Thinking over your options – well-prepared or uncommitted?

In amongst the fallout from the football club I support dispensing with the services of yet another manager recently, I read a tweet in my Twitter timeline which caught my attention. One of the lawyers I follow was talking to a law student who had mentioned the importance of having a backup plan, and that he was looking forward to a graduate careers fair in the summer. Barry, a partner in a City firm, gave the following reply:

I can see why it’s a great question to ask from his perspective – put the candidate on the spot and see how they react. But as an interviewee, how do you react?

Law is a career that, whilst not on the same level as medicine for an early decision and a strong, goal-oriented focus, requires its aspiring members to show a commitment and drive for the profession. It’s a brilliant tactic from interviewers to word the question in this way, as it makes it sound as though the quality that the firm has probably asked you to exhibit on your application form – a complete dedication to law – might be a blot on your copybook.

If I had been asked that question in an interview, a million things would have gone through my mind at breakneck speed. What kind of answer do they want? It appears there are three broad types of answer to this question, each posing their own questions to the interviewee:

- Is it legitimate to answer that you have never considered any other career? Or is that being unprepared and unrealistic and likely to result in a disappointed look from the interviewer?

- If you have thought about what might happen if you fail to get a training contract, but only fleetingly, does that show a half-heartedness and lack of conviction? Will this reflect badly on you in the interview?

- If you have seriously considered the possibility of needing to go down another career route, does admitting it risk coming across either as a lack of faith in yourself or as not being fully committed to law? Is that career route linked with the type of law you’re hoping to practice, such as banking for an aspiring corporate lawyer? Does that make it acceptable? What if you’ve considered becoming a circus performer or some other legally unrelated career? Does that compound the problem?

As an interview candidate, you are constantly thinking about the image you are presenting to your interviewing panel. To be worrying about whether the single-mindedness you thought was a strength of yours actually seems foolhardy and naive, or which of the three answers comes across best, can throw even the best candidates.

I said to Barry that I thought it was a very tricky question, and asked whether the answer “I’ve only ever thought about being a lawyer” was a good one or not. He replied as follows:

No sensible candidate simply tries to work out the percentages for every question, attempting to second-guess what the ‘right’ answer is in the eyes of the interviewer and the firm. But there is certainly a degree of working out how to present answers to reflect you at your best.

Yes, the interview is designed to test the skills that the candidate would require for their career, of which thinking on one’s feet and handling tough questions are most certainly two. But in my opinion, a question designed in this way is certainly clever and not particularly conducive to seeing the best of candidates, even if it stops short of being “evil” as Barry first asked.


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