question I sent them are in our 250 page legal guidance document.

If they don't do a RTFM answer with the Q&A question and legal citations from the guidance document, they fail this test.

The use of real-life examples that might occur is the best way I have found to test new staff on their knowledge and communication skills.
posted by ITravelMontana at 9:48 PM on September 15, 2021


Response by poster: ITravelMontana - I do exactly this, as well, but at a later stage in the interview process.
posted by Pax at 8:34 AM on September 16, 2021


What kind of meaningful questions can I ask?...I want to ask questions that will... give her a chance to share her side of why she could do the job.

I do exactly this, as well, but at a later stage in the interview process.


If she has to pass whatever screening this is before you're willing to administer some kind of practical evaluation then it's hard to imagine that anyone but you can answer your question -- especially since you've said nothing about the kind of work to be done.

What is it you would need to hear from her to advance her to that stage?
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:27 AM on September 16, 2021


Identify some things that you would expect her to be able to do and ask her how she would do them, or, if she didn't know how they were done, what steps she would take to get herself up to speed.

Personally, I've always preferred to hire an eager, young rock star. It's easy and, usually, fun, to provide them the information they need and to watch them take off, especially if it's just a matter of acquiring information and practicing skills. If she is really good, there's also the possibility of retooling the role to align it more with her skills.
posted by dancing_angel at 10:19 AM on September 16, 2021


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