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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Interview Tips . . . For Faculty

It's just about meat market time again, and as always the interwebs are filled with advice for candidates, including recent posts here and at the Faculty Lounge.  Perhaps it's time we change focus a little by asking what interviewing tips we should offer to hiring committees.  Having been through the process, most of us are perhaps a little able to offer some suggestions about what interviewers at the meat market ought to do or ought not to do, both for the sake of a friendly interview and for the sake of a successful hiring process.  I welcome suggestions, although I'll start things off with a few tips of my own.

1: Be on time.  We always tell candidates to knock politely then wait patiently.  But what's good for the goose is good for the gander.  In a room with six or more people, surely someone is capable of keeping his or her eye on the clock and keeping things moving.  It seems discourteous to make interviewees wait.  This includes the hour after lunch; if your 1 o'clock candidate can make it back in time, so can you.  (Conversely, candidates, keep an eye on your own watch; if the interview is over, I know you may want to linger as long as the faculty want to keep chatting with you, but have some consideration for the next person waiting and politely make your excuses.  "I'm sorry, but I've got to interview with Yale in a minute" is a good exit line.)

2: Have something specific to say about your school.  Candidates are often told not to ask boilerplate questions about the law school they are interviewing with -- to have done some studying and have pertinent questions to ask.  Again, the same thing should be true the other way around.  Telling a candidate that you have a fine, collegial environment with lots of support for teaching and scholarship is like a law firm telling you they have excellent work and a friendly environment: it may (or may not) be true, but it's not very helpful.  Have answers ready about what actually distinguishes your school (if anything -- it's not clear that there's always a really great answer to this question), what specific virtues it has and what challenges it faces and how it plans to meet them, what its five-year goals are, what the living environment is actually like (a selling point for many schools, in my view, including those outside the great cities, which can become commuter schools for students and faculty alike), and so on -- and make them as specific as you reasonably can.  You may not always want to be thorough in your disclosures, but be honest in what you do say and as candid as you can be.

3: Ask about the candidate's scholarship, not your own.  I suppose this could be two recommendations.  First, you should actually ask about the candidate's scholarship.  Law schools at the AALS are (or were -- I suspect it's no longer as true) divided between those that spend the whole half-hour asking about the candidate's job-talk and those that devote only a few minutes, if any, to that question.  I'm not entirely sure the former approach makes sense, but I'm sure the latter approach no longer does, since even teaching-oriented schools are increasingly hiring for scholarship.  So ask about it.  And don't use that portion of the interview to bloviate about your own work, or to judge it based on how it relates to your own work or, alas, your own politics.  (I was once asked at the meat market what the most interesting litigation I was working on at the time was.  It was my defense-side work on the slavery reparations litigation.  I do not believe some of the interviewing faculty were pleased with that answer.)

4: Don't ask questions you don't care about the answer to.  Every interview can run a little dry, and of course there will be some standard questions.  But don't just fill the time with useless questions.  They bespeak your own lack of imagination and suggest that you either don't care much about this candidate or don't care much about your own hiring process.  Ask engaged and specific questions and actually listen and respond to the answers.

5: Skip the "private" cocktail party. I think this one might divide opinion a little more.  Not every school does this, but several schools invite anywhere from a substantial number of promising candidates to all of their interviewees to a cocktail party.  Shy as I am, I suffered through a couple of these.  I tend to think they're a waste of time.  First, one feels obliged to attend, and the coerced nature of the attendance makes it sort of like...well, like a legal ethics class.  Second, it advantages the glibly social over the shy and quiet (a little personal bias here, I know), without telling anyone what kind of friend or colleague you'd actually be like.  Third, the more people you invite the less purpose there is to the whole thing -- except to demonstrate that you can make people who want an offer dance to your tune.  Just skip it, and if you want to get to know a few candidates better, have a small dinner for them.

6: If you have a room for alumni candidates, be there.  Schools with large numbers of alumni applicants often reserve a room to host those alumni and give them a place to kick back between interviews.  I think this is a great idea, and I'm grateful to my alma mater, Columbia, for doing so.  If you're going to do this, it might also be helpful to make sure you have some faculty members there, or at least a relevant dean, to offer advice and feedback to the candidates if they want any.  (Columbia did a good job on this, as I recall.)  

7: Clean up after yourself. Hotel rooms can come to look like, well, hotel rooms over the course of a day.  Keep the room professional.  Put away all the used glasses between interviews, keep the bathroom fresh, and so on.  

8: Be discreet. That candidate waiting outside the door for the next interview can hear you assessing the virtues and flaws of the last interviewee.  Be quiet and discreet, in the room and in the hallways or elevators; save up most of your comments for debriefing sessions.  Personally, it also drove me a little nuts to be waiting outside while the last interview ended on an uproarious note of laughter, but I'm not sure I could enforce any relevant rule on that score.  

Other suggestions for faculty interviewers?

P.S.: I will be one of the interviewers this year, and I apologize in advance if I ever fail to live up to my own advice.  Two days can be a long time.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on October 12, 2010 at 03:49 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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Paul, I had two thoughts:

1. On the law school suites, I'll never forget Vince Blasi actually going out and getting everybody sandwiches and cookies. What a nice guy.

2. I object to the analogy between the candidate parties and legal ethics classes. It'll only work when legal education reformers come to their senses and drop all of this 'skills and values' nonsense, and instead insist on the systematic introduction of liquor into PR class. May I live to see that day.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Oct 12, 2010 4:13:07 PM

Great advice, Paul. Thanks for the useful reminders. I'll offer two of my own:

1) Interviewers should leave cell phones and other electronic gadgets in the "off" position. Don't dare take a call or check for messages in the presence of a candidate.

2) Avoid any attempt to rewrite law school policy, or air any law school "dirty laundry," in front of a candidate.

Posted by: Tim Zinnecker | Oct 12, 2010 4:48:08 PM

9. Don't spend the *entire* conversation talking to each other. I'd rather you go on and on than drill me with questions, but still, I'd like some opportunity to make an impression.

10. Don't ask about my ideal "package." I know it's the insider lingo for preferred courses, but it's more than subtly sexual.

11. For chrissakes, if you ask "any questions" once and the interviewee responds with a couple, don't follow those up by asking "well do you have any more questions" over and over again. If the conversation comes to a standstill, then just ask about where I'm from or what I like about my current city or some pointless question like that. Repeatedly asking "any more questions" makes you come across as lazy and uninterested.

Posted by: nicepackage | Oct 12, 2010 5:43:38 PM

Nicely done, Paul, though I disagree about the cocktail parties, which I've found useful as both candidate and hirer.

For my part, I don't understand why anyone asks about a candidate's preferred set of courses. I was asked this many, many times. Do you expect them to say, "Yeah, I know I said admin and con law on the FAR form a month ago, but now I'm all about bankruptcy"? For a *few* areas it is somewhat defensible, where the FAR form is flawed (e.g., the FAR lumps together three different tax courses, which are not universally taught by all tax candidates). But, again, let's all try to show some more imagination.

Posted by: rhetoricalquestions? | Oct 12, 2010 6:18:40 PM

12. Don't ask "what are you looking for in a school?" Obviously, I am going to answer by saying things consistent with your school's strengths.

What you really seem to be asking is "Why might you be interested in us?" You should say that directly. I understand that you may be nervous about asking this, since each school wants to be Harvard and wouldn't deign to ask why a candidate might be interested in it. But if we are in the interview with room with you, we obviously aren't so snobby as to hold it against you, and Columbia probably isn't knocking at our door. Go ahead and just ask what might make us interested in your school and let's have a conversation.

Posted by: nicerpackage | Oct 12, 2010 7:43:40 PM

13. Don't make a giant showing about diversity.

I'm aware that I'm not a white male and thus look different from most of the folks interviewing for the job. It's not a big deal -- I'm glad you are showing your openness by interviewing me. But don't make things awkward by going off on a tangent about how receptive your school is to minorities and so on. I'd prefer that the process be color blind -- indirectly pointing out that I look different from the other people you are interviewing just makes me nervous.

Posted by: yps | Oct 13, 2010 3:18:05 AM

nicepackage: "Don't ask about my ideal 'package.' I know it's the insider lingo for preferred courses, but it's more than subtly sexual."

This is a recurring problem in interviews with the Postal Service, too.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 13, 2010 12:24:14 PM

When Colleague A asks Candidate X a question, don't jump in and answer the question first. We already know you are brilliant and charming. Let Candidate X show the same.

Posted by: David Levine | Oct 14, 2010 9:55:52 AM

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