Going to Work: What does it take to fail here? An overlooked interview question...

“What does it take to fail here?” is one of the best questions that candidates rarely ask in interviews.

Interviewers are prepared to talk about the characteristics of successful employees, but they rarely balance that with an honest assessment of what it takes to tank. Unfortunately, asking “Why is this job available?” won’t always get useful information. 

When someone is fired or leaves the department breathing a collective sigh of relief, management’s visceral response may be to write a job description to attract that person’s polar opposite. A significant number of “bad fits” are good people in the wrong job because the unspoken focus of the search was on the previous employee and not on the real job requirements.

Before beginning a search, responsible parties should clear the air with a forthright discussion of "what does it take to fail?" and "how can we recruit for success?" The answers might:

1. Excise the ghost of the previous employee; and
2. Focus on otherwise overlooked characteristics, traits, talents and skills which might sharpen up the job description, hiring criteria, and the questions posed to candidates.

Before leaving an interview, a smart candidate will ask "What does it take to fail here?"

Going to Work: Turning colleagues into friends is not a ramen-noodle process

Assuming the best of all possible worlds, the people with whom you will work will be smart, conscientious, engaging, personable, and only gently weird. After a few lunches and after-work drinks, you may get to know them. At some point, these people may become your very good personal friends or excellent professional references or mentors.

Best pals from Torts?  They are not, however, your best pals from Torts with whom you have shared a year of daily interactions. You know how your classmates will respect your confidences and respond to your eccentricities. A small legal writing section may be a hotbed of friendship and friendly mischief, where hilarious comments, endearing quirks, and frightening blunders go to Twitter and Facebook without hurtful intent. The consequences may be a set of memories to chortle over or fleeting embarrassment.

Absolute strangers?  Your new colleagues are strangers with whom you will create a permanent record with consequences. You have no idea how they will react or behave. You don’t know whether they will repeat what you say or into what context they might put your observations.

Your comments can be misconstrued. Your comments can be misconstrued, and word passes quickly. If, for instance, you are working with a senior lawyer who is very busy and doesn’t return calls, you don’t want another clerk to announce that you and he think that "Joe is a nightmare or a jerk to work with." Being the clerk with no discretion will mark you in a bad way because your remarks are bound to be amplified, misquoted, and misunderstood.

My most eccentric friend was once hired as a speechwriter for one of the nation’s Great Tycoons and he went off to work in the Heart of Corporate America, a strange land for him to inhabit. It is fair to say that he was terrified and intimidated. I suggested that he buy a red tie and commit to a month of close observation of his new culture before speaking too loudly. He followed this advice and found a niche.

As you know from life, developing respect and friendship is not a ramen-noodle incredibly quick process, but is more like making barbecue – long, low, and slow. While you will need to be prompt with your assignments, you should not be too quick with your assessment of new colleagues.

This is part of a series of "Going to Work" posts for law students and lawyers going to their first jobs or changing jobs.

Going to Work: Training -- how will I get it?

Orientation programs and training manuals cannot possible identify all of the pitfalls in going to work in a new environment. Law students and lawyers should find that Going To Work helps to uncover the minefields and decode the otherwise intelligible signals that employers and co-workers send out every day. Every new job is as much of an opportunity to succeed as it is to memorably blunder or spectacularly fail. I hope that this is helpful.

How will I be trained in a large organization? In most medium-to-large private practices and large public offices there is an expensive and labor intensive Professional Development infrastructure. Employers take this extremely seriously, and you should expect to spend a substantial amount potentially non-billable time during your first years of practice and into your years as a partner or senior attorney. Expect substantial coursework and practical training in Legal Writing and Analysis; the Substantive Law that you are practicing; Time Management; Office Structure and Business Practices; Practice Management; Client Development; Lawyering Skills, and Professional Ethics.

Do not complain if this is required. It is better for you than vegetables.

What if “professional development” is optional? Even if PD is billed as “optional,” you would be short-sighted in the extreme to ignore it. Example: One international firm has an enormous-but-not-mandatory PD Infrastructure. A third year associate complained to the PD Director that he hadn’t been asked to take any depositions, but that others at his level had done a number of them. The PD Director noted that he had never attended a deposition training session, demonstrated no interest in depositions, and, thus was offered no opportunities to take them.

You will not be trained by telepathy.

How will I be trained in a small organization? Small organizations without PD infrastructure may rely on commercial continuing legal education (CLE) courses for training. In most states with CLE requirements, you must take 45 credits during a three-year reporting period. This is not enough training to begin to be technically competent in anything, so you will have to take charge of your own professional development. Expect to create an old-fashioned but highly effective scheme that will have you researching, observing, asking questions of experienced lawyers, making mistakes which you must correct immediately, and taking pride in learning something new every day. Start with these resources: www.lawyerist.com, relevant national, state and local bar associations, other lawyers in your practice area, and the clinical faculty at your law school.

This is your career. Take control. Invest in yourself.