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Law Firm Management

Career Journal: Behavioral-based Interviewing

A look at behavioral-based interviewing techniques and how they work.


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As marketing leaders, many of this publication’s readership has some familiarity with behavioral-based interviewing techniques. As you have built out your respective teams, perhaps this interviewing style has helped you discern which candidates possess the right leadership attributes to think critically ‘ and extemporaneously ‘ in order to meet the demands of working in a fast-paced environment where quick turnarounds and exacting standards are expected at every juncture. By and large, however, most of you as candidates have probably yet to experience this level of scrutiny in an interview.

For those unfamiliar with the interviewing discipline, it is a technique used to get to the essence of an executive’s thinking and managerial style. These are competencies’that may not present in a typical interview setting.

How It’s Done

Through a series of situation-related questions, an interviewer can probe for how an executive manages relationships, assesses circumstances, learns and adapts, and importantly, makes decisions. These skills are often better determinants of success than just reviewing accomplishments and experiences outlined in a resume alone. Historically, these evaluations have been conducted apart from other interviews, usually by an industrial psychologist trained in psychometric evaluation. Often, these sessions are at the tail end of a series of interviews and may be only used on one or two finalists. More recently, such questions have bled into the general interview sessions as well.

In Law Firms

Despite their effectiveness, few lawyers have used these techniques when interviewing candidates for senior management positions at law firms. In fact, most lawyers have struggled with their line of questioning when the candidate is not a fellow practicing attorney being considered as a lateral hire.

Often, they’ll spend most of the session doing all of the talking. Still others, if they do ask questions, tend to revert to the devil’s advocacy style they learned in law school. Even those lawyers who have never seen the inside of a courtroom fancy themselves Perry Mason when it comes to interviewing candidates. They come armed and ready to cross-examine candidates as they would a key witness on the courtroom stand. They ask loaded questions and look for any sign of weakness, all of which rarely reveals what they’re looking for. At times, I’ll hear back from clients that they liked a candidate, but did not get a really good “read on him.” It’s really no surprise when candidates tell me they could barely get a word in edgewise!

So, as candidates for senior marketing positions in law firms, you have, for the most part, been spared this type of inquisition. But be prepared for a change the next time you find yourself across from the table of an interviewing attorney. Interviewers are certainly getting more sophisticated in discerning candidates’ skills vis-’-vis the job description.

Lawyers, who tend to lose some cogency when they’re not interviewing other lawyers, are getting better versed in what to ask and look for. They no longer stop at the outward veneer, slick presentation, or consultant-talk of a suave marketing candidate. They ask probing questions, ones that will keep you on your toes.

For anyone who has been interviewed by a lawyer, this new tack may come as a big surprise. A few years ago, I hinted in this column that behavioral-based interviewing was on the horizon as the next iteration of interviewing to be used by lawyers in assessing marketing candidates’ talent. It has taken a little longer than I expected but the discipline is catching on. It has become more commonplace in the interview setting. Candidates are fairly comfortable talking about, and prepared to discuss, the experiences or accomplishments listed on their resumes. But too often, they are ill-prepared to walk through a scenario when requested by the interviewer to do so.

While I would not want to compromise the efficacy of behavioral-based interviewing by over-preparing candidates ‘ after all, it really should reveal your ability to think on your feet ‘ it is certainly a good idea to offer some guidance on how to prepare ahead of time should such questions arise.

The Consequences of Being Unprepared

Behavioral-based interviewing can take a candidate out of his or her comfort zone and presentation mode and ruin an otherwise highly credible candidate’s chances of success. Too often, I have received calls from candidates as they are leaving an interview frustrated with their inability to respond to such questions. Many would like a “do-over” as my kids like to call it as they thought of a better scenario they could have used; one that usually popped into their head on the elevator ride down to the lobby.

Ultimately, I am a huge advocate’of psychometric evaluations. It brings a more scientific discipline by which to assess juxtaposed candidates with diverse backgrounds. It creates a more formulaic approach and draws better and more uniform decision-making among stakeholders. Most importantly, it drives stakeholders to make collective decisions on candidates, vetting through various stakeholder opinions and mitigating capricious comments made by renegade interviewers.’

Of course, these questions should not supplant an interviewer’s gut reaction to a candidate. If an interviewer likes a candidate or conversely, does not care for him, it really does not matter what is said. Form trumps substance. But it does drive better consensus among all members of hiring committees.

Getting Ready: What to Expect

Regardless, all should heed the challenge of readying themselves for interviews by thinking ahead of time about examples to draw from to help answer these questions. Not surprisingly, behavioral-based questions focus on adversarial or challenging situations. While not all are negative, the questions tend to look for one’s ability to manage, cope and lead in difficult situations. And, the last time I checked, law firm management can present a lot of difficult situations.

Lawyers are increasingly looking to hire executives who can be their proxy to decide on a number of business issues ‘ and yes, lay blame when the decision results in a bad outcome. The business of law is a difficult proposition. Partners in big law firms are abdicating the decision-making to their business leaders. They rely upon them to make decisions in areas heretofore sacrosanct to the partnership; for example, pricing, compensation, promotions, and management of partner affairs. You asked for the responsibility. And now that you have it, you need to be prepared for a new level of critique, an evaluation that goes to the heart of your ability to act on their behalf in critical situations. Be prepared for behavioral-based interviewing. It’s coming to a law firm near you.

Examples of situation-based questions include:

Understanding of the business: Provide an example of how you stay up to speed on what competitors are doing in the industry.

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