General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

General Practice Section, Solo, Winter 1996

When You Can't Do It All:
Interviewing Job Applicants

by Mary L. Bryant

Hiring support staff can be exciting, but it also can be a major undertaking. By adding staff you are adding a new dimension to your practice--you are, in essence, building your support team. To build it successfully, you'll need to determine (1) what type of assistance you need--what functions will the employee be asked to perform, e.g., secretarial, bookkeeping, etc., and (2) what type of personality is best suited to the job, e.g., do you need someone warm who can lend support to distraught clients or is the ability to comfort clients irrelevant? Once you've identified the ideal candidate's skills and personality, you'll be able to recognize the best candidate (the one that's closest to ideal) when he or she appears.

Often, the most difficult part of the hiring process is conducting the job interview. Chances are you've been interviewed more times than you'd like to remember, yet when the roles are reversed--when you're on the hiring end--you may find yourself uncharacteristically silent. Or, at best, uncharacteristically unsure of what to say.

Remember, the shape of the interview should relate directly to what it is you hope to learn--does this candidate have the skills and the personality necessary to do the job? The following tips will help you wend your way through the interviewing process:

  • Treat job applicants as if they are your best clients. An applicant may be perfect for the job, but you'll never know that if he or she is not at ease.
  • Make it a habit to greet applicants in the reception area; you'll make them feel welcome and, again, more at ease.
  • Open the interview with a noncontroversial question, such as: "Did you have any trouble finding my office?"
  • If the applicant was referred to you by a friend or business associate, talk about that person a bit.
  • Ease into the discussion of the applicant's resume; ask casual questions at first, such as "I see you attended the paralegal program at Georgetown. How did you like Washington, D.C.?"
  • When the applicant has relaxed, you can begin to ask questions that are more directly related to the job, but be wary of questions that are challenges, such as "What can you bring to this job?" You're likely to get a rehearsed answer, which will give you little insight into how well the applicant may be able to perform the job.
  • Avoid asking questions that can be answered yes or no.
  • To get in-depth information about an applicant's background, use open-ended questions, such as "Tell me about how you handled preparing client billing." Then probe for details. Don't be satisfied with a vague response.
  • Listen carefully to answers and ask follow-up questions.
  • Ask the applicant about specific accomplishments. For example, if the applicant claims to have implemented a new billing system, ask him or her what the original system was like, why it needed to be changed, and what problems were encountered in making the change.
  • If the job requires grace under pressure--telephone dealings with abrasive opposing counsel or anxious clients--ask the applicant a series of tough questions and observe how rapidly he or she responds.
  • If the job includes analytical research, ask the applicant questions that require some thought. In this case, a quick answer may be a bad sign. Don't be discouraged if the applicant can't answer your questions; a good candidate may be one who simply has some ideas on how to research the topics and find the answers.
  • At the end of the interview, the applicant may wish to ask you some questions. That, too, is a good sign--you don't want the applicant to take the job without being clear about what it entails.
Finally, you should give the candidate a hands-on, practical "test." If you're seeking a secretary, you might ask the candidate to type up a letter you've dictated. The result will indicate not only the speed of his or her typing, but also whether he or she can spell, format a letter, or even find the "on" button on the computer. If you're looking to hire a paralegal, you might devise a test that requires the ability to decipher case cites and some basic knowledge about your area of the law. In other words, make sure the candidate actually has the skills he or she claims to have.

Mary L. Bryant is a sole practitioner in Austin, Texas, and associate editor of "Solo".

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