Denver Bar Association
June 2003
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The Three Gates of Interviewing

by Packard N. Brown


Passage Ways through the Employment Interview

Did you hear the story about the attorney who interviewed with a firm only to be asked what animal she would be if she had a choice? Another was asked "What’s your favorite color and why?" Are these employers serious? Why would an interviewer ask such seemingly stupid and unprofessional questions? Because these questions are supposed to get below the artificial surface of the interview. Chalk it up to the latest fad in Faux Interviewing Guidelines.

Often in an interview we think of offering the cleverest answer, the most enlightened insight, the sharpest example, but we overlook the reality of the concerns behind the questions being asked. Many a job applicant senses ulterior motives lurking behind the most innocuous questions. Here’s a peek behind the veiled curtain.

Questions during interviews serve as three gates: Answer correctly at each gate and you pass through. Mess up and you’re shown the door. Once you know the purpose of the questions, they will make sense and will help pave your path through the process.

The first gate deals with the bare essentials for doing the job. Do you have the skills, the knowledge and the experience to perform the job? They’ll ask you about your experience—in analysis for example, or writing a brief. What can you do in a specific skill area, where did you perform it before and what results did you achieve. Part of this focus is also on knowledge—what’s the range of it, both the breadth and the depth. They want to know if they’re interviewing a lightweight or a seasoned professional? You’ll get questions about where you practiced contract law, patent review or public finance. You might also be asked to provide an example of how you cross-examined a reluctant witness or trained law enforcement personnel in motions testimony.

All the questions pertain to one fundamental query: "Can you do this job?" What happens when they see you as capable? (Do you see an applause sign?) You’ll hear the almost silent squeak of the gate on its hinges as you move to the next spate of questions. With broad smiles and firm handshakes you’re ushered to where you’ll meet other colleagues and partners who are assigned a more assiduous task—the one of getting to know you. In a sense, they want to know if you’re "good people." Many attorneys are hired for their expertise, not their "table manners"— ever hear the old adage: hired for skill, fired for personality? Many interviewers now realize "fit" is essential. Why bring on an aspiring partner that offends everyone, antagonizes the staff and drives away clients? "Fit" counts. So that’s the next gate—"Do we like you?"

You will hear questions about your values, preferences and interests. Simply put, they want to know if you’ll meld with the firm’s culture. They’ll ask: "How would your old firm characterize your work ethic?" "Which is more important, work that is done correctly or expediently?" or, "How do you distinguish between suitable billing and customer service?" This is also the section where you’ll hear the really weird ones like those mentioned above. You’ll also hear questions on what movies you like, books you’ve read. You can imagine the eye rolls she got when a candidate declared she spent her last vacation in Tijuana for the Compact Car Stereo Decibel Competition (Yes, Gracie, there actually is such a thing). Your answers will tell them about the type of person you are. They want to know if you’re in "sync" with the norms, the values of the firm. A clue: In your research of a potential firm, you need to know about their values, norms and culture. If they ask how you’d handle an angry client and you reply that the client may suffer from low intelligence and/or testosterone level, you may not be the right mix.

By far the last gate is the most beguiling because these questions almost sound like an offer; it’s as if they’re extending you the job without actually saying so. At this juncture you really need to have your wits about you because they want to know if you like the firm. You will field questions like: "Can you see yourself working here?" "What appeals to you most about coming on board with us?" "Do we offer you the opportunity you’re looking for?" When the Q & A shifts into this gear, rest assured they’re relatively convinced you can do the job and fit in; it’s a matter of do you want to?

If you’re interested in the position you absolutely need to tell them so. In research conducted with some hiring officers about their pet peeves in interviewing candidates, # 2 on the list was "they don’t tell us they want the job." Many a candidate has lost the offer to one who spoke up at the third gate.

When you hear the swing of the third gate, be prepared to let them know, with statements like: "Yes, you have an outstanding operation here!" "I’ve enjoyed everyone I’ve interviewed with." "I can see that I could have a bright future here."

Hope this helps you make your way through the gates.

As a principle in a leadership consulting firm, Packston/Dash, Packard Brown advises small business leaders as they manage their careers and/or direct their businesses. He can be reached at (303) 771-3885 or by e-mail at

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