The Return Of The Hypo

In those storied days of yore, interviewing for a legal position in either a law firm or a corporation was a fairly gentle affair. The interview tended to focus on cultural fit and interpersonal skills, with the conversation grazing over a pastoral landscape of shared interests and anecdotal war stories. The litmus test: Would I want to go out and have a beer with this person? Questions of substantive competence were rarely raised, as the interviewer relied mainly on the educational credentials and prior experience reflected on the resume to satisfy the "Is this person a good lawyer?" test.

Not any more. Employers, both law firms and corporations, are increasingly integrating substantive skill set questions into the interviewing process. The hypothetical is back. And not just as an occasional guest making a cameo appearance. The hypo is back in a very formal and dominating way. Employers are no longer willing to accept law school pedigree, law school performance, and prestige law firm training as completely reliable indicators of legal competence. They are now using the interview to drill down, way down, into the candidate's substantive experience. The hypothetical is increasingly becoming the tool of choice to test a candidate's substantive competence. Candidates who are unprepared to deal with tough hypos in the course of an interview will flunk. Candidates who resent the questions and bristle at being grilled during the interview will flunk really badly.

Sometimes, employers will designate one person on a candidate's interview schedule to play the heavy and take the candidate through the paces. However, the trend is to keep the pressure on throughout an interview schedule so that the employer can harvest feedback from multiple interviewers concerning the candidate's substantive experience. The types of questions that candidates can expect in an interview are becoming increasingly quite formal, sometimes even submitted to the candidate in written form during the interview. This, by the way, is a very common practice in the management consulting world (http://www.bcg.com/careers/interview_prep/interview_tips.jsp).

So, what is the right way for candidates to respond to hypotheticals during an interview? First, do not project any resentment at being asked to work through a hypo. Second, don't try to slide around it and then attempt to change the subject. Dive into it, and remember that a hypothetical is designed to test two things: issue spotting and knowledge of the law (remember law school?). Take the exercise seriously, ask additional questions if you need to and try to bring in practical experiences of your own to illustrate the way you approach problem solving. This can be a hard thing to do if a candidate has not prepared for an interview. Before an interview, it is important for candidates to catalogue their experiences so that they can draw on them while working through the hypothetical. Way too many candidates come out of interviews slapping their foreheads because they forgot to mention something relevant.

The return of the hypo is undoubtedly related to general market conditions. Employers can afford to be more selective in the current climate. But even as conditions start to stabilize and move into better balance from the candidates' perspective, we expect employers to retain their attachment to the hypo. It's not going away anytime soon.

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