In an interview being honest is commendable, but you still need to think about what you say.

Having spent a large chunk of my career working with lawyers and having married someone from the legal profession, I can say that almost to a fault, the individuals I know have great integrity and honesty. These qualities are clearly commendable and often taken for granted for someone working in the legal arena. However, honest individual reflections are also your perceptions relating to circumstances and how you relate them can perhaps unwittingly affect your interview performance.

There have been times in my interviews with lawyers where they have been expansively honest when the expansiveness was simply not required, particularly when asked why they would want to move on from their current role. Whilst I am not advocating that everyone simply gives stock answers to standard questions, you can dig yourself into a hole if you decide to recount everything in an unabridged way.

I recall one lawyer who clearly had issues with the way he was being managed who went into a lengthy description of his Partner’s shortcomings both as a lawyer and then more pointedly as a manager. Even in situations where candidates may feel relaxed enough to open up to their interviewers, you should never forget that interviewers play a role too. Making people feel at ease is part of the way in which you try and conduct an effective interview. Interviewers are there to assess your professional competence as a candidate, not to make judgments on what you tell them about past employers or managers. Providing “chapter and verse” on the inadequacies of your manager or current firm rarely has an upside as all too often it makes the interviewer begin to question whether the issues you have are really more about you.

Instead, you are far wiser to be circumspect in what you say especially when volunteering information relating to choices or decisions you have made. Saying things like “you are at a point in your career where you are now looking for a change in direction” and then highlighting why you believe the professional or other attributes of your new prospective employer maybe a good fit for your future development is a far safer tack to take. 

This advice may seem counter intuitive at a time when we are constantly being told to “just be ourselves” and is what has become known as the “authenticity paradox”(Harvard Business Review, February 2015). The journal notes that being “utterly transparent” and “disclosing every single thought and feeling” is unwise and risky. It goes on to highlight research that suggests those individuals who rigidly want to come across as being “true to themselves” were generally viewed as being more inflexible and less willing to develop than those who were more chameleon like in the way they responded to situations.

"The narratives we choose should not only sum up our experiences and aspirations but also reflect the demands we face and resonate with the audience we’re trying to win over."

No matter how comfortable an interviewer may make us feel or our need to be accepted for who we are, we may inadvertently be diminishing our chances of interview success by being unnecessarily candid. Interviewers are more interested in hearing how you have approached client relationships or business development than listening to your thoughts on things like the over bearing nature of the Partner you are working for.

We should all be mindful of the “authenticity paradox” and think first about how our words may impact on what we are trying to achieve. This is not a justification for being untruthful or deliberately misleading in an interview setting. On the contrary, it is just a basic recognition that any words we use have an impact on our audience and the impact may not always be the one we are hoping for.

Chris Lipscomb is a Director at Blue Pencil Legal and the former HR Director of Al Tamimi, the largest regional law firm in the Middle East. Aside from advising clients on suitable candidates for their opportunities, Blue Pencil provides interview skills training and coaching/development for lawyers in the UK and globally.