Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Interview and the "F Word"

Recently, my law firm has been interviewing new associates. The resumes and interviews have gone through my office like a cyclone. My days have been filled with meeting fresh young 3L students interviewing for their first job.

I take a different approach to the interview process than my partners. I really ask just a couple of questions: “What made you look for a job here in the Quad Cities?” and “Tell me about your life outside the law”.

Most of the time I am met with answers straight from Law Associate Interviewing 101:

 “I don’t have much of a life outside the law, for the law is my life”
 “In my spare time, I enjoy debating”
 "I volunteer my time to teach mock trial"
“My outside life is taking a back seat as I begin this amazing career”.
“Outside of law school, I work, I enjoy working”.

Seriously with these answers I have learned I can roll my eyes internally without being seen. Trust me its a true talent. A talent I plan to use the next time my son asks me again if he can be "Perry the Platypus" when he grows up.

So I conduct my portion of the interview without many questions about law school accomplishments, even though the applicants are dying to tell me they are on Law Review, at the top of their class, and have a high GPA. I take that information and translate it to the sound of Charlie Brown’s teacher: “Wah Wah Wah”. Lawyers are not taught to be lawyers in law school. Sad but true. You don’t learn to be a lawyer until you become one. So the fact you wrote an article about the changing laws on free range chickens doesn’t matter to me. We can teach a law student to be a good lawyer, but we can’t teach them how to be who they are as a person. I want to know the person, not the resume.

In the midst of interviews I met a meek and mild friendly young woman. She started to ask me the normal questions: amount of billable hours, the type of law we practice, the day to day life of our firm. As we talked I could tell she was feeling more comfortable with every question. After the standard questions she got quiet, nervously cleared her throat, fidgeted a bit and said “I’m not sure how to ask this…but I’m about to start a family in the next year or two…is this firm supportive of that??”.

The second the words left her lips, she looked like she wanted to take them back. Her face read: “Great, I asked THAT. She won’t think I’m a hard worker and I won’t get the job”.

I instantly silenced her fears and told her I thought it was a great question. I waved my hand around my messy office at the dozens of picture frames and the Crayola Masterpieces. “My world revolves around the faces in this room” I said. “And my partners have always supported that”.

As I looked at her sigh with relief, I couldn’t help but remember when I was sitting in her chair...literally. At the time I interviewed at my firm I was 27 year old, engaged to be married to my husband and my children were mere twinkles in my eyes. So I sat down in my new black suit, trying not to appear nervous and fielded questions from about 5 partners.

I told them about my passion for civil litigation, my experience at my previous firm, my love of writing. But then I was asked the classic question… “Where do you see yourself in 5 years??”. And just like the applicant in my office, I fidgeted a bit and laid it out on the line. My answer really didn't have much to do with the law. I told them I was engaged to be married and that soon after my wedding I was planning to start having children. I told them that I was a bit nervous about being a working Mom and juggling the lifestyle, but I wanted to a find a firm where I could make it work.

And I did. I was hired, got married 5 months later, took back to back maternity leaves during my first years at the firm, and made partner. I found a firm I love, partners I respect and admire, a firm I am fiercely loyal to. I found a firm I could fit into because I wasn’t afraid to find out if I could actually fit in.

The sad truth is that most applicants won’t ask the “family friendly” question. I guess they think family is the true “F word” to the legal profession. So instead of asking what they truly want to know: “Can I be a lawyer here and have a personal life or be a Mom?”, they choose to paint themselves as billable hour machines. In fact I even had one applicant tell me he “Looked forward to working weekends and couldn’t wait to work late”. Yeah right buddy…no one looks forward to that.

But in my opinion these are valid questions that should be asked and should be received without judgment. The people who ask these questions are merely trying to find out if this is a place they can have a career. And can you blame them? I mean hey, if you are going to go into a lions den, wouldn't you want to know if there is going to be an angry lion waiting to bite your head off or a pride of fun loving lions that will welcome you in by singing some classic Disney "Hakuna Matata" song?? Okay so maybe I've watched one too many Disney movies this week...but you know what I mean. Whether a lions den or a law firm...its always better to know what you are getting into.

But more often than not, these questions are not asked for fear of rejection or judgment. The "I am a machine" persona will be shown over the "I am a person who wants a family and a career". And yes, those machines are probably going to get a call back interview or coveted job offer faster than the family folk.  That's just the way it is. I can’t change the profession. I never will. All I can do is refuse to hide my motherhood in a briefcase and continue to voice my opinion in favor of the ones who dare to speak the "F word"!

Mandi

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