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Job Interviews: A Tale of Two Questions

By Wendy Werner

Really, there are only two kinds of questions in any job interview. Yes, you might be asked to respond to a hypothetical situation, to draw on a distant law school memory, or even be tested on how you handle stress by enduring a brutal attack on your credentials. But all questions will fall into either the “can” category, or the “will” category. Knowing this can help you better prepare for the interview, stay calm under pressure and, ultimately, respond to the employer’s concerns with ease.

First, Can You Do the Job?

The first set of questions is all about whether you can do the job: Background, education, skills and experience. Typically this is what the interviewer wants to get to first.  It is also the case that if your resume did not indicate your “can-do” qualities, you probably would not have made it to the interview stage. At the interview, the employer will want more detail about your skill sets and previous experience. Before the interview, review the job description and make sure that you have scoured your resume—and your memory—for stories you can tell about your experiences to allay any fears about whether or not you have the background to do the job.

Second, Will You Do the Job?

Once you pass the experience test, you can be assured that the rest of the interview will be all about the “will” category.  These questions are about motivation and interpersonal characteristics. Most employers have had at least one unfortunate experience of hiring an individual who had the right background but who did not execute. So once you have been vetted for experience, the employer will want to know more about whether you will get to the finish line on the tasks they now believe you can do. This is the part of the interview that will cover, for example, the number of hours you have billed in your current position, your ability to get along with coworkers, how you met deadlines, how you managed a difficult supervisor, and whether or not you return client phone calls in a timely fashion.

Now Listen

Knowing and understanding these two categories of questions can help you focus on how to answer them during the interview. Pay attention. Answering a skills question with a motivation response will leave the employer wondering if you have the proper background. Answering a motivation question with information on your latest CLE attendance may make the employer wonder about how you get along with people. Listening to the question carefully can help you sort between these two important categories.

Remember that employers enter the interview process with the same fears you do. One of your primary goals is to get to the next part of the selection process and not be eliminated. Conveying to the employer that, first, you have the skills to do the job and, second, you have the motivation to do it, will go a long way toward setting them at ease. And that’s how you get to the short list and serious consideration for joining the firm.

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Categories: Legal Career Development
Originally published May 3, 2011
Last updated December 12, 2020
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Wendy Werner

Wendy Werner was an acclaimed photographer, a sought-after career strategist and social justice advocate. A longtime career coach and practice management consultant at Werner Associates, Wendy most recently served as ArchCity Defenders’ founding board chair, stewarding the organization for over 12 years as it became an established force for justice in the St. Louis region. She was a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and served on several ABA Law Practice Division boards, including as chair of the Publishing Board. Wendy died at her home in Saint Louis on January 3, 2022, after a long battle with cancer. She was 69.


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