By Mike Dorf
Back when I was a law student doing on-campus interviews for law firm jobs for the summer of 1989, a story circulated about the following exchange between an interviewer and interviewee.
Interviewer: What practice areas interest you?
Interviewee: I think I'd really like litigation.
Interviewer: Litigation. Litigation. Every damned student I interview says litigation. Did your placement office tell you all to say that?
Interviewee: No, did they tell all of you to say "big firm, small firm atmosphere?"
This story is revealing along two dimensions. First, it shows how times have changed. My graduating class and many that followed it were entering a job market so eager to hire new lawyers that the interviewee didn't care about insulting the interviewer. She knew she'd have plenty of offers, and so she couldn't care less about this guy. The story may well be apocryphal, but it rang true enough that it circulated widely at the time. Today, of course, such a story would be completely unbelievable. Facing a much tougher job market, interviewees simply have to smile and make their pitch, even in the face of rudeness.
Second, the story reveals something about the silliness of the interview process. There are both questions and answers that must be, respectively asked and provided, without communicating any information. Having just returned from a weekend at the AALS hiring conference, where, as chair of Cornell's faculty appointments committee, I interviewed my share of candidates, I want to focus on one such patterned exchange.
At the end of each interview, we asked the candidate whether he or she had any questions for us. I'm confident that interviewers for just about every other school did the same. This is a standard question, which the interviewees were all prepped to respond to. Here are some safe replies:
1) Law School X is known for its __________ [fill in with "interdisciplinary scholarship;" "clinical programs;" "commitment to small classes;" or whatever the candidate has figured out the school sees as one of its core strengths]. How does that affect the overall atmosphere of the school?
2) In what ways does Law School X provide support for junior faculty scholarship?
3) Professor Y, I know that you taught at Law School Z before coming to Law School X. How would you compare the two. [Answer: Z was great but X is better.]
4) Would you describe faculty relations as collegial?
And this year, for the first time, I witnessed a few candidates adopt a new approach, in which they said something like this:
5) You know and I know that you're just asking that question because you have to, and I don't want to waste your time by having you explain for the 20th time that X is very committed to supporting its junior faculty, so I'll just be on my way to my next interview.
Move 5 is a nice play because it communicates that the candidate is already an insider who knows how the game is played. I predict that it spreads.
Meanwhile, in case any of the people I met over the weekend are reading this post: Our committee really was just giving you a chance to ask a question, and we didn't evaluate your questions. All questions were perfectly fine. That's not true at the other schools where you interviewed, though. They really were trying to test you. Don't get me wrong; those other schools are great; but we're better.